The purpose of a poetry of witness is to tell the truth about some of the most difficult experiences human beings have had to endure, and to tell that truth in a language muscular and agile enough to carry the full weight of its significance. The truth conveyed by such writing is often hard to read because it is a dark truth that thrives in those crevices in human experience that emerge when individual lives collide with those legendary powers of darkness that are responsible for the atrocities to which so many prisoners of conscience have been subjected — unjust imprisonment, torture, starvation, execution.
In Prison Poems, Mahvash Sabet, a Bahá’í imprisoned for practicing her beliefs in the Islamic Republic of Iran, lays bare the truth of her 20 year prison sentence, a truth that encompasses celebration as well as grief, and hope as well as despair. The poetry in this collection bears witness to the horrors, and, yes, the hard won triumphs of life in an Iranian prison, where the author has been forced to work out her own salvation in the most solitary way, by means of prayer; meditation; communion with the spirits of friends, family, and mentors; and by setting down her thoughts and experiences in poetry.
What can a 20 year long prison sentence take from Sabet? The answer is: everything and nothing. As these poems make clear, despite her many hardships — separation from loved ones, loss of professional life, even lack of proper food or fresh air — Mavash Sabet has won and continues to win the inner triumph that these heroic poems detail, in the form of unlimited access to memory’s riches, limited but nourishing communications with family and friends, and a sustaining friendship with fellow prisoner Fariba Kamalabadi, to whom and about whom some of the most moving poems in this volume are written. Prison is, for the poet, a place of spiritual germination, and it is this very metaphor of growth that she employs in the opening poem, “The Journey of the Seed”:
I was a worthless seed once, the small kernel of a dream, which providence had planted near your love’s stream. For a while I sat beside your rippling waters, lingered a while deep in your soil, drinking in the crystal waters, trying to understand my own soul...
The poet’s greatest fear is not what the Islamic Republic might do to her, but rather that hardship might make her indifferent — the greatest sin of all to someone who has gone to prison for her faith. But in the end, Sabet manages to keep the flame of her heart and soul burning, even fiercely at times, through a deep and sustained communion with her Beloved, which, at times, offers entry into the realm of the mystical, so that in poems such as “A Tale of Love”, we hear echoes of the voice of Rumi, the Persian mystical poet who used the art of poetry to evoke his own experiences of mystical awareness: “You brim from a familiar cup but can this wine really be yours? /Can a pearl break open its own shell through sheer ecstasy?”
Sabet is an educator who, judging from the literary allusions that enrich the fabric of her poems, is well read in Persian literature; and she is a sensitive and discerning observer who tells the tale, in poetry, of an epic journey through various phases of a long prison sentence, bearing witness to years of hardship but also to her steadfast resistance to the powers that seek to quench her spirit. Translated by the late Violette Nakhjavani and by Ali Nakhjavani, and subsequently adapted by writer Bahiyihh Nakhjavani, the poems Sabet has produced under such dire conditions shine with beauty, genuineness, and significance.
From the simple pleas for strength to the probing meditations on the more complex inner struggles she experiences as she tries to make meaning of the daily hardships she must endure, the poems will engage any reader who has the courage to enter into the tragedy that Mahvash Sabet’s prison sentence enshrines, one forged from groundless accusations rooted in ignorance and prejudice.
Although written, for the most part, in free verse, the frequent use of devices such as refrain, rhyme and internal rhyme, repetition of various sorts, as well as a diction that is sometimes archaic (“Woe is me!”) locate this poetry outside the realm of contemporary poetry written in English, but perhaps not of Persian poetry, especially classical Persian poetry as translated into English, and, for the most part, the archaic language does not interfere with the immediacy of the experiences being described.
The foreward by Mahvash Parakand, one of the four lawyers for the “Yaran,” as a group of Bahá’í prisoners currently detained in Iranian prisons is called, provides a useful gloss on the poems, which helps the reader to locate Sabet’s poetry in its social context. And Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s account of how the poems came to be published is as important to our understanding of the purpose and intention of the poet and the publishers in making these poems available to readers.
Sabet’s volume of poems is a rare testimony to the struggle and the extraordinary courage of an ordinary person who, in the course of an experience of unjust incarceration, has climbed to the mountain top, breathed the rarified air on those heights, and set down her experience in poetry. Mahvash Sabet should be applauded for sharing these brave poems and the translators for making them available in English. And Bahiyyih Nakhjvani should be praised for bringing her own art to the cause to which these poems draw attention by creating literary adaptations of the English translations of Sabet’s poems, adaptations that allow the reader to bear witness to the complex truth of Mahvash Sabet’s life in an Iranian prison.