Friday, June 30, 2017

Twenty-One Ghazals Alisher Navoiy, Translated from the Uzbek by Dennis Daly-- Reviewed by Judy Katz-Levine

Twenty-One Ghazals
Alisher Navoiy,
Translated from the Uzbek by Dennis Daly

This exquisite, slim, collection of the ghazals of Alisher Navoiy, translated from the Uzbek by Dennis Daly, and published by Cervena Barva Press, includes 23 beautifully produced color plates from the manuscripts of the 15th century Sufi poet.  A brief history of the Timurid empire, a biography of Alisher Navoiy, and a concise description of the ghazal form and love theme inherent in this form give the ghazals a subtle power and context.

Navoiy was a 15th century poet, writer, calligrapher, musician, sculptor, painter, politician and builder.  He was born in Herat, now Afganistan, and he was born into an elite family.  Also, he was known for his humanism, and as a dispenser of wisdom.  His ghazals are very heavily influenced by Sufi mysticism yet, unlike Rumi, whose poetry has been translated by Robert Bly and others,  Navoiy, whose name means “the weeper” is almost unheard of in the canon of poets translated into English from this era of the Timurid empire (1370-1507).  Therefore, and also because of the unique and intense quality of Navoiy's ghazals, and because of the acute attention to the ghazal form by Daly in these translations, “Twenty-One Ghazals” is an almost unheard of rare gift.

The ghazal, not unlike the sonnet, is a tightly structured poem of couplets often between 12 and 15 lines.  The first two lines end in the same word, and thereafter every other line ends in the same word.  The theme, again like the sonnet, is love.  In the Sufi tradition, passion is considered the highest form of devotion.  So the images in Novoiy's ghazals often are vivid:

          “Tulip fields blaze the face of my soul's fire
            Sunsets sear across the sky, touch the earth with fire.”

Shakespearean sonnets emphasize the passage of time, the koan of death in the face of love which is both passing, and eternal, and the beloved often immortalized in writing by the lover, as in, for example, sonnet X1:

         “As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st,
          In one of thine, from that which thou departest,
          And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st
          Though may'st call thine when though from youth convertest
          Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase...
         She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
         Thou should'st print more, nor let that copy die.

Ghazals, as the introductory description to this collection states, probe the depths of longing and unrequited love as themes.  In Sufi mysticism, the importance of the love itself is paramount, and the song of a lover scorned is considered sacred.

          “Even if you ignore my reticent being
           or wound it, you shall always be part of that being.”

Ghazals also possess a similarity to sonnets in the tightness of their form --  all lines measure the same length. Daly has done a magnificent job in giving us the lines as close to the original as possible.

 The name or identity of the writer is also always stated in the last two lines.  Daly
does the best as a translator of ghazals of any I have read.  Robert Bly's translations of Rumi, for example, display freedom from the form and an improvisational feeling. Daly translates Navoiy with a fluid and natural feeling that emphasizes the intensity of the images:

       Is it the sear of sun that coal-reddens your face
       Or the pleasure of wine that blushes through that face?

He aptly captures the depth of feeling probed by Navoiy, which differs so from the cognitive light and conceptual play that is the signature of a Shakespearean sonnet.  These ghazals more often resemble in feeling the depth found is the poems of Lorca, such as Lorca's “Gacela Of Unforeseen Love”:

       “No one understood the perfume
        of the dark magnolia of your womb.”

Here's another wonderful quote from one of Navoiy's ghazals in “Twenty-One Ghazals, Alisher Navoiy”

        “Is it the glow of innocence that sets like two stars
         Those amber drops, accentuating your moon-pearl face?
         Do you know: perspired  beads by the hundreds
         Draw me forward like fresh dew drops to your petal-face?

Navoiy has before this collection, to my knowledge, been almost unheard of due to lack of translations of his work.  Dennis Daly has given us, in this small book, a taste of the depth of his magnificent poetry.

              - Judy Katz-Levine


  1. Thank you Judy for your insightful review.-- Dennis

  2. Mr Dennis thank you for translating and publishing Uzbek classical literature. I am PhD from Uzbekistan involved in trasnlation studies of Alisher Navoiys ghazals please write to email below I couldn't find your email. I would like to talk to you on project wich can be interesting for you