December 2008

Olivia Cronk

poetry

Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic by Roger Sedarat

As much as I bemoan the easiness of simple syntax and clearly arranged words in poetry, as earnestly as I resist anything that does not challenge our notions of code and reality and the failures of language -- blah, blah, blah -- I have to admit that there are other kinds of poetic transgressions. And I have to admit that my perspective is on occasion useless. In the title poem of his fine volume of poetry, Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, Roger Sedarat says, “My father returned from Iran with everything but his bones.” The poem stands in as a thesis for the book, I think.

. . . He said customs claimed them as government property.
We laid him on a Persian carpet in front of the television.
When I’d hold his wrist to his face
because he wanted to know the time,
we could see the holes made by swords in his elbow.

. . . My sister and I put him to bed
thinking that beside our mother
he’d turn into himself,
but through the door we only heard him crying,
telling his wife he could never again make love,
and through the keyhole we saw her shivering with him
wrapped around her like an old blanket
until he died one morning.
She folded him into a rectangle,
mailing him in a white shoebox
back to his country.

This poem smarts a bit. It’s sad and human and disturbing, but it’s also built of the particular sadness of people who experience political oppression and exile. If you didn’t gather it from the title, that’s what this book is about.

The title poem, though, does not represent the range of Sedarat’s tone, style, and content; it just works to lull the reader into the experience of the book. The opening poem, which precedes it, is a morbid and loving dedication to his infant (“two-foot-tall”) son, who, while playing in freshly laundered sheets, unknowingly mimics the death shroud that is a ritual of Muslim funerals. This takes place in the heavy, “crackling” presence of newspaper pages and, obviously, in the opening strings of a book devoted to unraveling the tragicomedy of hating and loving your homeland. Sedarat laughs it all off, but his laugh is serious and informative.

At moments, the book acts as a form of documentation, testimony of the wrongs committed against those who have no tongues. Sedarat openly asks the reader to pause and consider, to “think about the burden/ of living in a world/ with death sentences,” to please bear witness.

 . . . Oh just another morality play,
this reporting of death sentences;
the writer knows it will not change a thing.
 . . . Are the executed granted a vision of paradise,
able to run with deer to the stream?

The question is almost pedantic in a world
requiring submission to one’s government.
Whatever meaning the soul makes fails to matter.

. . . Print this on the thinnest paper;
see that it’s used to roll somebody’s last cigarette
before the inevitable fall into the grave.

I think of Carolyn Forche’s ideas about poetry of witness, ala “The Colonel” and the bag of cut-off ears spilled upon the table. But Sedarat isn’t really interested in just that; he also wants to pay respect to the Persian experience (its intersection with Iran and Iranian politics, his own family, poetic traditions, and a life in the United States that includes an incessant villainization of Iran).

As I mentioned, Sedarat takes his humor quite seriously; he says, in an interview at Critical Mass, “Humor has been the most affirming method for me... Too often in past depictions of the Middle East, I come across over-romanticized images that don’t prove very challenging, inviting the western reader to visit the figuration of the country as a kind of travel guide.” When he makes an entire poem out of the absurd taboo of male/female interactions in sports, in “Athletes Make the Best Persian Pornography,” Sedarat, in one stroke, battles cultural imperialism (how the West oversimplifies, falsely assumes), reveals the perspective of many “insiders,” and jokes, quite raucously...

Reza Goes Bowling. Banned in Iran as a sport
for its obvious sexual suggestions,
watch close-ups of this young man . . .
putting three fingers in a red ball.

This, truly, is smart-ass transgression. Similarly, Sedarat faux-censors his words in a mock-interview with Ayatollah Khomeini; the poem is a transcript of mostly “AK’s” questions and the “Author’s” X-ed out words. At one moment, AK compares the author to an important figure against whom he famously issued a fatwa, Salman Rushdie: “You bark like a puppy dog of that greater bitch, Salman Rushdie.” Ouch.

I’m skipping over all sorts of other wonderful things about Roger Sedarat’s book -- some beautiful imagery, some sensual playfulness, a snatching back of the racist “Haji Baba” character (you can see RS’s notes for more detail), the longing to make poems that mean something to the world -- in order to make my point about how relevant and timely this book is. It’s easy to say that we embrace multi-culturalism when it comes to food fairs and NPR human interest pieces, but a lot harder and more interesting to actually learn about the many, many layers that enshroud and veil human experience. Sedarat, without any watering down, makes this excellent contribution to our real histories.

Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic by Roger Sedarat
Ohio University Press
ISBN: 0821417754
76 pages