poetry: 6 posts

Mir Taqi Mir’s Jasmine Pilaf

While reading the memoirs of Mir Taqi Mir, a great Indian poet who lived in 18th century Delhi, I came across a charming anecdote about a jasmine pilaf. Once you read it, you’ll know right away why the description captured my attention.

“They used to prepare a fine jasmine pilaf at the house of A’zam Khan Sr. They would put jasmine flowers in some oil and let it sit for a few days so it would absorb the fragrance. Then they would use the oil to cook the rice, which gave it a fine aroma. Burhan-ul-Mulk heard its praise and made a request to A’zam Khan Sr., who then had some prepared and sent over in several big platters. Burhan-ul-Mulk ate it with relish, then remarked in a jocular vein, “It’s not a platter of pilaf; it’s the blessesd grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.” The remark was greatly enjoyed, for people in fact used to bring jasmine flowers in great quantities to cover that revered person’s grave. It would then look like a heap of flowers, and their fragrance would transport passersby even at some distance.”

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Sappho’s Moon

In an effort to start the week on a positive note, I bring to you a dose of beauty via Sappho. We travel to the island of Lesbos circa the 5th century BCE. Just as Sappho’s readers were enchanted then, we are moved today by her lyrical imagery. Little of Sappho’s poetry has survived, but the fragments of what remains are moving, elegant, and complex. I offer two of my favorite examples, and you can explore Penguin Classics as well as the sources I share below for more of Sappho in English translation.

While Sappho’s poetry is beautiful, it’s not an example of mere escapist pleasure–she lived through much turmoil, having had experienced exile and banishment. The politics of her day were just as unsettling as those of ours. Yet, her poetry uplifts and reminds us to dream, reflect and take joy in beauty.

I hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I do. Please feel free to share something beautiful with us as well.

Moon

Awed by her splendor
Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver
–From Sappho, A New Translation by Mary Barnard, 1958.

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Boris Pasternak : Let’s drop words as gardens drop orange-peel and amber

The garden stood still and fragile, ready to drop golden leaves at the gentlest breeze. I woke up early and as I stepped out of the house, I didn’t anticipate the ethereal beauty of autumn. I too stood still, my hand outstretched to pick a red apple forgotten on a bare branch. Fall cast its spell on me, and I didn’t want to shake it off.

The last time I was in Ukraine in autumn was in 1993, but I don’t recall visiting Poltava, the place where my grandmother Valentina lives, at that time. When I still lived in Ukraine, I would usually be in school. Once I was already abroad, I would return only in spring or summer. This spontaneous visit happened because of a series of events out of my control, but as I stood in the orchard filled with golden light, I realized what a gift fate has given me. To experience perfect beauty when one least expects it is after all one of the greatest blessings in life.

Such moments aren’t grand. As Boris Pasternak (1890 – 1960) writes in one of his most moving poems, “life, like an autumn stillness, is all detail.” Noticing these details and capturing them is essential. When people ask me why I find the sense of smell so fascinating, I respond simply–it allows me to pay attention to details. If you notice the scent of fallen leaves, you will also notice the delicate etching of their veins, the lemon yellow hue, the silvery mist that turns the landscape into an impressionist painting, the sound your steps make in a quiet orchard. Your ability to slow down and pay attention to such things is the essence of enjoying life, of living it fully, of savoring every moment, whatever the circumstances.

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The World in a Haiku

Silent the old town
the scent of flowers
floating
And evening bell
-Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), translated by Jane Reichhold

Haiku condenses. Haiku magnifies. If haiku speaks of a flower, it doesn’t compare the poet to a flower or the world to a flower. It says, the world is a flower. The world is in the flower petal. The details are refined by the poet’s imagination, who pours the whole experience into seventeen syllables. Haiku is the essence.

Discontented
Violets have dyed
The hills also
-Shiba Sonome (17th century), translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri.

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The City of Jasmine

Writer Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) described his native city of Damascus as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity, and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.” Although the most fragrant of roses bears the name rosa damascena, Damascus rose, the Syrian capital is known as Madinat Al Yasmine, the City of ­Jasmine. Each fall it holds a festival in homage of this national flower, with people giving each other stems of jasmine and decorating their home with fragrant blossoms. It was even held in recent years, despite the conflict that left thousands dead and millions displaced, with flowers given to those who lost loved ones.

“A Damascene moon travels through my blood
Nightingales . . . and grain . . . and domes
From Damascus, jasmine begins its whiteness
And fragrances perfume themselves with her scent
From Damascus, water begins . . . for wherever
You lean your head, a stream flows
And poetry is a sparrow spreading its wings
Over Sham . . . and a poet is a voyager,”

writes Qabbani in one of his most renowned poems, A Damascene Moon. He was born in Damascus in 1923 in the old neighborhood of Mi’thnah Al-Shahm, which you encounter time and again in his poems. Qabbani’s poems are romantic and political, erotic and lyrical, breaking conventions and offering a glimpse into his lively, rich imagination. Since 1966 and until his death in 1998, Qabbani has been living abroad, but in his exile he has produced some of his finest poems. The longing for the City of Jasmine gives his words a strong charge, and as I read them, I think of all the places that I miss, all of the colors, scents and voices that make up my memories. As someone who created a fantasy jasmine forest, to replace the real one far away, I feel a poignant kinship with the Syrian poet.

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