‘We shout as loudly as we can but our voices too are caged/and day after day death is denied as well as aid./No one listens, no one hears this wingless bird.’ (Mahvash Sabet – ‘The Friends’)
Mahvash Sabet’s Prison Poems (George Ronald Press, 2013) have been brought to the English speaking world in delicate and skilful adaptations by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani; she was assisted in this work by both her father and her mother.
Nakhjavani prefers to call them adaptations rather than translations due to the immense difficulty of translating poetry from other languages with absolute accuracy especially with the extra elements of metre and rhyme to combine with meaning and the cultural and spiritual dimensions of language.
It is challenging in the parameters of what should be a short a blog/article to convey the full power and complexity of the spiritual and emotional journey Sabet’s poems will take the reader on, whilst at the same time considering their artistry, spiritual basis, and technique, but my main goal is to give the potential reader motivation to uncage the voice of Mahvash Sabet. This is a bit longer than my usual blog but I hope you will be able to read it all and more importantly want to read Sabet’s poetry.
The foreword to the collection, written by Mahnaz Parakand, a member of the centre of human rights defenders and one of the four lawyers of the Yaran, sets these poems in context.
It outlines Mahvash Sabet’s dedication and service to the Baha’i community of Iran and her background as a psychologist, Principal and teacher, who even before she was imprisoned without due process, was denied employment on the basis of her Faith.Furthermore she is a mother, wife, and daughter who is now removed from her home community. Sabet was also, prior to imprisonment, a poet.
Parakand writes of her first meeting with Mahvash and her companion (another Baha’i woman and prisoner of Faith) Fariba and how she was struck by the fact that, ‘although
they said nothing of themselves, it was obvious from the colour of their skin the Baha’i prisoners had been deprived of fresh air and daylight for a long time… despite, all the hardships their will remained unbroken.’
Part of the power and poignancy of these poems is their detail of the physical, spiritual and emotional, challenges of prison life. Another power comes from the strong thread of spiritual exploration embedded within them.
After the introduction by Nakhjavani the collection is organised into eight sections, with varying focus and moods including a ‘Prison Diary,’ ‘Prison Walls,’ ‘Prison Prayers,’ ‘Prison Proofs,’ ‘Prisoner of Faith,’ ‘Portraits of other prisoners,’ ‘Dedications ‘to family and a selection to that of fellow Baha’i prisoner ‘Fariba.’
The first poem the reader encounters, if reading from cover to cover, is ‘The Journey of the Seed.’ This poem sets the overall tone of the collection of finding certitude and peace even in the most challenging of circumstances. There is a Baha’i prayer, that begins ‘I am O My God, but a tiny seed which thou hast sown in the soil of Thy Love’ which immediately springs to my mind when reading this poem.
With this prayer in mind, the seed is most likely a symbol of Sabet beginning her journey into the prison and questioning how she will come to terms with where she is. She is saying goodbye to her past self and beginning a quest to accept that she may be stuck in her present situation for some time.
‘I could barely tolerate the pain of being cut off from my past;/I wept bitterly within, groaned./Suffered/Saw no future – till at last/I knew what I must do and cast off that old husk of mine/To find this new clothing – of naked vulnerable skin’
The poet once she is able to practice a painful detachment, then begins a search for certitude:
‘So passing here and there, from talking to listening I grew,/Rejoicing in this new freshness, striving towards certitude.’
For me ‘Journey of the Seed’ is about God and spirituality being everywhere. For Sabet God is ‘the beauty shimmering … in the verdant trees’ and in the ‘gleaming raindrops.’ Her choice of images is very reminiscent of the way in which Baha’u’llah’s writings use nature to convey spiritual concepts.
The irony and poignancy of this poem is that these verdant trees and gleaming raindrops are held in the memory of the mind, and envisioned by Sabet to help her in the journey towards certitude. This device of positive and spiritual visualisation is used by Sabet again and again in her journey.
Other examples where this same coping mechanism of visualisation of a calming space is used are ‘Remembering the Sea,’ ‘Home,’ and ‘The Imaginary Garden.’ Sabet’s poetry seeks out spiritual heights and the memory of nature’s solace whilst constantly challenged by physical and social limitations of prison life. She shares with the reader her learning that certitude can be found by rising above the physical circumstances and the potential demoralising processes of being in a prison.
Behind bars Sabet is stripped her of family, friendships, and the physical beauty of ‘The Great Outdoors.’ Her search for certitude is not without its challenges. In poems like ‘From Evin to Raja’i Shahr’ she takes us into the prison with her and we can hear what she hears.
‘And as we walked further, step by step, appalled/as deeper into this penitentiary we crossed/we heard from behind closed doors, poor girls calling/
Further on in this poem we are trapped in this space with her as she explains:
‘There’s no space to breathe here, nowhere to sit, to stand/Between the earth below. The ceiling overhead.’
The Prison is a ‘slaughterhouse’ daubed with blood.’
Knowledge of Baha’i history unlocks the meaning of some of the latter stanzas of this poem as a reference an episode to the persecution and execution of the Bab, himself a prisoner of Faith, and one of the twin Prophets of the Baha’i faith is made, ‘The fire of judgement must have burned so fiercely in Tabriz.’ Sabet is determined the prison will not rob her of her faith. Sabet gains some solace in the remembrance of what the founders of her Faith has been through, and in saying prayers with other prisoners there for the same reason.
For readers not of a Baha’i background some knowledge of early Baha’i history will add to their understanding of some layers of Sabet’s poetry, although this knowledge is not absolutely essential for grasping the spirit of what she is saying. Similarly some knowledge of Persian literature is helpful, and there are some notes provided for this with the collection, but for the most part the poems speak through their metaphors, imagery and lyricism that resonate across many cultures.
Sabet spends prison life examining her humanity and that of those around her. She doesn’t judge, but rather observes and strips back realities, layer after layer to reach spiritual insight after spiritual insight.
For instance in ‘No Boundaries’ whilst the imagery is vivid and disturbing ‘the woman with legs beaten black and blue’ ‘the starved ones with shaven heads/those with scratched cheeks, ’ Sabet is nevertheless able to make a discovery of spiritual/social significance, which is that smiles have power to connect human beings whatever their circumstances...’It’s true./We did not realise what smiles could do./ And so in that hellish misery we smiled; at the woman beaten black and blue.’
The observations of other prisoners are more detailed and complex in ‘Prison portraits’, especially in works like ‘Perfume of Poetry,’ ‘Lonely Prisoner,’ ‘ When She Died,’ ‘Sonya,’ and ‘The Captive.’ In these ‘portrait’ poems she reveals grief, loss, addiction, abusive husbands, as just some of the reasons the women have ended up in the prison.
As a prisoner-of-faith Sabet’s non-judgemental empathy for human suffering shines through – she surmises that she has no power to make others free; in ‘The Captive’ she concludes, ‘What can I do, what dare I offer you-/a poor captive who can never make your free?/What recourse is there, after all, but to shed tears for you/gathering them like pearls here, in my skirt for you?/’
The majority of the ‘Prison Portrait’ poems are addressed to the ‘you’ of the person portrayed. They are what perhaps she wishes she could say to the woman portrayed but cannot. They are her way of giving their realities wings to fly into the reader’s minds. Sabet gains some form of empowerment to womanhood as a whole in her role as witness. She holds the stories of those she now lives with in the garment of poetry.
Sabet’s journey into adjusting to prison life by a process of detaching from its physical reality and evoking for herself a space of inner freedom, tempered with the buoyancy of certitude is still full of many moments of poignant helplessness. In ‘The Friends’ Sabet feels the weight of imprisonment and the absence of justice:
‘No sign of justice here, no hope of it anymore;/impossible to touch the judge’s robe or beg mercy at his feet…/We shout as loudly as we can but our voices too are caged/and day after day death is denied as well as aid./No one listens, no one hears this wingless bird.’
These words could poignantly be spoken by any prisoner of faith, or any one in any kind of prison, including the prison of self.
Sabet far from being self-pitying, is often harsh on herself, calling out her weaknesses. This is especially apparent in very short poems like ‘Dust’
I drew near the mirror/to see myself better/It said ‘Go and get lost!/Your nothing but dust.
One of the recurring themes of Sabet’s poetry is the loneliness and separation from family, friends, and those who truly understand her, in prison. This is most apparent in poems like ‘Indifference,’ ‘Loneliness’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Stranger’ and ‘Stay Near Me,’ (a poem for her friend Fariba).
In ‘The Loneliness of the Stranger,’ Sabet uses a repetitive refrain to structure this particular poem, and this technique is equally apparent in ‘When She Died.’ These refrains add to the power and lyricism of her work, giving many, the quality of protest songs. Yet there is no anger in her protest, rather a sweetness and call to remembrance of common humanity.
Many of the poems in this collection are vivid, and poignant depictions of what it is like to be imprisoned, and the ways in which the poet tries to psychologically and spiritually survive and remain true to her inner core, but there are perhaps surprisingly for many readers given the situation, but not surprising for Sabet as a woman of faith, many gentler works in Prison Poems.
The collection as a whole is laden with several soothing images, particularly of the natural world, which give solace to the poet and her readers. Many are quite succinct and beautiful – read ‘The Breeze,’ ‘Anemone,’ and ‘The Blossom.’ Part of their gentleness comes from their prayer like quality.
For instance ‘Beaming Up’ where she calls upon ‘the beloved’ or ‘Cloudy Days’ calling upon ‘the compelling one.’ In these works Sabet’s poems are as prayers of strength, for herself, and anyone reading her work. Her sky/star ward gaze is a looking to the realm of the soul and she develops it further in ‘The Star.’
In ‘Tomorrow’ the poet writes ‘perfection, so I’ve heard,/is always as far from you as tomorrow; /your feelings, thoughts and efforts/all the steps you take towards perfection-/wait for tomorrow to happen./
‘Tomorrow’ is about the need for self-forgiveness in the search for perfection.
Whilst in ‘Longing to Fly’ Sabet invites anyone tied to earthly reality to find strength in stepping beyond,
‘Although you’re rooted to your feet/you long for the sky;/although you’re sister to the dust/you yearn to fly high./
Such a poem could also appeal to someone physically imprisoned in a physical frame that doesn’t do all that it could, as well as a prisoner.
Sky, wings, birds are common motifs for Sabet’s poems. In the writings of ‘Baha’u’llah, the prophet founder of the Baha’i faith to which Sabet subscribes, these can be understood more fully by considering some of the writings upon which Sabet would have been raised.
The bird is often a signifier of the human spirit, and of humanity. Woman and man are often explained to be two wings of the one bird, and both must be strong in order for the bird to be able to fly . The journey to the next life is often explained in terms of ‘winging’ one’s way to the next realm. Hence any of Sabet’s references to birds, flight, wings, wingless can be read as having this spiritual dimension to them. The bird is her, humanity, all women, other times she is the wing, or all the women in the prison are the wing. The ‘broken winged’ bird is also mentioned in a Baha’i prayer and striving for the Eternal allows this bird of a human or humanity to gain nearness to God.
The ‘Prison Prayers’ and ‘Prison Proofs’ sections contain poems that move away dramatically from the more physical dimensions of imprisonment. ‘Prison Prayers’ commences with a poem that reminds me of Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember me’ and is also titled ‘Remember me.’ Sabet supplicates the reader to find happiness and purpose in life through rising above their troubles, remembering her and striving for her freedom – like Rossetti she does not want a sad remembrance but an empowering one.
‘Whenever a friend plays music to relieve your heart/plucking unhappiness away with plaintive hope;/whenever your sorrow eases as you lift your hands/and supplicate for that barred door to open-/
There is much more that could be said about this poem, but I encourage the reader to personally explore more of its layers. This poem could be grouped with other invocations in this collection.
In ‘Stay Near Me, ‘Deep in my heart,’ ‘A Distance Remembrance’ and ‘To Fariba Kamalbadi,’ Sabet finds strength in the remembrance of friendship. The loss of the physical proximity of her friend Fariba reminds the reader of how friendship can take us through crisis; Sabet clings to the memory of this friendship to continue to guide her actions and strengthen her faith even as she grieves the loss of time with friends and community.
Sabet’s loss of family and friends is deeply felt as shown in a poem, ‘Let Time Slow Down’ where she urges ‘time to slow down’ (written for Naheed Ayadi), again this poem makes use of repetition for its structure.
‘I wish this prison walls would break/before it’s too late to see her again/I wish I could glimpse her kindly face/hear her uplifting laughter once again’
And in ‘The Wall’ (from ‘Dedications’) to her sister she follows the flight of the bird, to fly and sit beside her sister. She begins feeling so far away from her, but in her mind she is able to look skyward, and fly with the power of her soul.
Sabet turns herself inside out to show us what a human soul on an internal journey looks like in poetry. Her poetry is a triumph in its complexity, depth, and technique.
Sabet through poetry is able to uncage her voice, where she is unable to uncage her physical self – and yet her spiritual self too is uncaged even as her physical self is imprisoned. This is most apparent in the affirmative tones of ‘Waterfall’ and ‘The Vast Immensity of my Beloved.’ The eternal waterfall, ‘the limitless ocean’ and the vast immensity embrace Sabet in a union with the Eternal and with Faith itself. In ‘The Vast Immensity of my Beloved’ she, ‘a tiny fish,’swims in it.
For how I love your swirling deeps/your blue profundities replete/with corals and with pearls/
Ultimately as a poet and woman sharing Sabet’s faith, I long for Sabet’s flight to a physical freedom out in the world beyond prison walls and marvel at her creative and soulful ability to construct a reality where her soul will always be free.
Sabet leaves the reader with hope and a challenge – to fully understand and share her poems that one day the Yaran and others, especially prisoners of Faith wrongfully imprisoned, be free.
(c) June Perkins, words and images (c) Poetry Mahvash Sabet
June is a Baha’i, poet and storyteller with a Phd in the empowerment of Indigenous women through writing.