Ecstasy of the everyday

Review in the newspaper ‘The Australian’

Barry Hill | September 22, 2007

Fifty Poems of Attar: Texts, Translations and Analysis
By Kenneth Avery and Ali Alizadeh, 199pp, $25

THIS year is the 800th birthday of one of the great poets of love: the famous Persian, Jalaluddin Rumi, whose life overlapped those of Francis of Assisi and Meister Eckhart. As a poet of the heart, Rumi is at present the darling of the worldwide interfaith movement.

Rumi’s voice — his song — is made of fire and honey. His poems burn with Sufi metaphysics, just as they celebrate the everyday. Admittedly, some can seem too sweet by half, especially since our culture has so corrupted the term love. And they can be so insistent that they make you want to take a step back from the religious path. They make you wonder: How can I ever measure up, spiritually? Brilliantly, Rumi anticipates such hesitation when he writes: “Don’t pretend to know something you haven’t experienced.”

With the poets of the ecstatic tradition much depends on the quality of translation: its diction, as well as the intentions of its translators. Most recently, Coleman Barks (a guest at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival) has delivered Rumi on his own caravan of enthusiastic induction into Sufism. That can be well and good, for Rumi as well as his readers, if they are so inclined. Others might also want to approach Sufi poetry with a clear sense of what it does on the page. As we brace ourselves for the beloved, so to speak, it is well to know something of the rhetoric that is meant to sway us.

Rumi’s elder and contemporary Farid al-Din Attar (1142-1220), published here by an exciting new press out of Melbourne, is a good place to start. Attar, whose name means perfumer, is probably best known in the West for his Conference of the Birds, made famous by the Peter Brook production. Legend has it that Attar helped Rumi on his path to divine knowledge when the boy came into his shop and left with a copy of his Book of Mysteries. Here we have some of Attar’s short lyrics in a bilingual edition, translated into English for the first time by two Australians, scholar and schoolteacher Kenneth Avery and young poet Ali Alizadeh.

The marvel is that in a tradition of poetry that lends itself to the sentimental, there is not one mushy line. Attar’s strong voice springs up earthy, irreverent, full of wild beauty:

Since there is no one to be our companion in Love
The prayer mat is for the pious: wine dregs and vice for us …
If the wine-bringers of the spirit sit with the devout
their wine is for the aesthetics; lees and hangovers for us …

“Cure is for the purists,” the poems goes on, celebrating an ecstatic overthrowing of mere piety. In its place the Sufi wanted direct encounter with the beloved, which required nothing less than an extinguishment of the self.

Love of the Beloved burned me like a candle, head to foot.
My soul-bird burned like a moth, wing and feather.

The fire of her love smoked my heart like aloes;
then her fire consumed both the smoke and the aloes.

A coal from her face fell into the desert:
both worlds burned like kindling from her ember.

I was to offer my soul to the soul-mate.
The Beloved outsmarted me; I got burnt.

There’s nothing left of my blood or flesh, but ash

Attar married several traditions of poetry: the secular and the religious, the philosophical and the prosaic. More particularly, the religious refrains of the beloved — the address to the divine ground of being and the self in relationship to it — were shaped according to the conventions of court poetry. In addition, as Avery points out in his splendid introduction, it drew on a whole tradition of wine-drinking songs. Drunkenness became the metaphor for spiritual transformation. Attar’s greatness also consists in the firm grip he had on each twist and turn of tone, and in a very modern way: the way Persian conventions allowed an ironic placement of the self in the poem.

Supple argument provides another pleasure. The poems use the language of absolute love, but they do so dialectically, so that reading becomes a dynamic experience designed to go beyond words. “The word of Love is nothing but illusion;/Love is not bound by poetic metaphors”: that is the kind of thing Rumi was to say over and over, but with Attar the proposition somehow seems to have its original vigour.

Thanks to the timely publication of this book, Attar’s mysticism is as contemporary as a text message. It becomes even more so when we read that Attar wrote in the midst of the Mongol invasions of his homeland. As the bodies piled high in the streets of his city of Nishapur, the poet’s voice turned inward, burning and burning. This is a wonderful Australian production, a gift to the world.

Barry Hill is poetry editor of The Australian. His new book is Necessity: Poems 1996-2006.

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