Following in Fitzgerald’s Footsteps:
Brian Docherty reviews Ruth Valentine’s small but politically significant and beautifully illustrated new collection from Hercules Editions
Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars Ruth Valentine London: Hercules Editions, 2017 ISBN 978-0-9572738-5-6 £10. Signed limited edition of 300.
Many poetry lovers will, I suspect, be familiar with Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, and could happily quote a stanza or two. The more politically correct among readers will no doubt be spluttering ‘cultural tourism‘ and ‘cultural appropriation‘ into their muesli, but the stupider sorts of political correctness need not detain us here. Whatever we think of Fitzgerald’s versions of Khayyám’s work, it is now part of our cultural heritage, to be enjoyed while we sip tea in our pyjamas on the verandah of our bungalow.
Ruth Valentine, in another handsomely produced pocket-sized book from the enterprising Hercules Editions, has updated and refurbished Fitzgerald’s structural model of this traditional form. Her subtitle, ‘For the Martyrs of Two Wars’, references two conflicts: the first, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. the second, an undeclared struggle on the streets of London and other cities. To be clear, she is not directly addressing the recent terror attacks in London, Manchester, or Paris, although the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf Wars, and other conflicts may well inform the actions of those who consider themselves jihadis.
Malika Booker’s Foreword notes that Valentine “ laments the fact that the London boys are confined to short newspaper columns with ink that disappears in the rain while boys from Iran star in giant posters.” Valentine’s text is both illustrated and interrupted by photographs of these posters, war graves in Iran, and an impromptu memorial and memorial graffiti in London. The book is also graced by the paintings of Shahram Karimi, which speak eloquently to the subject of martyrdom. Valentines twenty-five rubai, (and a final rubai from Fitzgerald) are quatrains with an aaba rhyme scheme that Valentine handles well, as befits a poet of her experience. She takes the reader straight in:
Tired of the arguments, the African Fishing-boats sunk in the Mediterranean, Refugees shot at borders, I left home And strolled through fragrant cities with Khayyám.
This use of filmic techniques takes us from sitting in front of a TV to an imaginative engagement reminiscent of Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. The writer’s ‘wild surmise’ however, is more than a mental journey; in her Afterword, Valentine details the process of actually going to Iran. Back in the poem, we find her impressions:
Pavilions frescoed with love-scenes to please Some ruler and his consort; redbud trees; Wind-catchers, water-courses, Sufi songs, Santour and frame-drum, urgent melodies; Tiled domes, and alcoves formed like stalactites Of shimmering mirrors; wood-framed lattice-lights Scattering gold and crimson on a floor; Fountains under the cypress-trees, warm nights; And all along the streets, on banners hung From lamp-posts, like an epic, once begun Never to end, the faces of the boys Dark-eyed and solemn, rippled in the sun.
The poet, if she was ever a tourist, is now witness, compelled to portray these young men, not as warriors, but as family members, students, engineers, and yes, ones too young to suffer this fate :
That boy too young, who lied about his age, Wanting revenge, indignant with the rage Of centuries of empire, battle, power, Thirteen forever in war’s rusting cage.
Back in the sixties, we heard a great deal about the nineteen-year-old G.I.’s, as if this was something new; yet we know from accounts of the First World War and the Napoleonic War, that very young men have always found their way onto the battlefield. Some things, apparently, never change. And then, after witnessing so many memorials, the poet returns to London:
I came home to my city, read the news: Double-page article, a photo, views Of cousins, politicians: he was killed For walking the wrong street. A child confused.
This is happening, Valentine notes, in Lewisham, Walthamstow, Stockwell, Tottenham, Harlesden, all over London, to boys who
Would have been a doctor: no-one thought It likely for a boy from his estate, Except the science teacher, and his mum Fingering through the text-book he’d just bought.
An exact mirror-image of the situation in Iran, their killers also boys. What is our politicians’ response?
Once in a decade politicians speak Of tragic waste of lives, then move away to limos, brandishing a handkerchief.
It does not matter which politicians, or which party they represent, why those boys are martyred in Iran, or killed on the streets of London over disrespect, girls, drugs, being on the wrong street or in the wrong cafe at the wrong moment, it is all equally senseless.
If all deaths are in vain, on streets, in war, If all wars serve to muffle more Women in mourning, if our young men are Invisible to the world until they die
Valentine’s last rubai moves from bleak to hopeful:
Death is all we’ve bequeathed to them. Vault down From flagpoles, fences, news-stands, Darian, Michael, Masoud, Ali; help us make The sweeter world that should have been your home.
Fittingly, Valentine gives Fitzgerald the last word:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight: And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught The Sultan’s Tower in a Noose of Light.
But will the people addressed here, whether the dead, or our political elite, actually wake op and do something positive to change things? Answers on a postcard, or Facebook, please.
Valentine’s Afterword (which readers could usefully turn to first, and then re-read after reading her rubaiyat, and meditating on the accompanying paintings) is informative about Fitzgerald’s text, and its relation to Omar Khayyám’s original rubai. She also makes the point that in her professional life, she worked with refugees, so had a long-standing engagement with the effects of war. Once again, the personal meets the political, to the point that as a woman wishing to visit Iran, there were complications. Fortunately, someone in Tehran decided Ruth Valentine was a ‘suitable person‘to apply for a visa. For that, we, and Valentine, must be grateful. This small book on a large subject is a pleasure to read, and once again, Hercules Editions must be praised for doing the subject-matter justice.