Poems

The Hagia Sophia Library

Notes

‘The Hagia Sofia Library’ was a wonderful introduction to the poetry of Bahareh Rezaei and the poem itself – both playful and witty – was a pleasure to translate.

Hagia Sofia is one of the great masterpieces of Byzantine architecture. Situated in Istanbul, the building was first a magnificent church, then an imperial mosque and is now a museum. Turkey, next door to Iran, is a frequent destination for Iranian tourists, who often go there to enjoy its less restrictive rules of social conduct.

The poet herself, as she tells us in the opening lines, is unsure of what has brought her to the Hagia Sofia Library, or what she is searching for, and the poem traces her journey through the book stacks where she encounters visions of male writers and their female companions.  

As you will see by comparing Alireza’s fine literal translation to our final version, we’ve altered very little. In the first stanza, we’ve reversed the syntax of the second sentence by putting the action of the poet riffling through index cards before its simile of her behaviour of her being like ‘a small bird’.

The first instance of literary partners she comes across is the only example in the poem of a woman writer, Lou Andreas Salomé, confounding her two male lovers, Nietzsche, whom she abandoned for Rilke. Thereafter, the women come off worst.

The great Turkish poet, Nâzım Hikmet, writes to his wife while playing chess with his lover. The modernist Russian poet, Mayakovsky, begins his seduction of Maria (a lover mentioned in ‘The Cloud in Trousers’). Balqis Al-Rawi, the second wife of Nizar Qabbani (one of the most revered poets of the Arab world), was killed by a bomb on the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut in 1981; in this poem, while his wife is dying, Qabbani is accused of already choosing his next lover. Next, Beatrice is said to have dictated The Divine Comedy to Dante – and condemned him to a Purgatory she devised. And finally it’s claimed that Chekhov’s lover, Olga, couldn’t make him crazy enough to love her (even though they did eventually marry).

Eventually, the poet has had enough of these deceptions and she longs to return to ‘her sad city’ and birthplace, Roodsar, in northern Iran, where she vows to ‘read to her heart’s content’ (from Alireza’s ‘read a full heart’) of the most famous story of thwarted lovers in Persian literature, that of Layla and Majnun.

Sarah Maguire, Workshop Facilitator

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