Graduated in psychology from the University of Exceter, Martin V. Turner (1948 – 2009) an educational psychologist, poet and translator. As a translator of a number of poems by Sohrab Sepehri along with his Iranian wife Farah and an Iranian poet, he wrote an introduction to the life and works of Sohrab a few years ago and published it online on his web page. We republish this archival piece on the birth anniversary of Sohrab as a tribute to both the poet and the late translator:
Even today, eight years after his death, one writes publicly about Sohrab Sepehri, who went to great lengths to avoid publicity, only with considerable scruple. Moving On – literally Mosafehr, the traveller or passer-by – is his next longest poem after Water’s Footfall;1 but it is perhaps the one which comes nearest to a personal statement of belief and, in Iran, lives and beliefs are inextricably implicated, especially in poetry: Sohrab himself advanced upon the course, the undertaking which he describes, so to attempt a sketch of the painter-poet’s life and person is perhaps a necessary hazard.
Until very recently, this foremost contemporary painter and writer was unknown, like most of his Persian fellow-artists, in the West. Some of his work is included in Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak’s Anthology of Modern Persian Poetry2 in literal translations. His paintings are largely in private hands, in Iran or in the diaspora of the Iranian intelligentsia. He is a colourist and his expressionistic patches and blurs of colour capture many of the themes – the poppy by the stream, the heat-hazed desert village – that recur in his poetry.
Sohrab was born in 1928 to an aristocratic family, landed, but perhaps somewhat in decline, from Kashan, an ancient city between Tehran and Isfahan in central Iran. The history of Kashan, beginning with the prehistoric settlement of Sialk, is governed by the appearance and disappearance of water-sources in earthquake country very arid and subject to extremes of temperature. Its development from an agricultural to a commercial society was gradual for, though on the trade-route from India to Cappadocia, Mesopotamia to Transoxania, Kashan suffered no Arab or Mongol invasions. The city’s seven domestic qanats or water-channels serve fifty or so mahallehs, districts jostling and quarrelling about the relative importance of contributions to the maintenance of the qanats by those higher up the supply-line, with copper-working and carpet-weaving shops dependent upon the water for their livelihood, and the poorest at the end of the conduits, by the town wall. The flow of water created and regulated this society from its beginnings.
Sohrab was actually born on a journey, in Qom, where his mother was travelling between Tehran and Kashan. His grandmother had published poetry and it is likely that Sohrab grew up in an ethos which upheld a literary culture. The family had kept its independence in the conflict between the district notables and thelutis, the brigands who were an important political force locally, and there was safety in independence. His father was employed in Kashan by the Indo-European Telegraph, a British-run institution which features largely in Edward Browne’s travel narrative of 1893, A Year Among The Persians. Sohrab’s father was a daftari, a literate, office-working person; he was also a craftsman of the traditional tar or lute and thus enlightened in a prevailing religious atmosphere. But he died when Sohrab was still young and Sohrab’s studies and career were supported by the efforts of his elder brother, Manuchehr: it is said that his mother later requested that, in signing his paintings, he add a mim (an m) to his own initials.
Sohrab was one of five children. His mother, a very devout person, would perhaps have liked her son to be a financial success and to marry, which he never did: he was extraordinarily shy and lived for his work, his message. Two daughters married rich men. But Sohrab’s mother took poetry seriously for his sake and wished for her sons the happiness they sought.
Sohrab grew up in Kashan, among all the life of the little markets where the mahallehs overlapped: bakers, grocers, teashops, public baths, mosque, caravanserai. These were the social focus of the town and in later life, though he was cultivated by the well-to-do and famous, this was often where Sohrab was to be found, talking in thick Kashi dialect in the carpenter’s shop.
At fifteen Sohrab had completed his primary and the three years of secondary education in Kashan, and at seventeen returned from two years of teacher-training in Tehran to enter the Kashan education service for a period of twenty-one months. After a high school literature diploma, he entered Tehran University Faculty of Fine Arts in 1948. Five years later he gained his master’s degree with distinction as the outstanding student. By then he had published his first three collections of poetry, By the Grass, 1949, The Death of Colour in 1951 and The Life of Dreams in 1953.
While a student Sohrab had worked for eight months for the National Oil Company of Iran and after graduating he was employed as a designer with the Institute of Health and Hygiene. In 1954 he worked in the Fine Art Department of the Museum of Culture and Art, teaching also in the Academy of Fine Arts. Again in 1958 he worked briefly in the audio-visual section of the Ministry of Agriculture Information Service but “would drink tea, chat, get bored with the atmosphere and leave”. In 1961 he resigned from all his governmental jobs. Aside from these interludes of employment, Sohrab supported himself by his painting, endured poverty when he had to, and travelled constantly.
Between 1953 and 1978 Sohrab showed his paintings in a total of seventeen group and fourteen individual exhibitions. He won first prize in Fine Arts in the Second Tehran Biennale in 1960, an early success, and in 1969 received mention of special merit in the International Festival of Painting in France. His paintings were seen in Venice, Sao Paolo, Le Havre, Paris, New York and Basle, as well as Tehran and Shiraz.
But Sohrab’s travels started even before he began to exhibit abroad. He studied lithography in Paris, walking miles to a restaurant’s once-weekly free meal for artists and picking up coins dropped by ladies tipping cab-drivers in the wealthier streets; and to Tokyo he travelled to learn wood-carving. On his way back from Japan in 1961 he visited India and the Taj Mahal for the first time, returning in 1964 to Bombay, Benares, Delhi, Agra and the Ajunta caves, followed by Kashmir and Pakistan – Lahore and Peshawar. Many of these journeys are reflected in his two long poems. In 1966 he travelled in Europe, taking in France, Spain, Holland, Italy and Austria. In 1970 he made the first of two trips to the United States, staying in Long Island and New York for seven months. His travels gave him a perspective on his mother-culture. To a friend he wrote from New York:
Iran has good mothers, wonderful food, bad intellectuals and beautiful plains.
In 1974 he visited Greece and Egypt. Towards the end of 1979 he came to London seeking in vain for a treatment (at the London Clinic) for the leukaemia which was to kill him.
After his early books (which he later disparaged) he published some translations of poems from the Japanese in Sokhan magazine in October 1955. In an introduction to the first edition of his fourth book, Torrent of Sun, in 1961, he explicitly addressed himself to the ideas about Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism which preoccupied him throughout his life and which were to find their fullest expression in Mosafehr (‘Moving On’). But he did not allow this preface to be reprinted. In the same year he brought out his fifth book, The East of Sorrow. In 1965 and 1966 followed the two long poems, ‘Water’s Footfall’ and ‘Moving On’, both published in the literary quarterly Arash. However, enormous public success came overnight with his Palpable Green in 1967. There was by then an audience receptive to a degree of surrealism. As Nothing We Gaze appeared in 1977 as a section of new poems within Eight Books, a collection which presented the complete and sometimes extensively revised texts of all his volumes of poetry except the first. It was to be his Collected Poems.
Initially, Sohrab’s poetry was not accorded a favourable reception from the intellectuals of the day: a shallow Marxist critique was fashionable. Rich people bought his paintings – though he would also give them away to friends. The Pahlavi court was a patron and, today, probably owns the largest collection of his work. There is a story that the Empress Farah wanted to attend the opening of one of Sohrab’s exhibitions but the artist was unwilling to wear a tie for the occasion. That was all right with the Shahbanou but the security officials were not convinced. Sohrab stayed away. Later, friends pressed him for a political interpretation of this event but he protested that he couldn’t understand why people should interest themselves in his tie.
The current of Marxist fashion among intellectuals of the day perhaps needs to be seen as an aspect of the gharbzadegi (in Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s title), the West-mania which has so polarised Iranian society. Friends of Sohrab from that period who were caught up in the attitudinising, “superficial” politics remember his endless tolerance for ways of life and habits of thought unfamiliar or strange: “He would listen to you for hours”. After a political harangue from such a friend he would “say a few words, trying not to embarrass you”. Of a famous Marxist sociologist of the day Sohrab said that he was a hamal, a carrier of other people’s ideas.
A small, thin man, Sohrab seldom drank but when he did he “drank properly”. Argument would turn on Sohrab’s attitude to modernity and its threatening technologies; in particular, to the passage in Sohrab’s poem ‘The Way to the Orchard’:
In these dark lanes I fear
match-flares and doubts
the cement-face of this century
fills me with dread.
Come, so I needn’t fear cities
where cranes graze the black earth.
In this era of steel’s ascendancy
open me like a window on
the full gravity of pears.
Lull me to sleep beneath a branch
far from the nightly grinding of metals
and wake me only if someone comes
who can unearth daylight ores.
Was the poet against the march of civilisation, the enemy of the new achievements? No, affirmed Sohrab, he felt no hatred for the cranes nor the cranes’ builders. But they shouldn’t pollute his motherland. It was the way these technologies were used that was the important thing. Sohrab was in fact modern in thought and habit, and a meticulous dresser.
The radicalised intelligentsia argued with Sohrab and took issue with him incessantly – but they read everything he published! Sohrab liked to encourage discussion and cheerful, lively debate, but after a while would laugh and extricate himself. He was passionately curious. If someone asserted that a certain industrialist was sucking people’s blood he would want to know: How do you know this?
A few miles outside Kashan is a village, Mashad-e-Ardehal, which Sohrab consistently refused invitations to visit. The village is the site of a pre-Islamic agricultural ceremony and fair and, also, of a saint’s shrine. In late 1979 he had been reading Adorno in French, a language he knew well, and planning a fictional work in French set in Eznaveh, a story about Kamal-al-Mulk, a painter whom Sohrab considered had deflected Iranian painting from its true course. (This piece is at present being edited for publication.) He travelled to London in December, very ill with leukaemia. Weekly blood transfusions left him as thin as a string. He asked for Fritzhof Capra’s The Tao of Physics but he did not live to finish it. With no improvement in sight, he stormed and begged to be allowed to return to Kashan to die. He got only as far as Pars Hospital, Tehran, where he died on 21st April 1980. The next day he was buried in the courtyard of the mausoleum of the saint in Mashad-e-Ardehal, the village he had not wanted to set foot in when alive. The shrine, at a prosperous crossing-point of two routes, offered an expectation of safety in revolutionary times. A calligrapher friend of the poet inscribed on a stone the concluding lines of Sohrab’s poem, ‘Oasis In a Moment’, which the poet had himself chosen for epitaph:
If you’re calling on me,
approach very gently
lest you crack the delicate
porcelain of my solitude.
But to this date the stone has not been placed on his grave.
If the foregoing details still leave the figure of Sohrab somewhat elusive, what else, one asks, can be added to the small heap of facts and gossip? Only the work. Indeed, in such a poem as ‘Moving On’ the voice of the poet may be heard more clearly than in his own lifetime, speaking a distilled speech about the journey, the way, the message, the experience.
The format of the poem is a long dialogue which takes place between the poet and the friend at whose house, in the resort area of the Caspian Sea, the poet arrives after a long journey for what will be, one imagines, only a brief respite. The traveller and his host converse. The traveller is more seasoned in the ways of the world outside, and attempts to share his superior understandings, though much of the poem is a semi-private monologue. His friend the host has played safe, not strayed too far, and has a positive attitude. But he respects his visitor’s complexity and allows himself to be enthralled by the atmosphere of his talking, which he encourages.
The narrative is the journey and the journey is the narrative. But within this framework a distinctive world is brought to birth, whose features the reader will be able to identify without too much trouble. There is the painterly quest for forms and the almost physical reaction to hue, tone and texture. There are references to Mesopotamia and the lands of the eastern Mediterranean: the garden of Eden and the myth of the Fall are broached early in the poem. But the climax is an encounter with Eve herself (though she is not named) towards the end of the poem. The hoopoe, guide to the thirty birds in their search for the Simurgh – the universal bird – in Attar’s
Conference of the Birds,3 is apostrophised early in the narration, to suggest the context of the quest and the figure of the physical journey. Reference is made also to the story of Sohrab and Rustum from the national epic of early modern Persian, Firdausi’s Shahnameh or Book of Kings. This heroic epic is important for one of the details which Matthew Arnold, in his Homerisation of the tale, leaves out: the nooshdaru or magical antidote which will save Sohrab, his son, whom the mighty warrior Rustum has unwittingly but mortally wounded. In the original, a messenger is despatched to fetch it from Rustum’s king but returns empty-handed because the king has once again been “too stupid” to comply with Rustum’s request. Rustum himself sets out to obtain the antidote but by the time he returns with it it is too late: Sohrab is dead.
The poet goes in search of forms but the forms themselves are only premonitions or vestiges of a reality which the artist must indicate. Eve herself, whose moment of carelessness “colours all life”, is the most serious of the episodes which lie in wait to divert the traveller from his path. Casually she deflects his frantic appeals for a Cubist geometry. There is a redemptive collision. All the violence of exploding life is at this moment equated with the nothingness, the Zen Buddhist void, the Taoist emptiness, the “hoof-mark filled with water” that Cyril Connolly noted in The Unquiet Grave, in the poem’s intense but ambiguous conclusion.
Sohrab is anything but other-worldly. The range and penetration of his activities reveal his life to be the reverse of the hermit’s. The celebration of sensuous experience, which makes of every reader a painter, brings one into close contact with momentary experience and makes this poem a poem of consciousness. But undeniably through it all, as through all Sohrab’s great poems, can be heard a siren-call, a summons to a journey of discovery and self-discovery, of pleasure and exploration. The poet is sternly explicit about the wounds that love invites. But then there is the nooshdaru, the remedy. We are half-convinced, we are beguiled, we begin to make allowances. We reflect: the poem itself has become a kind of remedy, an alternative track in a world strained with a lack of poetry, perished with the lack of vision. It is what we are needing: nooshdaru for the hierarchies of dominance, nooshdaru to self-assertiveness, nooshdaru to competitive efficiency, nooshdaru to the power-struggles of the ego and the nation-state. Here it is, the antidote, the remedy, available for us, provided by the shy, self-effacing, gently laughing poet.
I am grateful to Mr Ali Razavi, Sohrab’s friend and fellow Kashani, for entrusting me with his detailed recollections of Sohrab and for his scholarly account of the history and prehistory of Kashan.
1. See Comparative Criticism vol. 8, Cambridge University Press, July 1986, for Abbas Faiz’ and my translation of this poem.
2. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado: 1978.
3. A classic of Sufism, available in an excellent recent translation for Penguin Books by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi.