Niloofar Fanaiyan’s anthology Transit speaks eloquently to the diasporic heart. This is poetry that takes us from the jingling camel bells of desert caravans to the chaotic scramble of modern airports – we watch oceans and mountains from plane windows, we feel the pain of departure, the joy of reunion, the anxiety of waiting and the confusing muddle of emotions involved in moving from one place to another. The poems range from quirky scraps of wisdom (vibrant prayer flags) to slices of lyrical prose and some beautiful verse.
The anthology opens with a tiny (five line) reminder list titled: Leaving. Beneath the peremptory instructions is a whimsical tone culminating in the final two lines: Don’t forget to say goodbye/ Hide the key. The sly humour in the line: don’t forget the camera (and three lenses) is echoed in Fanaiyan’s longer poem: The luggage was packed. Here the idea of lost luggage is artfully subverted – it is the luggage that owns the humans: It took at least two suitcases to carry one person…The luggage was packed, and ready for new holding rooms, ready? To be worn down slowly, / from border to border, from coast to coast, / perhaps shedding a person or two/ along the way.
Fanaiyan’s poetry is scattered with jewel bright images – ethereal and sumptuous but also prosaic and authentic. Salt, stars, dreams, hearts and caravans jostle against phones, screens, travelators, passports and suitcases. The hectic panic of airports, your mind is mist-laden with the lingering effects of sleep / as you dodge the caravan of seven / with their fourteen items of luggage is juxtaposed against the dream like quality of gazing out of a plane window: The mountains fall away into lakes of soft misty clouds – vales of dreams – hiding worlds within… Stars, birds and night lights blur into one impression: the disappearance of birds beyond the blue line, / smattering of stars blending into night lights; the immediate reality of air travel melds seamlessly with romantic images of camel caravans: They say the caravan travels to Sistan…flying home we pass over/ Sistan with its store houses of silk; and an ancient Persian word (Khodahafiz) threads its way into a contemporary farewell at a busy airport. One of the loveliest examples of this contrast between simple narrative and luminous metaphor is the poem Salt and cucumber. Fanaiyan’s treatment of the connection between two travellers, through the sharing of an unremarkable food, turns an ordinary interaction into a tender and glowing moment: two rough hands broke / the cucumber in half…two grains of salt/ lingered on her lower lip like/ two lost stars…
This anthology is redolent with fragrance and flavours and incandescent with light and colour. We are overwhelmed by the scent and taste of hyacinths, thyme, lavender, bergamot, cardamom, lilac, pomegranate, cucumber, coffee, butter, decaying foliage, sea breeze and mud and we are dazzled by greenery that sparkles like moss in a rainforest, many shades of blue sea, a turquoise baby blanket, a sun shower sliding against a sunlit window, echoes of light, ruby drops, tears of autumn. Fanaiyan understands that when the self is shifted, shaken and transformed small moments become profoundly significant: city lights, beige deserts, tall palm trees, the warm smell of garlic and butter, smoke heavy laden with eucalypt, the salt of tears, the smell of leather and metal, colours dragging at the corner of my eye.
Fanaiyan’s Persian heritage is evident throughout this book. A handful of pages are embellished with the delicate calligraphy and poignant sweetness of excerpts from traditional ghazals and verses by famous Persian poets. The most moving of these is: The caravan has arrived and my beloved is not among the travellers, / I will not tell my heart this tale for my heart cannot bear it. This heart breaking little verse by Shahriar mirrors so many of the devastating moments, in Fanaiyan’s poems, when people are forced to leave their homelands and their loved ones: ..her shadow sees explosions in the distance, / feels the ground tremble…last night they told her to stay and wai t/ before they disappeared into the dark/ but last night was a thousand years ago. And: we packed our hearts in a homespun purse… left our songs by the last door / left our paintings by the last window…silence carried us far but far was near.”
The haunting melody of Persian words is woven through a few of the poems in this anthology. Pomegranates, Song of the Caravan and Secrets of salt contain the music of two languages. I have heard Niloofar Faniyan perform a couple of these poems and the sound of her mother tongue harmonising with English syllables is mesmerizingly beautiful.
The poems in Transit speak to those of us who have moved between worlds, but more importantly they remind us that our humanity transcends all boundaries.
Dastam ra begir, chashmha ra
beband, del be del rah darad –
take my hand, close your eyes,
hearts lead to hearts
– excerpt from Secrets of salt by Niloofar Fanaiyan
© Anita Patel, 2016