States of Poetry 2017 - ACT | 'Hammam' by Melinda Smith

Hammam

(translated from a Persian ghazal by Rabi’a Balkhi)

I am back, locked up in this love again,
all my daring escapes end here.

Love is a broad shoreless sea
tell me, o wise ones, who swims it and lives?

To take love all the way
you must embrace every horror;

adore ugliness like a fair face;
make sweet delight of poison.

I bucked like an unbroken mare; I did not know:
the harder you pull, the tighter the rope.

Melinda Smith


Semi-legendary Persian poet Rabi’a Balkhi رابعه بلخی is reputed to have lived at the same time as the poet Rudaki, in the early-to-mid 900s, in Balkh (in what is now northern Afghanistan, at the time part of the Samanid Persian empire). She is supposedly the first female poet to write in the Persian language. Her tragic story is well known in the Khorasan provinces of today's Iran and Afghanistan: her tomb is still a site of pilgrimage, and Afghanistan’s first ever feature film (Rabi’a Balkhi, released in 1965) was about her. She was murdered by her brother, a provincial governor, for falling in love with one of his slaves. Her brother had her throat cut and imprisoned her in a bath-house to bleed to death. Hammam (‘bath-house’) is my title for an untitled ghazal by her. This is her most anthologised poem: according to the legend it was written in her own blood on the tiles of the bath-house as she lay dying. With many thanks to Omid Behbahani and her husband Mr Tahami for their generous assistance with the translation, and to Dr Hashem and Mina Etminan for putting me in touch with them. I have also referred to other translations by Inamul Haq Kausar, Manouchehr Saadat Noury, and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis with Sheila R. Canby.

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