Perpetual Rebellion: Rereading Forough Farrokhzad

Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season
Forough Farrokhzad
New Directions
2022, 128 pp., $16.95

In a speech on the virtues of female chastity, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei informed an audience of young poets that it was for the best that Forough Farrokhzad, Iran’s most famous twentieth century poet, died suddenly in a car crash in 1967, at the age of 32. He warned his audience: “Young girls should not imagine that, if they want to write poems from the bottom of their heart, and to express their true emotions and feelings, they should go to the extremes.” He advised that aspiring poets not follow the example of Farrokhzad. After all, he reminded his listeners, “it is good to keep a limit” on what poets are permitted to say in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

More than any other Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzad refused to limit what she said to topics pre-approved by society or the state. She lived exactly as she wrote: impassioned and impulsive, refusing to obey society’s mores. Her poems were—and are—unprecedented in their bold treatment of topics long considered too explosive and political for poetry, such as women’s desire and sexual yearning. Yet for all their obviously sexual content, Farrokhzad’s poems also have a spiritual dimension. In a new volume published by New Directions, Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, Elizabeth Grey, who made her reputation as a translator of Persian with her rendering of Hafez in 1995, introduces us to this feminist poet who was gifted with an astonishing ability to traverse material and spiritual realms. Farrokhzad had a difficult life: she endured a difficult marriage, survived multiple suicide attempts and was interned in an asylum. When she finally secured a divorce, she lost custody of her child. Yet, even during her most intense personal struggles, Farrokhzad managed to write poetry that changed the world.

Even Farrokhzad’s most metaphysical poems are taut with the immediacy of desire and the yearning that feeds on distance. “I flee from you so that, far from you, I may open / the road to the city of desires,” she writes to her unnamed lover. In “God’s Rebellion,” part of a stunningly defiant sequence of poems originally included in her 1958 collection, Rebellion, and newly translated by Grey for this volume, Farrokhzad imagines herself as God. In this divine capacity, she orders “the caretakers of the universe / to pick the moon’s yellow leaf from the branch of night.” To this majestic image, Farrokhzad adds a mark that is distinctly her own. Directly confronting the entire patriarchal tradition of Persian poetry which extends back over a millennium, she writes, “after thousands of years of silence my tired hands / would cast down the mountains into the open mouth of the sea.”

Farrokhzad inverts Hafez’s imagery, turning it into an explicit rejection of the existing order. An impassioned inversion of Hafez seals Farrokhzad’s confrontation with centuries of Persian poetry written by men. Hafez’s “green fields of heaven” have been taken as a symbol of paradise for centuries and thereby made acceptable even to conservative Muslims. As God, Farrokhzad imagines ordering the angels “to boil the water of Heaven’s river in the furnace of Hell.” “Burning torch in hand,” she declares that she will “drive the flock of pious ones / out of the green debauched pasture of Heaven.” Centuries earlier, Hafez had evoked a similarly defiant mood, by undermining the cliché that “God’s pen has made no error in creation” with the sarcastic rebuttal: “Bravo to our master’s innocent eyes that ignore faults.”

With Farrokhzad, we have a poet who was deeply steeped in the classical tradition yet who also discerned its rebellious spirit and who could translate that legacy into modern feminist terms.

As she deepens her engagement with Hafez, Farrokhzad reimagines the entire tradition of Islamic theology, reviving a suppressed Sufi perspective on Satan (Iblis). Far from being the archetype of evil, Satan in the Sufi tradition of Hallaj, Ahmad Ghazali, and Ayn al-Quzat Hamedani is the ideal lover, who was so devoted to God that he refused to bow down to Adam, even after God ordered all creation to do so. Farrokhzad boldly concludes the last stanza of her poem “God’s Rebellion” with a scene of herself “at midnight / in Satan’s bed.” Instead of seeking “shelter in the descent to a fresh sin,” she insists that she “would choose instead of the gold crown of divinity / the dark and painful pleasure of sin’s embrace.” Farrokhzad’s subversive rejection of heaven again calls to mind Hafez’s bold verse: “Why should I believe in the pious cleric’s promise of the Hereafter / when I can have Paradise here and now?” With Farrokhzad, we have a poet who was deeply steeped in the classical tradition yet who also discerned its rebellious spirit and who could translate that legacy into modern feminist terms.

The poet’s embrace of Satan is consistent with the radical Sufi tradition that sees Satan as the greatest lover of God. Yet Farrokhzad’s decision to eroticize this teaching—and thereby to celebrate her own sexuality—takes the tradition much further, into more scandalous territory. It is not only her physical embrace of Satan—imagining herself lying in bed with him like a lover—that provoked the readers of her day; the poet’s rejection of “the gold crown of divinity” is a challenge to her era as well, including to the patriarchy against which she battled, whose oppressive policies constrained her ability to create freely, and the Ayatollahs who would ban her work after her death and praise her sudden departure from this world.

Although her imagery imprints itself on the mind like a bodily scar, Farrokhzad does not shock simply in order to provoke. Her passions reverberate far beyond the realm of mere theatrics. They touch emotions deeper than desire and experiences beyond the erotic. In “Return,” a grieving mother visits her hometown, which she calls “the grave of my desires,” in search of her son, Kamyar, who was taken from Farrokhzad when he was only two years old following her divorce. She imagines reuniting with her son again, only to find that “from the bitter past / nothing is left but a name.”

Although she faced much deprivation in her tumultuous and brief life, Farrokhzad’s name lives on. Her powerful imagery reminds us of many emotions that are suppressed, not just in the Islamic Republic, but in our everyday lives, wherever we happen to be and whatever dreams we harbour in our souls. With this landmark translation of Farrokhzad’s bravest poems, Elizabeth Grey has made Farrokhzad's bold voice accessible to generations of Anglophone readers.


The author wishes to thank Kayvan Tahmasebian for suggesting the Hafez verses and helping with their translation.