PublicationNotes #3

Notes #3

Giving Voice to Silence

The canary said: Our globe
one of cages with golden bars and a porcelain birdfeeder.

The goldfish of the haft-sin spread
interpreted it as the environment which is crystalized every spring.1

The vulture said: My planet
a peerless one where death creates nourishment.

The shark said: Earth
the bountiful spread of oceans.

Man didn’t say a word.
He was the only one dressed
his sleeve wet with tears.

—Ahmad Shamlou, Untitled, 1994

Ahmad Shamlou, Poem
Ahmad Shamlou, Collected Works, vol. 1, Collected Poems (1944–1999) (Tehran: Negah Publications, 2003).
From the album Dar Astaneh, a collection of Ahmad Shamlou’s poems recited by him and recorded between 1993-1994 at his home. Music by Morteza Hannaneh (1923 –1989), Mahoor Publishers, 2011. Courtesy of Mahoor Publishers.

1. An untitled poem by the contemporary Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou (1925–2000). The poem is among a group of his works that have a more or less mythological atmosphere, as if they speak about a cosmic drama whose actors live in the far reaches of history, in a transhistorical chronotope or in an imaginary time.2 A central figure in these poems is Man, not this or that particular man, not even necessarily the first man, but humankind in general. Another important figure is Earth, who either speaks or is spoken about. Both Earth and Man are present in this poem.

2. The scene in the poem is simple and unadorned, with the poet narrating four speeches and one silence. We do not know exactly when and where these happen. There are, however, a few clues: one is the reference to the goldfish of the haft-sin spread3, and the other is the reference to the clothing of Man, which reminds us of the story of the forbidden fruit eaten in the Book of Genesis. This event, according to Shamlou in another poem, “taught shame to wheat’s crevice,”4 after which Adam and Eve put on clothes. But these are ritual and mythological allusions, and in the poem a universal atmosphere dominates.

3. The world of the poem is inhabited by five personas: the canary, the goldfish, the vulture, the shark, and Man. There is also a figure that does not speak but is the subject of the speeches: Earth.5 Two birds, two fish, Man, and Earth are the inhabitants of this poetical world. Of course, there are differences between the animals: two are caged, while two roam free. Two are small and prey, while the other two are large and predators. Two are aquatic animals, while the other two live on land. But despite these differences, they all see their globe, Earth, with the same eyes: as a large spread of “nourritures terrestres” (terrestrial nutrition), to use Andre Gide’s words. Theirs is a planet so generous that even death breeds nourishment. This attitude is, of course, a straightforward, natural, carefree, and perhaps even innocent one based on absorption, enjoyment, pleasure, and advantage. Thus, the meaning of their speeches is clear, indicating a direct and unreflective relationship with Earth: the animals have a relationship with Earth, but this relation does not become a question for them; they do not have a reflective relationship with Earth.6

After the speeches, a silence comes: the silence of Man, mixed with tears. Familiar relations are apparently reversed. If, in the real world, animals are speechless or tongue-tied and it is humans who speak, in the world of this poem, Man is mute and animals speak.

Of course, silence is not without significance, but in the absence of words, it is difficult to decipher. Perhaps the context of this silence helps: the silence belongs to Man, the only persona in the poem who is dressed, their sleeve wet with tears. According to the famous story of the Book of Genesis, after Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, their eyes “were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Does the poet want to portray humankind as immersed in emotions of guilt, shame, and sadness by alluding to the Bible? And if yes, why and how? Is Earth a reminder of humankind’s fall due to original sin, and are Man’s tears because of this? Or maybe Man is tearful and ashamed as he remembers what he brought to Earth? Or does Man shed tears for Earth, whose inhabitants only view her as a large banquet?7 Is Man ashamed of the animals who see Earth as nothing but a feast? Or … The list of possible questions does not end there. And despite the poem pointing to the context of human silence, there is no definite answer to these questions.

These are only a few possible interpretations of this silence which, due to its ambiguous and ambivalent nature, is open to a wide range of interpretations, arousing our imagination and fulfilling the purpose of poetry according to classical Persian poetics, which is “to awaken imagination” (تخییل) — imagination not only produces poetry but is also stimulated in the reader by the poem.8 In this way, the poet’s free play of imagination is carried by the poem and continued in the reader. The mysterious silence we are contemplating here is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s definition of an “aesthetic idea”: “a presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought, but to which no determinate thought whatsoever, i.e., no [determinate] concept, can be adequate, so that no language can express it completely and allow us to grasp it.”9 Despite Kant’s technical language, we generalize his formulation to explain the ambiguous and polysemic nature of many works of art, including Shamlou’s poem, especially the stanza that refers to the mysterious and pregnant silence of Man. We will return to this silence.

4. In the poem, the animals who speak and the Man who is silent are not those we encounter in the world around us; they are inhabitants of the world of the poem: the poeticized canary, the poeticized fish, etc. Of course, the poet chooses his materials directly or indirectly (through imagination) from the real world, but he establishes his own world and creates its inhabitants. Here, we have a movement that reaches from the intersubjective real world to the world of the text or the work of art, and we see the impact of the former on the latter. But this relation can also be reversed: the world of the text can also overflow into the real world and leave its mark. It can influence the way we look at the real world or practically affect its physiognomy. This is the same process that French philosopher Alain Roger, borrowing a term from Montaigne, refers to as “artialisation,” which is a double phenomenon: to view the world through the lens of art (artialisation in visu) and to pattern and construct the former upon the latter (artialisation in situ).10

The last stanza tells of Man’s silence, which, coming at the end , merges with the silence of the reader upon finishing the poem, possibly doubling its power and impact. This silence is not the kind that announces the end of a story. It is a beckoning silence; it demands an answer from us. Perhaps, in responding to the call of this silence, we might ask ourselves: What is our relationship with the earth? What have we done to the earth? What other ways do we have of facing the earth? What … These questions and the ways of seeing and acting that they might encourage may not leave the real world unaffected. And this is how the work of art works in the world.

5. “Man did not say a word.” Yes, but a real human has spoken here, and he is none other than the poet. A human speech about human silence. The poet not only gives voice to the canary, the fish, the vulture, and the shark, but also makes the silence of man speak.

Ahmad Shamlou, Cover
Book cover, Ahmad Shamlou, Collected Works, vol. 1, Collected Poems (1944–1999) (Tehran: Negah publication, 2003).

1 The phenomenological approach to poetry regards it as a performative art and emphasizes the importance of performing poetry by reading it aloud. (A version of this approach can be found in Mikel Dufrenne’s essay “The Phenomenological Approach to Poetry,” in In the Presence of the Sensuous [New York: Humanities Press International, 1987], pp. 119–26.) Some of the formal aspects of poetry, including its musical or metrical ones, only appear to the reader/performer in this process. Shamlou’s poems, especially his free verses with their rich musicality, strongly demand such a performance from the reader in the original Persian. Even if we don’t believe that poetry is untranslatable, there is no doubt that some important aspects of it are more or less lost in translating from one language into another, and in this regard, one remembers the thought-provoking saying that reading the translation of a poem is like seeing a Persian carpet from the reverse side. Along with the difficulty and even the impossibility of transferring the musical aspects of Shamlou’s poetry from the original language, the intertwined literal and semantic relations and the overtones and connotations of words may also become lost in translation. The second stanza of our translation is a case in point: The Persian word “mohit,” translated here as “environment,” also means “sea,” which has a semantic relation to goldfish. Also, the word “motebalver,” translated as “crystalized,” comes from the word “boloor,” which is associated with “tong-e-boloor” (a crystal bowl), the container that holds the goldfish of the Haft-sin spread and whose circular shape is reminiscent of the earth.

2 Among these poems are “… And Decay Began” and an untitled poem that begins with the line: “So then the earth spoke.” See Ahmad Shamlou, Collected Works, vol. 1, Collected Poems (1944–1999) (Tehran: Zamaneh Publications, 2003), pp. 542–43 and 891–95.

3 “The traditional paraphernalia for ushering in Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, [is] laid out on a table or on the floor, with seven items whose names begin with the letter ‘س/s.’” Karim Emami, Farhang Moaser Kimia: Persian-English Dictionary (Tehran: Farhang Moaser Publishers, 2006), p. 513. Goldfish in a crystal bowl often appear on the spread as well, although “mahi,” the Farsi word for “fish,” does not begin with an “s.”

4 Shamlou, Collected Works, p. 987.

5 In another poem, also untitled, Shamlou makes Earth speak instead of speaking about her. The poem is a conversation between Earth and Man, in which Earth, as a devoted lover, complains about the unfaithfulness of Man who abandoned her and turned to the sky. This poem, whose theme is also found in other poems by Shamlou, begins with the line: “So then the earth spoke.” Ibid., pp. 891–95.

6 In the poem “Reconciliation,” Shamlou poeticizes the same idea: “It is the ocean: / depth and boundlessness / flying and whirling and rolling / without it knowing. / This is a mountain: / the glory of firmness / ups and downs and pride / without it knowing. / But you have created me / a man …” Ibid, p. 1028.

7 This attitude is expressed in another poem by Shamlou called “Biographical Sketch”: “I consumed the air / I consumed the ocean / I consumed the planet / I consumed God / And I left nothing behind / to damn me.” Ibid., p. 976.

8 For the relationship between the imagination of the poet and the imagination of the reader, see Gaston Bachelard, introduction to The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

9 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), p. 182.

10 See Alain Roger, Le court traite du paysage (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), pp. 12–13.

Masoud Olia, “Giving Voice to Silence,” NOTES #3 (July 2023); published on, June 30, 2023.