A Review of Mirrors of Entrapment & Emancipation: Forugh Farrokhzad & Sylvia Plath Leila Rahimi Bahmany, (Leiden University Press, 2015).
Whether the Charmer sinner it, or saint it, If Folly grows romantic, I must paint it.
Come then, the colours and the ground prepare!
Dip in the Rainbow, trick her off in Air, Chuse a firm Cloud, before it fall, and in it
Catch, e'er she change, the Cynthia of this minute.1
Her drunk narcissus of eyes half open
Her seemingly wide open garden of the heart
Her lips’ curve – Like a flower-leaf stretching itself Mouth of the flower-bud – As if half open2
In recent times parallels have been drawn between the lives and themes in the works of 2 important female poets of the twentieth century, post-World War Two period: Sylvia Plath and Forugh Farrokhzad - One American (English), the other Iranian (Persian), both were born and died within the space of a few years of each other, both struggled to reconcile their public and domestic lives with their respective cultural expectations of femininity in their own ways whilst Plath was also able to utilise her dual American and British identity to ‘provide a broad canvas on which to experiment and write, advancing her development as a poet’,3 Farrokhzad actively rebelled against the cultural prejudice of the female and challenged the literary convention as well as the status quo in order to affirm her female identity; both attempted suicide several times, ‘experienced mental breakdowns over and over again and were hospitalized in psychiatric clinics where they both underwent electroconvulsive therapy’ (17), both had troublesome married lives (one ending in divorce, not both as mentioned in this study), both had little impact upon the literary world during their lifetime but became iconic after their deaths and were exploited by the later feminist waves in their countries.
Neither of them knew of the other.
Mirrors of Entrapment & Emancipation is the first full-length study to trace the responses in the work of Plath and Farrokhzad to themes of selfhood, femininity and mirrors (reflections, states of being and non-being). It is also the first English-language book to have access to Farrokhzad’s complete uncensored works and is all the richer for it.
Leila Rahimi Bahmany thoroughly analyses how both poets tackled and went beyond the cultural conventions of womanhood and those associated with woman writers, she does so with recourse to mythology and the work of Freud and Jung and the modern feminist/psychoanalytic criticism of such as Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva and Lacan as reflected in the work of both poets in the lengthy first chapter, with the added background of the classical Farsi (Persian) literature and the Quran and Islamic mysticism which is explained in intricate detail for those unfamiliar with the eastern literary/religious traditions in which the poetry is always double-barrelled in its choice of simultaneously extrinsic and intrinsic conjunctions (particularly in the Ghazal form which Farrokhzad frequently adopted in her early verse). The mirror is rejected when it reflects a patriarchal perspective of ‘feminine vanity and mere appearance … incarcerating them within the realm of visibilities’ and as the receptacles of masculinity:
On the other hand, paradoxically, they espouse the mirror when it becomes a medium for self- awareness, a site for constructing a true female self. They cherish the mirror when it becomes a means of facilitating the development of their emancipated narcissistic relationship with their own bodies and subjectivities as well as with the world around them.
This, arguably, is the distinguisher between male/female writing and is discussed in detail in the chapter on ‘Mirror Imagery in the Works of Forugh Farrokhzad’. Farrokhzad, who was acutely conscious of her literary heritage made an affirmative riposte to the mystics and theologians of Islam on behalf of the female voice. Again, this is the first attempt (in the English language) to have braved such an engagement with Farrokhzad’s work. It should be noted, however, that in the Middle Ages mirrors were made convex so as to reflect distortions rather than reflections though I’m unsure whether this was also the case in Iran at the time or not. One is also reminded of Rumi’s parable in The Masnavi of the competition between the Greek and the Chinese painters.
Bahmany writes that women often turn to the mirror at times of personal and/or psychological crises for self-confirmation and not for narcissistic self-gratification but often ‘with pain and distress. Particularly when a woman who is her own artistic subject ‘whose happiness and sense of fulfilment depends on male lovers desiring her’ receives no acknowledgement of her existential identity in her society, the mirror can seem to be the only answer.’ However the mirror can further immerse her into ‘depths of disillusionment and pain’ (15). Bahmany discusses how this works in both Plath and Farrokhzad.
Her commentaries on themes of barrenness, motherhood and the role of women in Plath are of particular interest as is her critique of the poem ‘Purdah’ in reference to Irigaray’s ‘woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds pleasure almost anywhere.’4 Bahmany points to the meanings of the Persian word parde and in this relation Farrokhzad may have been aware of the dubious Tradition attribute to the Imam Ali ‘Allah created desire in 10 parts, then He imparted 9 parts of it to women and one to men. Had not God made shyness in women in equal measure to the parts of their desire then 9 women would have been hanging onto one man.’5
Overall this is an important work especially in the field of studies of Farrokhzad in English which are few and far between. The volume presents Bahmany’s own English language translations of a few poems, some of them translated for the first time such as the extraordinary Satanic poem ‘Servitude’ analysed in detail and for which Bahmany provides explanatory notes to some of the religious references and although she says that ‘Somehow the poem is an open refutation of Sufism,’ (87) she does not explain exactly how. The poet and Plath critic Joyce Carol Oates is referred to as a He (340f 48n) but Bahmany can be forgiven for her fascinating insights into the themes in the work of both Plath and Farrokhzad.
1 Pope, Alexander. ‘To a Lady: Of the Characters of Women’. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed, John Butt, (Routledge, 1963, 1968). 560.
2 Ahmad, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad – Khalifatul Masih IV. ‘Ishq e Narasa’. Kalam e Tahir. (Islam International Publications Ltd). 142. Translation by the author.
3 O’Brien, Maeve. "I am, in my deep soul, happiest on the Moors": The Impact of Dealing with the World Beyond the Shores of the United States in the Life and Work of Sylvia Plath’. Plath Profiles: 4, (Indiana University, 2011). 20.
4 Irigaray, Luce. Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un. (Editions de Minuit, 1977). Tr. Catherine Porter, This Sex Which Is Not One. (Cornell University Press, 1985). 28.
5 Al-Aamili, Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Hurr. Wasāil al-Shīa.
So we travel on earth seeking the terrain of Poetry, walking through wilderness and empty landscape or visiting those ancient sites like Dholavira in far-western Gujarat, or Mykenai in the Greek Peloponnese, or the Arawak campsite on eastern Carriacou in the Grenadine Windward Isles, pursuing that authenticity of experience in a form of antique material reality...
These are places, strange and vague situations where death is manifold and thoroughly extant to the careful eye. There are women’s bangles made of shell to be picked up from the saline dust or small copper beads and thin chert blades, or tiny obsidian arrow-heads that can be unhidden and disclosed beneath those bloody grey walls about the Lion Gate, or beautiful indented potsherds and ceramic fragments at the waterline where the Atlantic rolls out its long blue visceral waves...
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