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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Somerville Artist Lois Fiore Speaks of ' Peace Cutting Through Turmoil'

Somerville Artist Lois Fiore Speaks of ' Peace Cutting Through Turmoil'

by Doug Holder

I met Lois Fiore at the Brickbottom Artist Building on the outskirts of Union Square. Fiore is a diminutive woman, who sports large glasses, and has the appearance of a retired academic. In fact, Fiore did work for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, in the roles of assistant to the curator, and assistant editor. Fiore wanted to talk about an exhibit she curated and participated in at the Brickbottom Gallery titled: “ “Peace: Cutting Through the Turmoil.”

The artists' work that were displayed at this setting were by Cynthia Staples ( I published her poetry in The Somerville Times), Cedric Harper, Riki Moss, and Byrnmore Williams. Fiore told me that she was inspired to curate this collection just before Trump's election. She intuitively knew that he would win—despite protests from her friends. She wanted to explore how people pass through pain into peace. Fiore said, “ The whole point of the show is to move forward in spite of all this pain we are experiencing.”

And after Fiore showed me around the exhibit—I had the distinct impression that these talented artists indeed expressed this vividly through their work. There was photography, painting, video—all contributing to what Fiore characterizes as an “interactive show.” In a film produced by Brynmore Williams, he has dancer Catherine Minsky—a breast cancer survivor, dance with  exposed breasts-and there is a painting on the space of the absent breast that was surgically removed. Cynthia Staples reproduced a trough that pre -Civil War slaves ate from—complete with a large set of mussel shells they used as eating utensils. Her visual is enhanced by her moving text. Artist Riki Moss had a series of otherworldly creatures created from found objects. Fiore told me that they represented displaced immigrants. And in their distorted faces I could see a glint of hope.

Fiore, an accomplished artist in her own right, has several pieces at the gallery. The two that struck me were depictions of what were probably third world women. They were painted with vivid orange hues. Their expressions capture the mission statement of the exhibit. Their lips, their mournful, expressive eyes—say it all.

Fiore is not formally trained as an artist, but she has taken courses at the Cambridge Adult Education Center, the Art Institute in Boston, and elsewhere.

Fiore said she loves the vibes at the Brickbottom. She loves that she is able to live with people of her own sensibility. People who understand the creative ups and downs that an artist goes through. She continues to work on her abstracts and portraits. And we are looking to hear more stories from her—here--in the Paris of New England.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Love Letters to the World Meia Geddes

Writer Meia Geddes

Love Letters to the World (Poetose Press, 2016) by Meia Geddes Review by George Genovese

In this work, those essentially human qualities, thinking and feeling, are cast in such elusively supple and subtle language, at once clear and unpretentious, and yet nuanced and rich in refraction, that what appears translucently simple and immediately appropriable suddenly diffuses into shades of signification for which one is never quite prepared.

The missive passages—I prefer to think of them as poems given the lyrical and often metaphorical nature of the work—are literally addressed to the world and this, a poetic device of itself, allows a multifarious connotative layering to take place between the immediate concerns of the narrator in each letter and her elusive addressee. One often forgets this fact and tends to slip into reading what is being said as if it were the internal voice of a self-reflecting narrator or, especially when referencing the second person, a voice specifically addressing an unidentified human auditor, or the reader or, again, a voice perhaps addressing the persons, things or events that are spoken of or encountered in each letter until one is startlingly reminded that no, it is the world that—or should I say whom?—is being spoken to; which is not to say that the alternative forms of address above and their potential referents are therefore excluded from the fabric of the work for, in some ways, they are obliquely implied even if only as extra-textual ‘others’ inasmuch as they too could be nothing other than manifestations of the way the world, worldliness, embraces a scope of relational possibilities that need not entail an absolute displacement of any one of them. This approach opens up a vista of possibilities rich in ambiguity which Geddes uses to deft effect and the momentary vertigo at times elicited when one recollects the literal addressee does figuratively echo one of the themes of the work—an imposed recognition of return to what is essential to oneself, one’s world or worldly life; for, the world turns and returns to any arbitrary point of departure one might elect as a starting point in its rotation, does it not?

A case in point is the following excerpt. (I will keep the letter format despite elisions.) The narrator is in a library and an unknown girl suddenly hugs and picks her up, spinning her around exuberantly:

My dear world,

…My toes traveled about, a glorious few inches above the ground.
I squealed and knew helplessness and delight for several seconds.
When I stood upright, I expressed my appreciation, donned my decade
or two with a smile. I wonder, when we spin, if it is practice for identifying
the essential. You must know a thing or two about that, my dear.

With love,


There are a number of thematic connotations encoded in the manner of the use of the word ‘spin’ in the sense of sudden disorientation, unexpected displacement etc. and its coupling with ‘the essential’ in the penultimate line above more easily identifiable in other letters than here, some of which are: one’s foreignness and sense of displacement, ethnically and existentially; the mystery of one’s origin; the striving of an obscure identity—the stranger in oneself—to reconcile its world, itself, in and through its otherness; as there are notions of loss, inadequacy and so on which are, at times, tinged with an anxiety mutely haunting the apparently unruffled composure of the enunciating text.

Whilst such connotations, and many others, may not be immediately evident in the excerpt above, that passage nonetheless does something which magically happens many times in this work in relation to those themes explored in other letters; it takes a disorientating moment and aligns it with a notion of meaningful reception or discovery in which one relocates one’s placement in one’s world. In this case it is aptly captured by locating one’s place with what is ‘the essential’ to it, and which happens to be intrinsic to the world itself—movement and cyclic progression. In the narrator’s acceptance and reciprocation of the unknown girl’s hug and the ensuing rotation in which she openly responds to the world, and in effect adaptively identifies herself with the nature of her addressee, a world of contingency that is constantly full of surprises and also somewhat involved in spinning, one sees not only an example of essential return to one’s world that could be characterized as a kind of vertiginous bliss but also something of the delightfully insightful and, in this case, wry humor strewn throughout the work.

A number of letters refer to adoption, mostly indirectly, and interface with the related notions of placement and displacement for, as the narrator tells us, our subject was discovered abandoned in China and later adopted by an American woman, and it is the bare knowledge of this personal past, with no objective means of determining the reason for its occurrence or known origin of her native identity to which she can appeal for answers, that constitutes one of the conditions of the mysterious background informing many of the varied and engaging existential, aesthetic and quietly philosophical meditations which ensue.

Fundamental to these meditations is an understanding of language, and its alignment to the world, as the site in which the interplay of identity and difference and familiarity and foreignness can take place. Language becomes somewhat like a prism through whose flickering facets the world reveals a shifting patterning of transient luminosity, chromatic differentiation and gradated continuity.

Something of this play is conceived of as the fluidity of worldly moments, the movement possible in and of a moment in which apparent dichotomies such as placement and displacement can invert their positions, softening as absolutes, and blur into something more expansive. But even here, this appeal to language as the potential vehicle through which the world speaks and might be heard, and whose meaning one can receive, is never simplistic or offered as a final resolution. Ultimately there is the recognition that the world has a dimension of wordlessness, irreducible mystery, to which language can only approach with a certain shy circumspection and which it cannot fully appropriate, or, alternatively, that language itself, the text-world, brings as an irreducible foreignness with it in its engagement with that ‘other’ wordless world.

Something of the concerns above might be no better expressed than in the following excerpts from one of the letters:

My dear world,

Maybe I am indebted to the mystery I come from. Maybe I became
acquainted with you, world, a little sooner than some…

…I came, at a young age, to an understanding that what may seem
like abandonment can be an act of love. Of other things, too, but maybe
when having a child is a crime, when one must leave what came of her
behind, it is the ultimate test of love. I have realized that leaving things
can work out in ways one would not realize, when one acts aligned with
what one feels is right even when it seems all too wrong. Dear world, please
know she left me in sunshine.

With love,


The statement about the criminality of having a child alludes, one assumes, to the ‘one child policy’ in China whose institution and enforcement resulted in the abandonment, abortion and infanticide of millions of babies, with a higher percentage of female victims for cultural and economic reasons. In her characteristically flexible way, the narrator suggests that contingency of situation encompasses a spectrum of possibilities—necessitates it in fact—and so a possible narrative of callous abandonment or rejection, obviously harrowing for any child, could also be told from the perspective of the mother as an act of love, the most merciful possibility available from the point of view of someone in a context where the alternatives were too horrible to contemplate.

 So what is personally harrowing reaches through the mystery suffusing it and, in its sympathetic attunement to that mystery, displaces itself into an alignment with the horror endured by another and this awareness resituates, re-places, one’s own isolated way of looking at things in the greater context of universal human suffering. This is all marvelously done without the barest hint of self-aggrandizing exhibitionism. It is also no mere self-consolation but the occasion of coming back to one’s world with the more nuanced awareness that meaning is always richer in its revelation than the narrow assumptions or locus one might initially begin one’s questioning from. The final line, literally a punch-line, that bowls one over with its humility again uses ambiguity to good effect. One can take it as the historical trace of a witness’s account, perhaps the discoverer of the infant, and the implication is that in being left in sunshine our subject was situated somewhere visible in all likelihood due to the mother’s solicitude that her child should be found, cared-for and preserved; or again, and this in no way excludes the former possibility, as an affirmation by the narrator that her ‘placement’ then as now has been one of good fortune in which she found love and the nurturing conditions for her growth, eliciting an acknowledgement of gratitude from her to the world that made it possible and, one can’t help feeling, an empathic and exonerating gesture of thanks to the biological mother who also made it possible but who may have had to endure the haunting consequences of her act in silence, never to know that her child’s stance, which the child herself would reveal to her if she could, is one of appreciation and not condemnation.

 However, there always will be something of a mystery even to the act one full-knowingly wills as a gesture of thanks (perhaps in the form of a book of love letters) because though the world will accommodate its reception, its instigator can never know if it reaches its destination, nor if the receiver, should it cross their way, will understand it for what it is. Whatever the outcome, there is, at least for the narrator one suspects, some closure of sorts in not having left the gesture unmade. I could have chosen other letters to illustrate aspects of what I have tried to sketchily indicate but they would also have excluded much in my attempt to represent some of the marvels of this work because it is an intricate mesh of interdependent facets reflecting off each other, and I have not even touched on some of the letters where one could look at individual lines for their purely aesthetic and technical facility. My examples are perhaps two that are in some ways deficient in capturing some of those things because there are many other instances which might better demonstrate how the paradoxical execution of a sumptuousness of meaning is achieved through masterful restraint, poise, and understatement, or indeed, for it is by no means a somber book, how at times a sudden re-alignment of the frailest of moods by a humor that is at once playfully subversive and amplificatory in meaning quietly sidles into view from its periphery. It is refreshing to encounter a work of genuine intimacy—to say nothing of its humanity—that is challenging in its emotional honesty but which steers well clear of self-indulgent sentimentality, just as it is to encounter one that is intelligent, even wise, but remains unfettered by a labored intellectuality.

George Genovese is an Australian writer and poet who has published four volumes of poetry: Heartlines (Council of Adult Education, Australia, 1998); Time Steals Softer (Gininnderra Press, 2007); The Essential Space of Play (Ginninderra Press, 2012); and Love Letters to the World (Ginninderra Press, 2016). He has collaborated extensively with Australian composers Lawrence Whiffin and Mario Genovese on projects setting lyrics and poetry to their music and lives in Melbourne, Australia.