5 Sep 2011

The Wind-Up Doll Forugh Farrokhzad: Pushing the Boundaries of Iranian Poetry

Literature in Iran has long possessed a predominantly masculine character. Conspicuously absent from it has been the presence of women as writers or critics, as makers of literary tradition. Until recently, little has been heard of women writers, painters, musicians, architects, actors, potters, calligraphers. The achievements of those women, who against all odds, managed to nurture their creative talents has remained for the most part unrecognized, invisible[1]. For centuries, the written literary potential of Iranian women has been repressed and muffled, easy access to the power, privilege, and arena of the written word was for long denied to them[2].

In Iran, a society where walls and veils have been customary and censored communication the order of the day, a new tradition of women’s poetry came into being toward the middle of the present century; a tradition of women intensely involved in self-reflection and self-revelation, not sheltered or restrained by the anonymity or opacity of the veil; a tradition of women who not only revealed themselves but also unveiled men in their writings.[3]The list includes, among others, Zand-Dokht Shirazi (1911-1925), Jaleh Esfahani (1920-2007), Simin Behbahani (1927), Mahin Sekandari (1940) and Forugh Farrokhzad (1936-1967).
These women wrote about private ideas, feelings and facts. They strove to reconcile the emotional, sensual, and social aspects of a female self. With bodies unveiled and pen in hand, they led the reader behind walls and veils to the domains of the private. However, this article’s main interest is Iran’s most significant female poet of the twentieth century Forugh Farroukhzad, as revolutionary as Russia’s Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, and American Plath and Sexton, she wrote with a sensuality and burgeoning political consciousness that pressed against the boundaries of what could be expressed by a woman in 1950s and 1960s Iran. But Farroukhzad paid a very high price for her art; shouldering the disapproval of society and her family, losing custody of her only son after her divorce, and being sent to a mental institution.[4]

 I have sinned a rapturous sin
in warm enflamed embrace.
Sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
Arms violent and ablaze.... [5]

Farrokhzad’s bold and unconventional poetry which are often a representation of women’s subjectivity and sexuality have elevated her to the level of a cultural icon in modern Iran. The shock of Farrokhzad’s poetry is the shock of purity; the purity of ice water, the purity of her relentless intensity. Although the dominant themes of her poetry are sexual love and despair, there is always an awareness of how the normal world tries to stifle emotion with the noose of its own deadness[6].

My whole being is a dark chant
which will carry you
perpetuating you
to the dawn of eternal growths and blossoming
in this chant I sighed you sighed
in this chant
I grafted you to the tree to the water to the fire.

Life is perhaps
a long street through which a woman holding
a basket passes everyday

Life is perhaps
a rope with which a man hangs himself from a branch
life is perhaps a child returning home from school.

Life is perhaps lighting up a cigarette
in the narcotic repose between two love-makings
or the absent gaze of a passerby
who takes off his hat to another passerby
with a meaningless smile and a good morning .

Life is perhaps that enclosed moment
when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes[7].

The third of seven children and a very mischievous little girl Forugh would not be bound and was often made bidden by her dictatorial mother and her military strict father who was quick to draw his belt. Growing up, Forugh finds refuge in her books, studies painting and dress making but remain faithful to her true love for poetry through her reading of Hafiz and Rumi. At the age of sixteen she marries a relative, fifteen years her senior, with her husband’s encouragement and support Forugh publishes her first poems in magazines and meets frequently with various editors. Her first collection Asir (Captive) gets published in 1955. Historically, the beauty of women was the subject of Iranian poetry, but now Forugh has made men her poetic subjects, her objects of love, passion and desire. By this time her poems are sought and published because of their intimacy and frankness about sexual encounters and less to do with her poetic accomplishments[8].

Let me lose myself in you
till no one can find my trace
let your dewy sighs fevered soul
waft over the body of my songs[9].

Rumours of affairs circulate and soon her marriage ends, resulting in the loss of the custody of her son. The stress of divorce, separation from her son, society’s criticism and her family’s rejection is too much for her to endure and she experiences a nervous breakdown.

“All my mental anguish is due to loneliness. When I’m alone, there is no one to inject into me good and healthy thoughts. My arms and legs get tied up with my own bleak imaginings and then I see that I can no longer have the power to resist, that I’m done with this life...”[10]

After her divorce, Forugh goes back to her parents’ home, under her father’s resentful watchful eyes they often clashed. Her relationship with her mother was also difficult, their constant quarrelling forces her to move out and live in a small rented room.

“My greatest pain is that you never got to know me and never wanted to know me, I remember when I used to read philosophy books back at home, you would tell me that I was a stupid girl whose mind has been poisoned by reading journals, I would then fall into pieces inside myself...”[11]

Farroughzad’s life style increasingly becomes the subject of gossip, scandal and fantasizing as she publically enters into relationships with numerous men. In 1958 she meets the handsome, well educated, producer Ebrahim Golestan who was also married, they have a passionate affair and Forugh is convinced she has finally met her match. Golestan doesn’t only understand her and accept her for what she is and who she is striving to become but also helps her financially to study film production and offers her a job in his own film studios[12]. Their open affair is met with further scandal and the intellectual community which Forugh so longingly wants to fit into views her affair with a married man as morally reprehensible[13].

Even more, oh yes,
one can remain silent even more.

Inside eternal hours
one can fix lifeless eyes
on the smoke of a cigarette
on a cup’s form
the carpet’s faded flowers,

One can remain fixed in one place, here
beside this curtain... but deaf, but blind.

With an alien voice, utterly false,
one can cry out: I love!
in the oppressive arms of a man
one can be a robust, beautiful female
skin like leather table cloth...[14]

Even after publishing her second collection The Wall and her third collection Rebellion she is still addressed with the title of poetess, a title which denies her the seriousness of a true poet[15].

“If my poems, as you say, have an aspect of femininity, it is of course quite natural. After all, fortunately I am a woman. But if you speak of artistic merits, I think gender cannot play a role. In fact to even voice such a suggestion is unethical. It is natural that a woman, because of her physical, emotional and spiritual inclination, may give certain issues greater attention, issues men may not normally address...”[16]

If I were God, I'd call on the angels one night
to release the round sun into the darkness' s furnace,
angrily command the world garden servants
to prune the yellow leaf moon from the night's branch.

If I were God, I'd call on the angels one night
to boil the water of eternal life in Hell's cauldron,
and with a burning torch chase out the virtuous herd
that grazes in the green pastures of an unchaste heaven.

Tired of being a prude, I'd seek Satan's bed at midnight
and find refuge in the declivity of breaking laws.
I'd happily exchange the golden crown of divinity
for the dark, aching embrace of a sin...[17]

In 1964, Farrokhzad publishes her fourth collection Reborn, this collection is immediately hailed as a major work, her poems are widely read, discussed and studied, finally she is viewed as a poet. In 1967 on her way back home from work she swerves the jeep she is driving to miss an oncoming school bus, she is thrown out of her car and her head hits the cement gutter, she dies instantly at the age of 32. In the falling snow, her funeral was attended by literary and artistic communities and hundreds of people. She was buried under the snow[18].

Let us believe in the down of the cold season.
Let us believe in the ruin of imaginary gardens,
In idle inverted scythes
In confined seeds
Look how it snows
Perhaps the truth was those two young hands
Those hands
Buried beneath snow
And in the coming year
When spring mates with sky behind the window
Fountains of green saplings will erupt
Saplings that bloom, beloved, my trusted friend
Let us believe in the dawn of the cold season...[19]

After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the new Islamic government officially banned Farroukhzad’s poems and her publisher is ordered to stop printing her books, he refuses and is subsequently jailed and his publishing house burned down[20].

Forgive her.
Sometimes she forgets
She is painfully the same
As stagnant water,
Hollow ditches,
Foolishly imagines
She has the right to be exist.

A photo portrait’s listless rage,
Whose longing for movement
Melts in her paper eyes

this woman whose casket is washed over
by a flowing red moon...[21]

[1] Milani, F. (1992), Veils and Words.
[2] Groningen, H. (1983), Images of women in Greek Historiography on Persia.
[3] Parispur, S. (1976), The Dog and the Long Winter.
[4] Ostriker, A, (2007), Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad.
[5] From Farrokhzad’s poem Sin, 1955.
[6] Brookshaw, D. & Rahimieh, N. (2010), Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran, Iconic Woman and Faminine Pioneer of New Persian Poetry.
[7] From Farrokhzad’s poem Rebirth, 1964.
[8] See Ostriker (note 4 supra).
[9] From Farrokhzad’s poem On Loving, 1955.
[10] Farrokhzad in a letter to her ex-husband, in Esma’ili and Sedarat, Immortal Forugh Farroukhzad, 1972.
[11] In a letter written in 1957 to her colonel father, Farrokhzad shows the distance and amount of conflict between them. See Brookshaw & Rehimieh (note 6 supra)
[12] Farrokhzad was also known for producing the ground breaking 1962 documentary The House is Balck, shot in a leper colony in north-western Iran.
[13] See Brookshaw & Rahimieh (note 6 supra)
[14] From Farrokhzad’s poem Wind-Up Doll, 1964.
[15] See Ostriker (note 4 supra).
[16] A quote from Iranj Gorgin’s interview with Farrokhzad, 1964, See Milani (note 1 supra).
[17] From Farrokhzad’s poem Rebellious God, 1958.
[18] See Ostriker (note 4 supra).
[19] From Farrokhzad’s poem Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season, 1967.
[20] See Ostriker (note 4 supra)
[21] From Farrokhzad’s poem Forgive Her, 1964.