The Aesthetic of Desire and the Feminine Path of Individuation

The Case of Forough Farrokhzad

in Anthropology of the Middle East
Author:
Mahdieh Vali-Zadeh PhD Candidate, Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto, Canada mah.vali@mail.utoronto.ca

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Abstract

Much has been said about the influential role of Forough Farrokhzad (1934–1967) in developing a feminine language in modern Iranian love poetry. Despite this, scholars have not systematically or theoretically examined what I call ‘the poetics of individuation’ in Forough's lyrics. The present article analyses Forough's poetic and individual paths of development as two inevitably parallel and intertwined routes. The article theorises that by removing a pre-imposed patriarchal sense of sin with regard to feminine love, Forough deconstructed the masculine narrative of good poetry in five highly significant ways via the feminine and self gaze. The article concludes that the poet's commitment to poetry as a platform of expression was a means of her liberation and individuation as an independent feminine poet with voice and agency.

I saw that I was set free
I saw that I was set free
I saw that love expansion caused my body skin to crack
I saw that my fiery pile melted slowly
And poured, poured, poured in the moon
The moon sitting in the dimple, the dim shivering moon …
(dīdam kih mī-raham
dīdam kih mī-raham
dīdam ke pūst-i tanam az inbisāṭ-i ʿishq tarak mī-khurad
dīdam kih ḥajm-i ātashīnam āhistih āb shud
va rīkht, rīkht, rīkht dar māh
māh-i bih guwdī nishastih, māh-i munqalib-i tār…)1
—Forough Farrokhzad, ‘The Union’ (Vaṣl), 20092

Much has been said about the influential role of the female Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad (Furūq Farrukhzād, 1935–1967) in developing a feminine language in modern Iranian love poetry. Forough Farrokhzad was a ‘modernist poet’ (as well as a filmmaker) and an ‘iconoclast’ (Daniel 2006: 81–82). ‘Able to become one of Iran's key figures of the twentieth-century’ (Milani 2016: 2), she wrote from a ‘female point of view’ (Afary 2009: 283), that is, she took ‘the exclusive meaning of good poet out of the hands of middle-aged men’, bound ‘the feminine language, mind, body, and soul with Persian literature, and change[d] its face forever and ever’ (Milani 2016: 2). She stood out for ‘her womanhood’ in poetry and ‘spoke as a woman’ (M. T. 1968: 52). Despite noticing Forough's distinctive role in the feminine expression of love and her poetic development since her early poems, scholars have barely systematically or theoretically examined what I call ‘the poetics of individuation’ in Forough's lyrics and her developmental path related to the expression of love. To fill this gap, the focus of the current article is on analysing the developmental aesthetic of desire in Forough's poems, along with her path of individuation as a woman with agency and voice.

This article starts with the aesthetic of sin, where Forough recycles the masculine narrative of sin in her own way, particularising and feminising it. The article then analyses five highly significant ways through which Forough deconstructed Persian patriarchal poetry: showing the agency of the feminine and her active role in choosing a masculine object of love; using innovative images to describe masculine objects of desire and her love affairs with them; manipulating style to express feminine sensations in the experience of the erotic and the sexual; mystifying the erotic as irrevocably worldly in feminine experience; and incorporating innovative images to describe her own corporeality and present her own feminine body as the main object of poetic description, all via the feminine and self gaze. The article concludes that by removing imposed patriarchal shame and guilt resulting from the stains of sin, the feminine subject celebrates the centrality of her own femininity and embraces her own sexuality, which also contributes to her poetic maturation. Counting poetry as a platform for the feminine poet to achieve recognition of the feminine body, sensations and passionate desires, the article illustrates the following point: that the purpose of this platform is not just to catch the heart of a male beloved or even to narcissistically self-represent, but to challenge pre-imposed, male-dominant societal and religious norms with regard to women and to achieve individuation as an independent woman and a poet with voice and agency.

The Aesthetic of Sin: A Developmental Path

Sin (gunāh), a term tightly intertwined with religious beliefs in Persian culture, is a recurrent theme in Forough Farrokhzad's poems, particularly in her early career. For earlier classical Persian poets (male, needless to say), sin was a religious phenomenon that would occur against religious rules. For Malāmatī poets (see endnote 3) and even Hafiz (Hāfiẓ, the fourteenth-century Persian poet), who showed Malāmatī tendencies, committing sins in public was a matter of spiritual maturation and a process of growth in the developmental path of inner journey, and hence of a religious dynamic.3 Despite this, for Forough, liberation from sin became a very individual and personal path, which occurred against the rules of a patriarchal society, and thus became a matter of feminine activism. This liberating path as a woman became parallel with her poetic development as a poet who was admired not only for her courageous expression of feminine love and desire, but also for her astonishing stylistic innovations and contributions. Indeed, both of these parallel paths in Forough's personal and poetic life started with sin (specific biographical information about Forough's sins and life events will follow). From believing that she committed a sin in her love affairs to mocking the pre-imposed rules regarding women and ultimately explicitly rebelling against those rules, Forough showed a developmental approach to the sin of falling in love and making love in her early career. In three of her major early poems – ‘The Sin’, ‘The Farewell’ and ‘The Rebellion’ – she engaged seriously with the theme of sin and showed maturation in her thinking about this concept, individuating as a woman in her early twenties.

Although Forough was already publishing poetry, it was with the appearance of ‘The Sin’ (Gunāh) that ‘she gained popularity and achieved abrupt public recognition’ (Milani 2016: 81). Forough was at the threshold of 20 years of age when she published ‘The Sin’ in 1955. It is a poem in which Forough describes outright the pleasure of a sexual encounter of hers, which turned out to be extramarital. Born in Tehran in January 1935, she had married Parviz Shapour (Parvīz Shāpūr, 1923–1999), an Iranian artist, satirist and man of letters who was 12 years older than her, when she was only 16 years old. Although she fell in love with Shapour initially, her marriage and her roles as a wife and a mother were not satisfactory to her. She described her extramarital love affair in ‘The Sin’, a poem whose appearance ‘caused a scandal and led to her divorce’ (Kossaifi 2003: 157). Homayoun Katouzian (Humāyūn Kātūzīyān) states that ‘The Sin’ is ‘one of Forough's most well-known poems but certainly not among her best’ (2000: 264). Yet the reason for the poem's popularity and significance is its rebellious content: ‘the poet cries out her rage and fury’; ‘she does what she likes, regardless of the familial or societal rules’ (ibid.: 268). The fact that ‘The Sin’ is one of Forough's best-known poems is indicative of the sympathy that Iranian people have with this poem.

Via a psychoanalytic approach, Katouzian (2000) reads ‘The Sin’ and other poems of Forough's that engage with the concept of sin as revealing a father complex: growing up with a strict and conservative father (Colonel Muhammad Farrokhzad) who would barely show his love, Forough was yearning for fatherly love, searching for it in the arms of male lovers. The kindness of her housewife mother, Touran Vaziri (Tūrān Vazīrī), could hardly soften the harshness and authority of a military father. The fourth of seven siblings, Forough was aware of the liberty that the Pahlavi reign was giving to women, particularly as the family was living in Tehran, Iran's capital city. Thus, ‘dealing with middle-class and semi-bourgeois families of her own and her first husband's, Forough sought the liberty of women amongst all conservative limitations’ (Marvi 2019). ‘The Sin’ is Forough's story of a ‘pleasurable sin’ – that of her love affair – mocking the extremely strict patriarchal rules on the feminine body. The young and immature Forough, though, as Katouzian writes, still ‘believed that she was committing a sin, but she did it anyway’ (2000: 268). The peak of such a belief manifests at the end of the poem, when the speaker murmurs, ‘I know not what I did, God’ (Khudāvandā! Nimīdānam chih kardam) (Farrokhzad 1957: 4, line 24). Despite all the internal complexes and conflicts, by committing ‘a sin all filled with pleasure’ (Gunāhī pur zih lizzat) (ibid.: line 1), the speaker counted her own right to enjoy sexual pleasure, even when this was an absolute taboo according to the rules of Islam, and subsequently the unwritten cultural societal rules of Iran as it was then.

The poem's first-person narrative is representative of a strong, courageous voice which announces ‘the sin’ that the speaker committed and her decision not to hide it ‘in that dim and quiet place of seclusion’ (Dar ān khalvatgah-i tārīk-u khāmūsh), although she could (ibid.: line 4). Forough counted her right to freely express her sexual arousal, with a ‘heart throbbed’ in a ‘chest all too excited’ (Dilam dar sīnih bītābānah larzid) (ibid.: line 7); she recounted the story of the ‘lips that poured lust on’ her ‘lips’ (Labash bar rūy-i labhāyam havas rīkht) (ibid.: line 11), and she even described the moments of her orgasm without fear: ‘My body trembled in intoxication over his’ (Tan-i man … bih rūy-i sīnah-ash mastānih larzīd) (ibid.: line 20).4 While married and with a child, the young Forough had an affair in 1954 with Naser Khodayar (Nāṣīr Khudāyār) – the chief editor of a literary magazine at the time – before she turned 20 years old (Milani 2016: 90). Narrating the story of her passionate love affair in the form of a lyric poem, she then published it in the same magazine. Forough sinned to experience the forbidden and to individuate as a woman – a woman who was not submissive and could leave her marriage when it was not satisfying. No wonder this poem caused the controlling, patriarchal society of Iran to become so furious that they called her the ‘whore poetess’, even in the official press (Milani 2016: 118–124).

It was not just religious people who became furious with Forough's rebellion, but her male colleagues as well. Regarding the extremist reaction toward Forough and her erotic poetry, I have no choice but to delve into Linda Hutcheon's discussion of the ‘mixing of the political with the sexual’ in the representation of the body (Hutcheon 1989: 144). Hutcheon draws readers’ attention to the issue of ‘politicizing desire’ (ibid.: 141) and notes how ‘the politics of representation becomes an issue’ (ibid.: 143). Hutcheon then poses a thought-provoking question: ‘What system of power authorises some representations while suppressing others?’ (ibid.). The religious has long been, and still is, a major part of Iranian history, life and politics. In such a context, women were required to be sexually submissive, with no rights to express their sexual desires outright. Milani states that Forough's ‘issue was not only with those who claimed to be the protectors of religion and tradition; most of the intellectuals – men, women, young, or old – were also unable to accept her independence’ (2016: 124). The only justification for intellectuals to reject a female intellectual can be their conditioning in a patriarchal power system, leading them to perceive feminine desires as sin.

With regard to sin, in a later poem, still from her early period, Forough takes an ironic and angry tone against the patriarchal rules of her society, writing:

I swear to God, I'll take my passionate and mad heart out of your city
I'll take it to some far place
so I wash the colour of sin from it
so I wash the stain of love from it
so I wash all these pointless corrupted desires from it
(bih khudā mī-baram az shahr-i shumā
dil-i shūrīdih-u dīvānih-yi khīsh
mī-baram, tā kih dar ān nuqtih-yi dūr
shustushū-yash daham az rang-i gunāh
shustushū-yash daham az lakih-yi ʿishq
zīn hamih khawhish-i bī jā-u tabāh)
(‘The Farewell’, Vidāʿ, 2009: 22, lines 3–8)

In fact, for Forough, feminine love and desires become the meaning of sin and the concept of disobedience. Whereas in religious narratives, the ultimate aim is to repent and thus regain the lost paradise through obedience and piety, Forough mocks and ridicules such an aim:

Seclusion, silence, a book, and a poem
These are the intoxication and drunkenness of life to me
No concern if I am not allowed in the paradise
I have an eternal paradise in my own heart’
(Kitābī, khalvatī, shiʿrī, sukūti
marā masti-u sikr-i zindigānist
chih gham gar dar bihishtī rah nadāram
kih dar qalbam bihishtī jāvidānist)
(‘The Rebellion’, ʿUṣyān, 2009: 35, lines 21–24).

And she continues:

Do not ask me to have good reputation, O, man!
infamy and disgrace have endowed me with intoxicating pleasures;
God will forgive me, that God who
has given a mad heart to the poet’
(bih dūr afkan ḥadis-i nām, ay mard
kih nangam lizzatī mastānih dādih
marā mī-bakhshad ān parvardigārī
kih shāʿir rā dilī dīvānih dādih) (ibid.: 36, lines 33–36).

The move from the serious tone in ‘The Sin’ to an ironic one in ‘The Farewell’ and a rebellious one in ‘The Rebellion’ illustrates the developmental and liberating path of the poet away from patriarchal values.

Homayoun Katouzian (2000: 282) contends that the 20-year-old Forough's feeling of shame due to having committed an unforgivable sin transforms into a sense of ‘responsibility’ that the poet shows ‘a little before she turns twenty-five’, when she asserts in a poem that ‘I regret not’ (Man pashīmān nīstam). It is only the beginning of her individuation as a woman who can think, decide and act with no sense of guilt. Liberation from guilt brings much innovation in Forough's later poetic creation. Her Rebirth (Tavalludī Dīgar) – one of her two last volumes – represents her rebirth as a woman and as a poet both. Her last two volumes were published after she started her amorous relationship with Ebrahim Golestan (Ibrāhīm Gulistān, 1922–), a prominent Iranian filmmaker and literary figure. Their relationship began in 1958 and lasted until the end of Forough's short life. Forough's letters addressed to Golestan show the depth of her feelings for him (see Milani 2016). People usually ascribe Forough's poetic mastery in her last two volumes to her relationship with Golestan, as a result of which Forough was able to familiarise herself with the latest contemporary literary and artistic movements. Although this may be true, I offer that liberation from guilt and not being preoccupied with the heavy load of sin while writing her later volumes gave Forough the required mental space to focus on her art and creativity. Instead of always viewing a man as a source of motivation, inspiration or fear (whether it be her lovers, her husband or her father), let us think of the responsibility and agency that this female poet showed towards her personal and poetic development, courageously challenging and deconstructing many of the patriarchal pillars of Iranian poetry and society.

The Agency of the Feminine Subject and The Semiotic Mechanism of Gender Positioning: Various Deconstructions

The question of subject is ‘central to feminist theory’ (Hekman 1995: 194), which is an ‘attempt to open up the category of the subject to include women’ (ibid.: 194). ‘Feminism seeks a subjective identity, a sense of effective agency and history for women which has hitherto been denied by the dominant culture’ (Waugh 1989: 9). Feminism, in fact, looks at agency as ‘an identity’ of ‘a sense of personal autonomy’ for women (ibid.: 6). When it comes to a feminine subject who creates art or literary work, this transformed sense of agency can contribute to the deconstruction of patriarchal literary or artistic norms, accepted by the system of power. This is why so-called ‘literary texts written by women’ deconstruct ‘rigid norms and forms related to genre’ (Havercroft 1995: 22). ‘This deconstruction, which can manifest in many texts originated in diverse linguistic, social, cultural, and political contexts, can take rather various forms’ (ibid.), a phenomenon that Linda Hutcheon has theorised as deconstructing ‘the semiotic mechanisms of gender positioning’ (1989: 143). In this regard, Forough deconstructed the masculine narrative of good poetry in the long tradition of Persian literary history in five significant ways: by showing the agency of the feminine and her active role in choosing a masculine object of love; by using innovative images to describe masculine objects of love and her love affairs with them; by manipulating style to express feminine sensations in the experience of the erotic and the sexual; by mystifying the erotic as irrevocably worldly in feminine experience; and by incorporating innovative images to describe her own corporeality and present her own body as the main object of poetic description, all via the feminine and self gaze.

The Agency of the Feminine

Forough showed the agency of the feminine, and her active role in choosing and drawing in her masculine lover without waiting for the male subject to choose her, from her very early poems:

That moon has seen that I have soften
his stoned heart by the magic of my affection
that moon has seen that those tears of longing
shivered in those two wild and alien-colour eyes
(ān māh dīdih ast kih man narm kardih-am
bā jādū-yi muḥabbat-i khud qalb-i sang-i ʾū
ān māh dīdih ast kih larzīdih ashk-i shuq
dar ān du chashm-i vaḥshi-u bīgānih-rang-i ū)
(‘Remembering the Past’, Yādī az Guzashtih, 2009: 18, lines 9–12)

In this poem from Forough's very first volume, by using the first person as the subject of the first line, the female speaker announces that it was the ‘I’ of the feminine who ‘soften[ed]’ the masculine lover's heart. It was the same feminine ‘I’ who caused ‘tears of longing’ to ‘shiver’ in the eyes of the masculine stranger. Many instances of such a concept are visible in Forough's poems. In this regard, Milani states that ‘Forough was neither passive, nor submissive … She did not like being indecisive … She was in [a] fight with the predetermined frameworks that required women to be inactive and modest, in theory and in practice … She did not want to be an ethereal or a doll woman’ (2016: 123). Having such agency, particularly once she liberated herself from shame and guilt, Forough needed to develop a different kind of aesthetics in order to describe her feelings and thoughts in the form of poetry.

Feminine Love Affairs and Masculine Objects of Love

The Persian lyric poetic tradition before Forough revolved mainly around describing feminine objects of desire suspended between real and ethereal states (to describe the divine absolute). The semiotics of such poetic language would represent long, curly and wavy hair, soft faces, thin waists, long legs, arc-like eyebrows and shiny black eyes. When describing his object of love, for example, Hafiz wrote:

One night, in the darkness, from thy tress, my heart I sought.
Thy face, I beheld; and a cup of thy ruby lip, I drank.
Suddenly, thee, into my bosom, I drew; and, into the curl of thy tress, it went:
on thy lip, my lip I placed; and, soul and heart, made sacrifice
(shabī dil rā bih tārīkī zih zulfat bāz mī-justam
rukhat mī-dīdam-u jāmī hilālī bāz mī-khurdam
kishīdam dar barat nāgāh-u shud dar tāb gīsu-yat
nahādam bar labat lab rā-u jān-u dil fadā kardam)
(2014: 323, no. 318, lines 6–7)

And elsewhere, of a more ethereal woman, Hafiz noted:

That mouth, no trace whereof I see, is naught:
that waist is only a hair, and I know not what that hair is.5
A lifetime it is since I perceived the perfume of thy tress
yet, in the perfume place of my heart, the perfume of that perfume is
(hīch ast ān dahān-u na-bīnam azū nishān
mūy ast ān mīyān-u na-dānam kih ān chih mūst
ʿumrīst tā zih zulf-i tu būyī shinīdih-am
zān būy dar mashām-i dil-i man hanūz būst)
(2014: 62, no. 59, lines 4 and 7)6

If for Hafiz and other male Persian poets prior to Forough, beauty equalled the softness of the feminine, for Forough, it had a different meaning. Forough's feminine agency contributed to the deconstruction of the semiotics related to these patriarchal norms. Taking the gaze out of the masculine narrative and feminising it, Forough deconstructed poetic images and erotically and boldly represented masculine lovers via the feminine gaze. She depicted not an otherworldly and ethereal divine masculine, but a very earthly and real masculine object of desire – a real man, a lover. See, for example, selected lines from different parts of the poem ‘My Beloved’ (Maʿshūq-i Man):

My beloved
With that shameless naked body
On his long strong legs
Stood like death …
Those restless oblique lines
Follow his indomitable limbs
In their firm shape …
My beloved …
He is wildly free
Like a flawlessly perfect instinct
Amidst the depth of an uninhabited island …
He
is a man from past centuries …
A reminder of the nobility of beauty …
My beloved
Is a simple human being,
A simple human being …
(Maʿshūq-i Man
bā ān tan-i birahnih-yi bī sharm
bar sāq-hā-yi nīrūmandash / chūn marg īstād …
Khat-hā-yi bī-qarār-i muvarrab
andām-hā-yi ʿāṣī-yi ū rā
dar ṭarḥi-ustvārash
dunbāl mī-kunand …
Maʿshūq-i Man …
ū vaḥshīyānih āzād ast
mānand-i yik gharīzih-yi sālim
dar ʿumq-I yik jazirih-yi nā-maskūn …
ū
mardīst az
qurūn-i guzashtih
yādāvar-i iṣālat-i zībāyī …
Maʿshūq-i Man
insān-i sādih-īst / insān-sādih-ī …)
(2009: 232–235)

Forough's semiotic system shows no uncertainty about the nature of her beloved, despite the unclear nature of the male poets’ beloveds, suspended between a divine, ethereal and a real, feminine entity. Forough explicitly announces that her beloved is ‘a man’, ‘a simple human being’. To foreground her feminine voice and give agency to the expression of feminine desire, she has to creatively use a language that is expressive of a masculine object of love. ‘Shameless, naked body’, ‘strong legs’, ‘restless oblique lines’ and ‘indomitable limbs’ have nothing to do with the soft and delicate language of the tradition of Persian lyric poetry. The sharpness of Forough's imagery is indicative of the sharpness of her decision to showcase feminine desire via the feminine gaze.

Another instance of an erotically constructed image representing a masculine object of desire from Forough's period of poetic maturity comes in ‘Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season’ (Īmān Bīyāvarīm bah Āqāz-i Faṣl-i Sard), a poem that many believe to be Forough's best. Here is a short fragment of this long poem:

And a man is passing by the wet trees
A man whose blue strings of veins
Like two dead serpents from the two sides of his throat
Have crept up
And in his shivering temples,
They are restating that bloody syllable:
– Hi
– Hi
And I think of mating flowers …
(va mardī kih kinār-i dirakhtān-i khīs mī-guzarad
mardī kih rishtih-hā-yi ābī-yi rag-hāyash
mānand-i mār-hā-yi mudih az du sū-yi galūgāhash
bālā khazidih-and
va dar shaqīqih-hā-yi munqalibash ān hijā-yi khūnīn rā
tikrār mī-kunand
– salām
– salām
va man bih juft-gīrī-yi gul-hā mī-andisham)
(2009: 308, lines 22–30)

The image in this fragment is fairly erotic, with the two phallic forms at its heart: the serpents (mārhā). Serpents in Persian culture and literature can symbolise death, carnality and Satanic temptations (ʿĀli 2011). In Forough's poem, interestingly, the serpents signify both carnality and death: they have crept up, reminiscent of a moving phallus during the act of penetration, but they are lifeless enough not to engage with the feminine speaker. Accurate visual imageries create an alive and easily imaginable picture, which ends with the thought of ‘mating flowers’ expressed by the feminine speaker of the poem. There is no image of intercourse or a union; however, by giving erotic images to describe a man physically passing by ‘wet trees’ (‘wet’ itself has sexual connotation) and by ending the segment with the image of ‘mating flowers’, Forough achieves another deconstruction. In this fragment, there is the image of ‘a’ man – presumably, an unknown man. It is, of course, not hard to imagine that men are visual creatures and can be sexually aroused by seeing someone of whom they absolutely know nothing; however, the reverse might be less common, particularly in poetry. The feminine speaker, though, stating that she is ‘thinking of mating flowers’, makes readers think of a mating between the feminine speaker of the poem and the masculine stranger passing by: a deconstruction of the stereotypical understanding of how feminine sexuality works.

In another poem, ‘The Union’, describing a sexual encounter, Forough writes: ‘I saw that he billowed on all my being / like fire flames / like water reflection / like a cloud in the seizure of rains / like a sky from warm seasons’ breath’ (dīdam kih bar sarāsar-i man muj mī-zanad / chūn hurm-i surkh-gūnih-yi ātash / chūn ʾinʿikās-i āb / chūn abrī az tashannuj-i bārān-hā / chūn āsimānī az nafas-i faṣl-hā-yi garm) (‘The Union’, Vaṣl, 2009: 215, lines 5–9). Christine Kossaifi writes, ‘the narrative, which is in the simple past and the first person, is first marked by the observation of pleasure, described by a series of comparisons that equate man with fire and water’ (2003: 161). Not only are ‘fire’ and ‘water’ erotic images, which Forough uses as metaphors to describe her masculine lover, they are also accompanied by strong and intense modifiers such as ‘flames’ and ‘the seizure of rains’ to describe the virility of this masculine lover who is giving pleasure to the feminine speaker of the poem.

Mystifying the Erotic as Irrevocably Worldly in Feminine Experience

In addition to the significance of images, another way in which Forough deconstructs the semiotic system of Persian lyric poetry in this poem is through her mystification of the erotic. Whereas in the tradition of Persian mystic poetry, poets classically and over a long time developed a language to eroticise the mystical so that they could erotically represent sublimated mystic experiences, Forough first demystifies love and makes it particular, earthly and of her own story. She then mystifies the erotic to show the amount of intimacy in the sexual experience under description. ‘The Union’ contains many mystical symbols to describe the erotic:

Those dark pupils, Aah!
those secluded simple Sufis of mine
in the rapture of the whirling dance of his two eyes
were fainted
I saw that he billowed on all my being
like fire flames
like water reflection
like a cloud in the seizure of rains
like a sky from warm seasons’ breath
to the infinite
beyond life
he was spread …
I saw that I was set free
I saw that I was set free
I saw that love expansion caused my body skin to crack
I saw that my fiery pile
melted slowly
and poured, poured, poured
in the moon, the moon sitting in the dimple, the dim shivering moon
we were in tears in each other
in each other we had lived madly
all that transitory moment of union
(Ān tīrih mardumak-ha, āh
ān sūfīyān-i sādih-yi khalvat nishin-i man
dar jazbih-yi samāʿ-i du chishmānash
az hush raftih būdand
Dīdam ke bar sarāsar-i man muj mī-zanad
chun hurm-i surkh gunih-yi ātash
chūn ʾinʿikās-i āb
chūn abrī az tashannuj-i bārān-hā
chūn āsimānī az nafas-i faṣl-hā-yi garm
tā bī-nahāyat
tā ānsū-yi ḥayāt
gustardih būd ū…
Dīdam kih mī-raham
Dīdam kih mī-raham
Dīdam ke pūst-i tanam az inbisāṭ-i ʿishq tarak mī-khurad
dīdam kih ḥajm-i ātashīnam
āhistih āb shud
va rīkht, rīkht, rīkht
dar māh, māh-i bih guwdī nishastih, māh-i munqalib-i tār
dar yikdigar girīstih būdim
dar yikdigar laḥẓih-yi bi-ʾiʿtibār-i vaḥdat rā
dīvānih-vār zīstih būdim)
(2009: 215–217, lines 1–12 and 31–40)

Certain words and phrases in the above poem make the whole work seemingly mystical but irrevocably worldly. Some examples are ‘Sufis’, a term used to refer to mystics, metaphorically used here to personify the eyes of the feminine speaker in longing for and seeking her beloved, the masculine lover;7 ‘rapture’, a moment of mystical union, used erotically here to illustrate the union of two lovers’ gazes; ‘whirling dance’, a Sufi ritual employed to achieve the state of spiritual ecstasy; ‘infinite’, a word for the divine absolute, here used to show the limitlessness of the trance state resulting from sexual pleasure; ‘love expansion’, associated with Persian Love Mysticism and the larger consciousness of a Sufi-mystic, here used to describe the feeling of expansion that comes with the pre-climactic and climactic sensations during an orgasm; and ultimately, the ‘moment of union’ (laḥẓah-yi vaḥdat), the culmination of every other word and phrase in mystical terminology, union with the absolute, used here to describe the moment of climax that the two lovers experience in each other's arms.

Manipulating Style to Express Feminine Sensations in the Experience of the Erotic and the Sexual

To express her passionate desires and sensations, Forough takes advantage of style in order to present her feminine feelings in the best possible way. One example is the above poem, ‘The Union’. The free style of the poem gives the poet the freedom to lay out stanzas of different lengths in order to manipulate form to express her intended content. The shortest stanza in ‘The Union’ consists of two lines only, replicating and repeating each other (a much shorter stanza in comparison to most of the others, when all but the first range from 6 to 13 lines): ‘I saw that I was set free / I saw that I was set free’ (Dīdam kih mī-raham / Dīdam kih mī-raham) (2009: 217, lines 31–32). This stanza, which shows the climactic moment of the feminine speaker, is also the climax of the poem. It repeats the same line twice, is rather short, and through repetition puts emphasis on the intensity of the female orgasm. The significance of the stanza and its emphasis, while deconstructing fixed poetic forms, become much more relevant when one thinks that decades ago, the female orgasm was not as common, as the female partner was expected only or mainly to satisfy her male lover. Thus, in addition to poetic innovation, this stanza brings forward the agency of the feminine subject and the significance of her desire in sexual pleasure. Another interesting point about the structure of the poem is that there are very few punctuation marks used: only a few commas towards the end, and absolutely no full stops. It seems to me that such a clever construction is intended to illustrate the continuity of the moment of union in the presentation of the pleasure of the poem's female speaker – that which is ultimately ‘transitory’, and thus should not be interrupted in any manner, not even with a full stop.

Feminine Corporeality as the Main Object of Poetic Description via the Feminine and Self Gaze

Interestingly, in addition to reading about feminine erotic feelings, experiences and sensations, we come across many innovative descriptions and poetic constructions related to feminine corporeality in Forough's poems. From her earliest poems, such as ‘The Sin’, to her later ones like ‘Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season’, her deconstruction of the patriarchal literary norms of Iran is eminent. As she matured individually and poetically, Forough presented this corporeal description of the feminine body more artfully. In ‘The Sin’, she illustrates the moments of her orgasm or satisfaction, presenting her trembling body over that of her lover (and reading this description, the reader can even imagine her position during these moments of satisfaction). In a later volume, Rebellion (ʿUṣyān), Forough writes: ‘My lips are burning with songs / my bosom is burning with love / my skin is cracking with intoxication / my body is burning with buds’ (lab-i man az tarānih mī-sūzad / sīnih-am ʿāshiqānih mī-sūzad / pūstam mī-shikāfad az hayajān / paykaram az javānih mī-sūzad) (‘Madness’, Junūn, 2009: 167, lines 9–12). Such detailed description of the sensation of each part of the feminine body, from lips to bosom and skin to body, during the experience of love, via the gaze of the feminine self, was not only courageous but also innovative.

Another deconstruction that challenges traditional views towards not only female sexuality, but also the definition of a good woman, occurs in ‘The Wind-up Doll’ (ʿArūsak-i Kūkī), when Forough writes: ‘With a body like leather cloth / with two large firm breasts / in the bed of a drunk, a madman, a vagrant / it is possible to adulterate the purity of a love’ (Bā tanī chūn sufrih-yi charmīn / bā du pistāni-durusht-i sakht / mī-tavān dar bistar-i yik mast, yik dīvānih, yik vilgard / ʿiṣmat-i yik ʿishq rā ālūd) (2009: 227, lines 23–26). In these lines, the experience of love is represented only via bodily description; the feminine is showing the possibility of a taboo experience, an experience that she allows herself to have. No passionate feeling is involved, only a ‘body like leather’ and ‘two large firm breasts’. The body shows no sensation but is only there to experience. The innovative images presenting feminine corporeality reach their peak in Forough's penultimate volume, Rebirth (Tavalludī Dīgar), the volume in which the greatest number of Forough's best love lyrics appear.

The representation of the feminine body takes two major forms in Rebirth: erotic and non-erotic. The erotic images are more innovative and more captivating than ever in Rebirth. In ‘Amorously’ (ʿĀshiqānah) – probably Forough's most engaging love lyric – many of these representations of the feminine body appear: ‘My body was filled with coital odour / you are the water in the dried river of my bosom’ (paykaram bū-yi ham-āghūshī girift / jū-yi khushk-i sīnih-am rā āb tu) (2009: 220, lines 33–34); ‘Oh, you who are hidden under my skin’ (ay bih zir-i pūstam pinhāhn shudih) (ibid.: line 38); ‘Your cuddling has burnt my tresses / my cheeks are burnt with flames of desire’ (gīsū-yam rā az navāzish sūkhtih / gūnih-hām az hurm-i khwāhish sūkhtih) (ibid.: lines 40–41); ‘[You are]familiar with the green fields of my body’ (āshina-yi sabzih zārān-i tanam) (2009: 221, line 43); ‘[You are] the seizures of pleasure in my body’ (ay tashannuj-hā-yi lizzat dar tanam) (ibid.: line 56); and so on. Such representations of the body not only show feminine sensations in the experience of love, they show them via corporeality – that is, readers would imagine and sense these sensations via various parts of the feminine body: burnt tresses, coital odour, burnt cheeks and similar. ‘The seizures of pleasure’ occur ‘in’ the feminine body, representing the female orgasm as an internal sensation of shaking and trembling with no obvious external sign. ‘Green fields’ is an interesting metaphor for the feminine ‘body’, presumably describing it as a fertile ground. This last point leads me towards the next category of body representation: the non-erotic.

There are some non-erotic descriptions of the body in Forough's poems that can answer an important question of feminist studies with regard to every rebellious woman writing from the female point of view: does the feminine see herself via the male gaze, or is it in fact the female gaze, independent of the conditionings that the patriarchal society has imposed in order to enjoy the sexuality of the feminine for pleasurable purposes only? If the feminine body were only represented via an imposed male gaze on women as pleasurable sexual objects, one would not be able to notice cases in which the feminine body was represented in ways other than those consciously or subconsciously aligned with fixed patriarchal norms. In addition to erotically presenting her own body in the love of a masculine lover, Forough illustrates the body for other purposes as well. In ‘Rebirth’, the innocence of the teenage period, when young adults start to discover the beauty of sensuality, appears: ‘Earrings on both ears I wear / from twin gules cherries / and dahlia petals I stick on my nails’ (gūshvārī bih du gūsham mī-āvīzam / az du gīlas-i surkh-i hamzād / va bih nākhan-hā-yam barg-i gul-i kawkab mī-chasbānam) (2009: 303, lines 44–46). Immediately after, the reader becomes aware that these lines are memories of the speaker's childhood or early teenage years, and are reminiscent of her lost innocence. In ‘The Perception’ (Daryāft), Forough ‘remember[s]’ her ‘first day of puberty’; the day ‘that all’ her ‘limb’ was ‘Opening in an innocent bewilderment / so it fuses with that vague, that obscure, that unknown’ (Man bih yād āvardam / avvalīn ruz-i bulūgham rā / kih hamih andāmam / bāz mī-shud dar buhtī maʿṣūm / tā bīyāmīzad bā ān mubham, ān gung, ān nā-maʿlūm) (2009: 214, lines 39–43). Here, the first sensations of becoming a woman and its concerns are presented innocently and with no veil, from the tongue of a girl experiencing her first day of puberty, thinking of future unknown intercourse.

In ‘The Green Illusion’ (Vahm-i Sabz), a poem with the spirit of melancholy, the speaker, in search of an ideal state, addresses some ‘simple complete women’ (zanān-i sādih-yi kāmil) and asks them to be her haven (2009: 266, line 48). Describing these ‘simple’ but ‘complete women’, Forough writes: ‘In your cleavage, air always / mingles with the smell of fresh milk’ (dar shikāf-i garībānitān hamīshih havā / bih bū-yi shīr-i tāzih mī-amīzad) (ibid.: lines 52–53). This poem expresses the dissatisfaction and disappointment felt by the speaker as a modern woman who, in search of an ideal life, now adores ‘simple’ but ‘complete’ women – mothers whose ‘cleavages’ smell like milk, not fancy perfumes, and whose simple fulfilments the speaker admires: fertility, motherhood and haven-ness. These instances show how representation of the body goes beyond the male gaze and presents readers with a first-hand and immediate experience of the feminine, contemplating and sensing her own corporeality.

Conclusion

Forough challenged multiple norms in the generic tradition of Persian lyric poetry. Not only did she achieve multiple deconstructions of the Persian poetic tradition, she also particularised and feminised grand narratives, made them her own, made the female gaze bold, gave the feminine voice its agency and thus questioned the dominant patriarchal system of power in the poetry and society of Iran at the time. Forough was very well aware of the innovative role she was taking in modern Iran. When publishing ‘The Sin’ for the first time, she left a note indicating her wish for ‘women to be able to freely express themselves in their poems’ (Milani 2016: 81). In a letter to Ferdowsi (Firdawsī) – a literary magazine of the time – she wrote: ‘I know the path I am walking through has caused much turbulence in [our] current society and atmosphere, and that I have caused myself to have a lot of opponents. However, I believe that dams should ultimately break. One person must pave the way, and since I see the required courage and sacrifice in me, I took the initiative’ (ibid.: 13).

Liberated from sin and embracing her own sexuality as a woman, Forough used poetry as a platform for the growth of her personal individuation and her social role. Poetry empowered her to pave the feminine path, particularly in the expression of love, and thus to puncture and break many patriarchal dams in Iran's literary tradition. Considering ‘poetry’ as her ‘god’, Forough showed the ambition to become ‘a great poet’ from an early age – a dream that she managed to fulfil (Milani 2016: 79). Remaining committed to her poetic and personal development as two inevitably parallel and intertwined paths, she ultimately became a woman with voice and agency in a patriarchal society, which, while ‘kissing’ this attractive and appealing woman, was ‘knitting’ her ‘hanging rope’ (Hamchinān kih tu rā mībūsand / dar zihn-i khud / ṭanāb-i dār-i tu rā mībāfand) (‘Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season’, Īmān Bīyāvarīm bah Āqāz-i Faṣl-i Sard, 2009: 313, lines 115–117).

Acknowledgements

I would like to sincerely thank Professor Barbara Havercroft for her inspiring course on feminism and postmodernism, and Professor Corinne Fortier for her constructive feedback.

Notes

1

Translations from all non-English sources are the author's unless otherwise noted. All translations by the author are for critical and analytical purposes; aesthetic and poetic factors were not the main point of consideration.

2

Forough's poems are lyrics, by their nature dealing with the expression of the poet-subject's mind and feelings: ‘The poet may express his inner life and its emotions quite openly … he communicates in full everything that occurs within his consciousness’ (Hegel 1974: 1144). The lyric's nature provides the most truthful and illuminating access to its poet's psychological status – in the case of this article, to the feminine poet's mind. Thus, I refer to the poet and the speaker in the poems interchangeably and as one entity.

3

Yannis Toussulis (2012) explores the history of the Malāmatīyyah or Malāmatīs, who were a mystic Muslim group active during the ninth century in Greater Khorasan (Khurāsān), Persia. Toussulis illustrates that the Malāmatīyyah were a little-known tradition within wider Sufism that focused on the psychology of egoism and engaged in self-critique. The Malāmatīyyah believed in the value of self-blame, that piety should be a private matter and that being held in high esteem would lead to worldly attachment. They concealed their knowledge and made sure that their faults were known, committing sins in public voluntarily. This would remind them of their imperfection and avoid their being overly proud of their spiritual growth.

4

This translation of ‘The Sin’ is by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak (Aḥmad Karīmī Ḥakkāk).

5

This is an exaggeration: ‘hair’ is used as a metaphor to describe the thinness of the waist.

6

These translations of Hafiz's poems are by Henry Wilberforce Clarke.

7

A Sufi is arguably a Muslim mystic. Sufism is broadly defined as mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marvi, N. M. (2019), ‘ʿUṣyān-i yak Asīr’ [The rebellion of a captive], Fararu, 29 December, https://fararu.com/fa/news/422840/ (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Milani, F. (2016), Furūq-i Farrukhzād: Zindigī Nāmah-yi Hunarī bā Nāmah hāy-i Muntashir Nashudah [Forough Farrokhzad: A Literary Biography with Unpublished Letters] (Toronto: Persian Circle Publications).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Toussulis, Y. (2012), Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books).

  • Waugh, P. (1989), Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern (Abingdon: Routledge).

Contributor Notes

Mahdieh Vali-Zadeh is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto, and a graduate of the Harvard World Literature programme. Mahdieh is now focusing on writing her comparative dissertation, which is about the reception of Persian mysticism on the matter of the ‘self’, both individual and national, in two different but related frameworks: among the British Romantic poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the Iranian intellectuals of the early to mid-twentieth century. Her comparative master's thesis on the matter of the sublime in Rumi and Wordsworth's poetry was nominated for the American Comparative Literature Association award for Best Master's Thesis by York University. Email: mah.vali@mail.utoronto.ca

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  • Afary, J. (2009), Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

  • ʿĀli, F. (2011), ‘Mār dar Asāṭīr va Adabīyāt-i Fārsī’ [Serpents in Persian mythology and literature], Bahāristān-i Sukhan 17, no. 7: 115130, https://www.sid.ir/fa/Journal/ViewPaper.aspx?ID=166123 (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Daniel, E. L. (2006), Culture and Customs of Iran (London: Greenwood Press).

  • Farrokhzad, F. (1957), Dīvār [The wall] (Tehran: Khalq Publications).

  • Farrokhzad, F. (2009), Dīvān-i Kāmil-i Furūq-i Farrukhzād [Complete poetry] (Tehran: Nikfarjam Publications).

  • Hafiz, S. M. (2014), The Divan of Hafiz (Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ), (trans.) H. W. Clarke (Tehran: Hunar-i Bīstum Publications).

  • Havercroft, B. (1995), ‘Vie et aventures du féminisme postmoderne d'après Irmtraud Morgner’, Tangence 47, 2133, https://doi.org/10.7202/025848ar.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hegel, W. H. F. (1974), Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art Vol. II., (trans.) T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

  • Hekman, S. (1995), ‘Subjects and Agents: The Question for Feminism’, in Provoking Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice, (ed.) J. Gardiner (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press), 194207.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holden, J. (1990), ‘Postmodern Poetic Form: A Theory’, New England Review 15, no. 1: 244259, www.jstor.org/stable/40242640 (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hutcheon, L. (1989), The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge).

  • Katouzian, H. (2000), ‘Az Gunāhān-i Forough’ [From Forough's sins], Irānshināsī 46, no. 3: 264287, http://ensani.ir/fa/article/184836/ (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kossaifi, C. (2003), ‘Farough Farrokhzad: Poétesse de la Perse moderne’, Bulletin de l'Association Guillaume Budé 1, no. 1: 157173, https://www.notesdumontroyal.com/document/622r1.pdf (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • M. T. (1968), ‘Forough Farrokhzad: The Bitter Loss’, Iranian Studies 1, no. 2: 5253, www.jstor.org/stable/4309998 (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marvi, N. M. (2019), ‘ʿUṣyān-i yak Asīr’ [The rebellion of a captive], Fararu, 29 December, https://fararu.com/fa/news/422840/ (accessed 6 September 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Milani, F. (2016), Furūq-i Farrukhzād: Zindigī Nāmah-yi Hunarī bā Nāmah hāy-i Muntashir Nashudah [Forough Farrokhzad: A Literary Biography with Unpublished Letters] (Toronto: Persian Circle Publications).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Toussulis, Y. (2012), Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books).

  • Waugh, P. (1989), Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern (Abingdon: Routledge).

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