The title poem of Forough Farrokhzad’s first collection, Captive, was written in 1954, when Farrokhzad was nineteen and her son Kamyar was a toddler. Farrokhzad had been married for two years, having left high school to wed a distant relative and well-respected writer named Parviz Shapur. Married life did not agree with her; she had fallen for someone else. Still, Farrokhzad understood very well what leaving would mean. For her, it would be both tangible—as a divorced woman, she would lose all legal rights to her child—and psychological. For Kamyar, or so his mother suspected, the disintegration of his family would mean the collapse of his entire world. Addressed to the lover she longs for but refuses to join, “Captive” rearranges the love triangle of a husband, a wife, and her paramour into a tug-of-war between erotic longing and maternal obligation, between freedom and its collateral damage:
I want you, and I know that never
will I hold you as my heart desires
You are that clear bright sky
I am a captive bird in the corner of this cage…
I am thinking and I know that never
will I have the resolve to leave this cage
Even if it were the jailor’s wish
I have no strength left for flight
From beyond the bars each bright morning
A child’s gaze smiles in my face
When I begin a joyous song
his lips come to me with a kiss
O sky, if I wish one day
to fly from this silent prison
what will I say to the eyes of the crying child?
Leave me be, I am a captive bird
I am the candle whose burning heart
lights up a ruin
If I choose silence
I will shred a nest
“Captive”—included in Elizabeth T. Gray Jr.’s luminous new translation of Farrokhzad’s Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, a posthumous selection first published in 1974—may trade in familiar tropes of bondage and imprisonment, but its speaker’s grievances are surprisingly complex. She does not resent her spouse, nor does she ask her lover to come to her rescue. She is afraid of the consequences for someone who can neither choose nor refuse them. The poem ends with images that suggest a total dereliction of parental duty: a child left alone in the dark, in the rubble of a home made uninhabitable by his mother’s absence. In another poem on the same theme, Farrokhzad searches an abandoned room for any trace of her son only to find it “empty of his childish voice,” nothing “left but a name.”
For Farrokhzad, all desire is catastrophic. In her poetry, love promises loss, sex promises despair, and motherhood—which seems to demand a total renunciation of one’s own needs and ambitions—defeats the spirit. The tropes of imprisonment and captivity are uniquely driven by Farrokhzad’s experiences as a woman in Iran in the decades before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. As lyric statements of emotional anguish and existential unrest, these poems actively court the description “universal”: they seem, sometimes, as though they could have been written by anyone, at any time, in any place. And yet in their emphasis on freedom’s ethical contradictions and costs, they belong irreducibly to a particular moment in time. In the words of Farzaneh Milani, whose 2017 biography of Farrokhzad has yet to be translated, her poetry speaks “of a confusion that in many of her readers remains unarticulated,” and of the trials of “a whole generation” undergoing traumas both intimate and historical.
In reality Farrokhzad flew the coop. She left her husband and child and threw herself into a life that would have been impossible within the boundaries of a traditional marriage. As a single woman, she was able to write, paint, pursue the relationships that interested her, and weave her erotic encounters into poems whose candor is still unsettling. And yet, she could not escape her yearning for Kamyar, whom she was not allowed to see without his father’s permission. Following her divorce in 1955, she had a nervous breakdown and spent a month in a psychiatric clinic, where—like Sylvia Plath, the poet to whom she is most often compared in the English-speaking world—she underwent electroconvulsive therapy. “My arms and legs get tied up with my own bleak imaginings,” she wrote, “and then I see that I can no longer have the power to resist, that I am done with this life, and that everyone is looking at me with condescension.”
Nonetheless, Farrokhzad did not return to her husband and did not remarry. Instead, she kept writing, eventually abandoning the traditional forms of her earlier work to become a staunch partisan of free verse. She also began making films, including the astonishing documentary The House Is Black, released in 1963. Set at a leper colony near Tabriz, in the northwestern part of the country, it is now considered an important precursor to Iran’s cinematic New Wave. In 1956 Farrokhzad spent several months in Europe, learned Italian and some German, and with her brother Amir—then living in Munich—translated an anthology of twenty-nine German poets, with an emphasis on Jewish and anti-fascist writers. Working on her own, she also translated George Bernard Shaw and Henry Miller. In the 1960s, Bernardo Bertolucci went to Iran to make a movie about Farrokhzad. In it, she appears at once commanding and fragile, huge dark eyes glowing as she holds forth on the social role of the artist. When she died in a car accident at the age of thirty-two in 1967, it was front-page news. As for the accident, there is a persistent rumor that she swerved to avoid a school bus.
The Plath comparison is unavoidable but provincial. Though Farrokhzad has been widely translated into English, audiences outside the Iranian diaspora have found it difficult to grasp her work on its own terms. It is true that, like Plath, she had a career bound by the very public convergence of the personal and the political, and that she suffered mightily under the spoken and unspoken rules of a patriarchal society. Stylistically, however, there is very little overlap. Plath is stealthy, stern, hard-boiled. Farrokhzad, whose poetry is self-consciously entwined with a long tradition of Persian erotic verse, presents herself as a force of nature who thrives in the clash of elemental opposites: hot and cold, water and iron. She is, she says, a shoreline, a tarantula, a fish, the stem of a plant “sucking in air and sun and water/in order to live.”
There is another difference, as absolute as style. Unlike Plath, Farrokhzad was a dissident, albeit a slightly undercover one. Despite her reputation as a poet of private life and sexual scandal, she was a fierce critic of the Pahlavi regime, which ended when Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran on January 16, 1979, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced the formation of a provisional government. Although she benefited directly from the Shah’s emphasis on social liberalization, she openly derided his attempt to modernize the country at warp speed and its immiserating effect on Iran’s poor.
More to the point, Farrokhzad writes vividly about the widespread civil and religious repression that characterized the regime, a risky choice given that SAVAK—the Shah’s infamous secret police force, trained in methods of torture by the CIA and Mossad—routinely rounded up, imprisoned, and executed artists, intellectuals, Marxists, and Muslim activists. In the scathing poem “O Jeweled Land” (the title of what was then the national anthem), she contrasts the superficial freedom of the chattering classes with the political violence that lies just beneath her country’s surface:
I have stepped into the space of existence where the creative masses live
and although no bread can be found there
it offers a field of wide-open vision
its actual geography defined
to the north by the fresh green of Bullet Square
to the south by Execution Square
and by Artillery Square in the center of town
And from dawn until sunset, in the shelter of a shining and safe sky
six hundred and seventy-eight plaster swans
along with six hundred and seventy-eight angels
—angels made of mixed dirt and mud, by the way—
are busy proceeding with plans for stillness and silence
Farrokhzad died a decade before the Shah’s fall, but she lived long enough to see many of her friends and family members either driven out of Iran or jailed there. According to the scholar Nima Mina, her brother Amir was in Munich not just to attend medical school but because the city had become a hub for left-wing Iranian students. During her visit to Germany, Farrokhzad befriended a number of those students, including Kurosh Lasha’i, who went on to form a revolutionary breakaway group from the communist Tudeh party, and Mehdi Khanbaba Tehrani, who became a Maoist commentator for Radio Beijing; both spent time incarcerated by the Iranian government. As for Amir, he was involved in the anticolonial Iranian National Front, a political party that sought to nationalize Iran’s oil reserves and resist the manipulation of its internal affairs by Western powers.
Resistance was a family affair. In time, four of Farrokhzad’s six siblings relocated to Germany, including her brother Fereydoun, a renowned singer-songwriter and activist who publicly criticized the Islamic Republic. In 1992 Fereydoun was stabbed to death—a switchblade through his shoulder and a kitchen knife through his mouth—in his apartment in Bonn, during the period of so-called chain murders carried out by Iranian intelligence against public intellectuals as well as ordinary citizens. According to one report, shortly before his death Fereydoun had asked Iran’s ambassador to Germany for help returning home: he wanted to see his mother.
Half of my family comes from Iran, but I knew very little about Farrokhzad until college, when I snuck into a screening of The House Is Black for a documentary film class in which I was not enrolled. At first I tried to get by without reading the English subtitles. It was no good until a little under five minutes in, when Farrokhzad, who narrates some of the film in her quiet, youthful voice, began reciting the days of the week: “Šanbe, Yekšanbe, Došanbe”—Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and so on. I know these words because my grandmother, who was from Sari, in the province of Mazandaran, would sometimes use them interchangeably with “Shabat, Kiraki, Yerkushabt’i,” which is how you say Saturday, Sunday, Monday in Armenian. Despite being born in Iran, and despite having lived there until the chaotic days just before the revolution drove her abroad, my grandmother had very limited Farsi, and she could never read or write it. This in contrast to my father, whose Persian is perfect even though he has not been back to Tehran, the city of his birth, since 1968 (not for lack of trying).
For a long time my grandmother’s shaky grasp of her national language was a mystery to me. Like her depression, it shrouded her in a fog of social as well as psychic isolation. Because she could not speak Persian, she never found a home with New York’s expatriate Iranian community; because she could not speak English, she needed help negotiating the supermarket, the doctor’s office, the bus. The dual functions of translator and comfort object fell to me, which was difficult, but not so difficult as the responsibility that fell on her when she was eight and her mother died following an illegal abortion; such procedures still account for 13 percent of all maternal deaths in Iran. Forced to leave school to care for her three younger siblings, my grandmother gradually lost all but a few words of her third-grade Persian, the victim of a matrilineal dispossession that skipped over my father and his brother—boys of whom much was expected—to be passed on to me.
In “Do You Speak Persian?” the poet Kaveh Akbar elegizes his own vanishing intimacy with the language of his childhood: “I have been so careless with the words I already have.//I don’t remember how to say home/in my first language, or lonely, or light.” This position, which is also mine, is a peculiar one to occupy when reading work in translation. It’s a position neither of complete ignorance nor effortless knowledge but is instead characterized by a mood of reluctant, embarrassing dependence on the expositions of others. Meanwhile, because Farrokhzad’s poetry has become so important in the Iranian diaspora, among a community of people for whom (as Akbar says) “every step…/has been from one tongue to another,” its translators carry an uncommon burden. They don’t just have to make the poetry legible: they have to make it sound like home even to people who have never been there.
Gray is very clear on what she takes to be the power of Farrokhzad’s work. “In a country where for centuries women have lived silent, diminished, and in the shadow of their men,” she writes in her introduction, Farrokhzad “broke all the rules.” For Gray, Farrokhzad’s politics are more expansively humanist than specifically progressive; at the same time, they are also more narrowly trained on the pressures to which women were and remain subject. If this account leaves much unsaid, it also reflects the heroic role Farrokhzad has come to play in the diaspora following the crackdown on women’s rights at home, from a 1979 edict that made the hijab compulsory to a recent law that floats the possibility of turning abortion into a capital offense. Without having suffered under these exact circumstances, Farrokhzad has nonetheless become a symbol of resistance to them.
As for the language, Gray—who has also translated the fourteenth-century poet Hafiz and the anthology Iran: Poems of Dissent, featuring Iranian writers from the Middle Ages to the present day—has successfully resisted the impulse to play up Farrokhzad’s high-octane affect. The poetry is intense, no doubt, and its passions are real. Still, many of Farrokhzad’s English translators have hystericized the verse, using words like “fevered” where the less pathological “burning” would do, or by trying to reproduce the rhymes of Farrokhzad’s earlier metrical poems and thus making her sexual frankness seem at once naive and contrived. The result is that many translations have lost what Farrokhzad described as the intention behind her poetry, particularly her erotic poetry, which she wrote not just to express herself but also to match the complexities of twentieth-century life. “Modern Persian poetry,” she said, presents love as “so magnified, so plaintive, and so anguished that it does not match the nervous and hasty lines of today’s life. Or else,” she added roguishly, it is “so full of the pain of celibacy that it automatically reminds one of male cats in season on sunny roofs.”
It was important to Farrokhzad that her poetry did not appear to be in heat—that it convey desperation without delirium and capture the ambivalence that suffuses even the most heartfelt attachments. Even “Sin,” her most famous poem, introduces a note of hostility into what might otherwise read as a simple ode to a good lay:
I sinned a sin full of pleasure
in an embrace that was warm and fiery
I sinned in arms that were hot
and vindictive and made of iron…
I sinned a sin full of pleasure
beside a dazed and trembling body
O Lord, what do I know about what I did
in that dark and silent sanctuary
The word Gray translates as “vindictive” comes from the noun kine, meaning hatred, spite, malevolence, or, most suggestively, grudge, as in kine shotori, used in the Persian expression “to hold a grudge like a camel,” or the 2004 horror movie The Grudge, whose title in Farsi is Kine. “Grudging” suggests delay or demurral and wouldn’t work here—these lovers are exceptionally enthusiastic—but “vindictive” captures the abjection that accompanies a desire to punish, the vulnerability of the person who needs, very badly, to get back at the person who’s wronged him and whom he also loves. Similarly, the dissolution of the first stanza’s arms of iron into the unguarded body of the final lines unsettles the poem’s deceptive conventionality. This is not, as it may first appear, an account of masculine aggression and feminine surrender but rather an almost abstract rendering of the psychic rhythms of push and pull. For what it’s worth, this sense that we are dealing with emotions that are at once embodied and in excess of any individual is clearer in the Persian text, since Farsi makes no grammatical distinction among the genders and uses the same pronoun for all of them.
As Gray says in her introduction, Farrokhzad’s early, erotic work shocked readers partly because so few women had written as she had, at least publicly. However, it’s also true that what the novelist Shahrnush Parsipur called Iran’s “limited ancestry” of female authors is dominated by the authors of love lyrics, especially in the premodern period when longer narrative poetry was considered an exclusively male genre. Reading some of those earlier writers—Rabe’eh, Mahsati, Jahan Malek Khatun, and Mehri along with the usual (male) suspects Rumi and Hafiz—one can trace the same serpentine structure of passive aggression Farrokhzad masters in “Sin.” “How long will you roll me around myself like a scroll?” asks Jahan Khatun. “How long will you twirl me in your hand like a pen?…I became the dust of the roads to sit on your robe./When will you stop shaking me off your lap?”
This juxtaposition of emotional turmoil and quotidian detail is likewise one of Farrokhzad’s favored techniques, as in “Knot,” from her 1958 book Rebellion:
I saw the room confused, in disarray
your book fallen at my feet
my hairpins fallen
there on your bed
No more sound of bubbling water
from the fish tank
kept your old cat awake?
Or take these lines from “Rose,” which invokes only to disassemble the eighteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Burns’s famous lyric “A Red, Red Rose”:
O paralyzed pigeons
O inexperienced menopausal trees, O blind windows
a red rose is growing
like a flag in
Here, the focal image of the rose is scattered among figures of everyday distress and futility, which are unexpectedly usurped by the identification of the rose with a flag, and of romantic love with social unrest. Suddenly, the air of stasis and rigidity—paralyzed pigeons, menopausal trees, blind windows—is dispersed and something new breaks free. It is as if the speaker of this poem were walking through a gray, lifeless city only to turn the corner and run smack into a political demonstration, with all its irresistible ambience of forward momentum and hope. “Ah, I am pregnant,” the poem ends, “pregnant, pregnant.”
These are, as Farrokhzad wanted them to be, anxious, angular poems, as unorthodox when composed in traditional forms as when they skitter across the page in free verse. “I am a simple person,” she once said, “and since a poem comes [to me] so naturally, as naturally as my conversation, this simplicity is reflected in the poem.” By this she meant that, on the page, her language and her sentiments possess an authenticity and directness that is served rather than diminished by formal constraint. Gray’s translations are accordingly honest and unassuming: they never rhyme, are rarely alliterative, and generally opt for the most straightforward phrasing available. Instead of dialing up the drama, they allow Farrokhzad’s own uneasy tones to be heard with new clarity, strength, and a ferocious self-possession. This is the voice of a person and a poet, not an icon or ghost.
It’s not surprising that Farrokhzad’s best-known poems are her sexiest, her edgiest, her most doomed. These are the poems that made her, and they’ll always appeal to those who can’t help but imagine happiness as a zero-sum game: it’s your well-being or mine, the cozy nest or the wide-open sky. In the 1960s, however, Farrokhzad became interested in finding other possibilities for the clamorous subjectivity that dominates her more popular earlier work. The virtuosic, deeply strange “Someone Who Is Like No One” engages a different poetic tradition, one that is impersonal, prophetic, and subversive. “I dreamed that someone is coming,” she begins, someone who “can’t be arrested/and handcuffed and thrown in prison.” It turns out to be a messiah suited uniquely to the present:
Someone is coming from Tūpkhāneh’s sky on the night of the fireworks
and spreads out the picnic cloth
and distributes the bread
and distributes the Pepsis
and distributes Mellī Park
and distributes the syrup for whooping cough
and distributes the registration days for school
and distributes the hospital priority numbers
and distributes the rubber boots
and distributes tickets to Fardīn’s movies
He distributes the dresses of Seyyed Javād’s daughter
and distributes everything that is left over
and also gives us our share
This is a picture of revolution as an affirmation of the ordinary, pinned to the indefinite but wildly optimistic notion of someone, a hypothesis who nonetheless materializes in the incantatory rhythms of the poem. Everyday objects—cough medicine, movie tickets, bread and boots and cans of Pepsi—no longer carry the weight of our resentments. Instead they become the accessible enchantments of a just world. Here, then, Farrokhzad begins to imagine an existence in which our needs and desires are not tragically at cross-purposes, where love does not threaten some inevitable amputation of our capacities. The poem, in that sense, raises an old question, perhaps the oldest question there is for people who want to live together: What can we do so that we can do what we want? Hard to say but not impossible.