Mar 8, 2023

Conquest of the Garden (fathé bāgh) by Forough Farrokhzad ( شعر فتح باغ فروغ فرخزاد)

    Today happens to be International Women’s Day, so I will share my analysis of a poem by Forough Farrokhzad, an Iranian poet and an Iranian woman. To read the full poem without my analysis breaking it up, click here. To read the poem in Farsi, click here. I have included romanized Farsi for most stanzas, which I got from Chai and Conversation. To listen to the poem in Farsi, click here.

ān kalāghy ké pareed
as farāzé saré mā
va foroo raft dar andeesheyé āshoféeye abree velgard
va sedāyash hamchon neyzeyé kootāhee, pahnāyé ofogh rā paymood
khabaré mā rā bā khod khāhad bord bé shahr

That crow which flew over our heads
and descended into the disturbed thought
of a vagabond cloud
and the sound of which traversed
he breadth of the horizon
like a short spear
will carry the news of us to the city.

    Forough Farrokhzad begins the poem, fathé bāgh, with a pattern of playing with sound. “An kalaghyke pareed” contains an internal rhyme, the ah, ee, and ey sounds of kalaghy ke pareed.

In the first stanza, she describes a bird disturbing a calm nature scene, or a serene moment of focus on a single beautiful perfect thing, like a cloud and reminding you where you are - that feeling of almost jerking back into your body, like, “oh yes, this. I forgot for a moment.”  This conveys longing.

“And the sound of which traversed the breadth of the horizon/ like a short spear will carry news of us to the city” – She draws a comparison between real nature, the bird, disturbing the way we enjoy looking at nature, as beautiful art, just like real living often disturbs societal expectations of how people are supposed to behave. The short spear is a weapon that pierces, just as reality pierces through an ideal of what should be, and which ultimately kills it, like disillusionment. Forough’s comparison of the bird’s voice to a short spear that “will carry news of us to the city” also expresses her awareness of how this news will be used as a weapon against her.

hamé meedānand
hamé meedānand
ké man ō tō az ān rozaneyé sardé aboos
bāgh rā deedeyeem
va az ān shākheyé bāzeegar door az dast
seeb rā cheedeyeem

Everyone knows,
everyone knows
that you and I have seen the garden
from that cold sullen window
and that we have plucked the apple
from that playful, hard-to-reach branch.

Disillusionment is also in the next stanza, “hame meedanand ke man o to az an rozaneye sarde aboos bagh ra deedeyeem va az an shakheye bazeegar door az dast seeb ra cheedeyeem.” Everyone knows that we have done something together that we are not supposed to do.  This stanza is beautiful because of the proud way Forough has chosen to express the sentiment as “seeing the garden” and “we have plucked the apple from the playful, out of reach branch.” She says, “we have done something that not everyone can do, and we are better for it.” This may make some people feel defensive of their own long, faithful and monogamous relationships but I think we have to understand that Forough is not praising infidelity and decrying marriage here. She is praising free will and the ability to make a choice for yourself, to experiment and find love and beauty within yourself.  

The repetition of hame meedanand sets the rhythm of the following internal rhymes between the next four lines which follow a syllabic pattern with “an rozaneye sarde aboos” and “an shakheye bazeegar door az dast” and the skipped line rhyme of “bagh ra deedeyeem” and “seeb ra cheedeyeem.”  Beautiful and this stanza really shows how poetic the Persian language is.

hamé meetarsand
hamé meetarsand
amā man o tō
bā cherāgh o āb o āyeené payvasteem
va natarseedeem

Everyone is afraid
everyone is afraid, but you and I
joined with the lamp
and water and mirror and we were not afraid.

“Hame meetarsand, hame meetarsand” literally everyone fears, everyone fears, but me and you embraced the real meaning behind lamp, water and mirror and felt no fear. She refers here to the revolutionary experience of self-agency and going against societal norms. People and society generally are afraid of free will because it emphasizes the fragility of our lives. Forough embraces the fragility of her life. She feels it keenly and that awareness fills her with power and knowledge, which she expresses in this poem. The lamp, water and mirror are the societal norms she uses to invert our view of what life is. They are pillars of a marriage ceremony that are meant to symbolize the binding of lives together but she uses their visual meaning – light, clarity and reflection - to emphasize the very opposite, the unbound purity of life and freedom.

sokhan az payvandé sosté dō nām
va hamāghdooshee dar orāgheh kohneyé yek daftar neest
sokhan az geesooyeh khoshbakhté manast
bā shaghāyeghhayé sookhteyé booseyé tō

I am not talking about the flimsy linking
of two names
and embracing in the old pages of a ledger.
I'm talking about my fortunate tresses
with the burnt anemone of your kiss
She openly addresses this in her next stanza, “I am not talking about the flimsy linking of two names and embracing in the old pages of a ledger.” She upholds the physical side of love as equal to the institutional, contractual definition of it with, “I’m talking about my fortunate tresses with the burnt anemone of your kiss.”  She means here that the acts of physical love are the purest forms of love, because the contractual love of a marriage can have no bearing on people’s real feelings and treatment of each other.

Forough seems to follow her established rhyme scheme when she begins the previous stanza with “hame meetarsand, hame meetarsand” (everyone fears, everyone fears) but then with “payvasteem va natarseedeem” she says, we joined and were not afraid.  The stanza conveys several meanings at once, everyone fears but we joined with each other and were not afraid. We joined to embody the meaning behind the lamp, water and mirror. We joined, and became purer versions of ourselves for joining together. She ends the stanza with natarseedeem, the opposite of meetarsand, which is another kind of rhyme that she uses heavily throughout her poem, and serves to convey a reversal in meaning and in the pattern of sound.  In the following stanzas she rhymes the beginning of the sentences and lines with repetition, “sokhan az…” and continues the pattern of juxtaposition.

va sameemeeyaté tan hāman, dar tarāree
va derakhsheedané oryāneemān
meslé falsé māheehā dar āb
sokhan az zendegeeyé noghreyeeyé āvāzeest
ke séhar gāhān favareyé koochak meekhānad

and the intimacy of our bodies,
and the glow of our nakedness
like fish scales in the water.
I am talking about the silvery life of a song
which a small fountain sings at dawn.

The visual rhyme in the next stanza which goes, “and the intimacy of our bodies, the glow of our nakedness, like fish scales in the water. I am talking about the silvery life of a song which a small fountain sings at dawn.” References the lamp, water and mirror of the previous stanza and reaffirms her meaning of light, clarity and reflection – the “glow of our nakedness” as a lamp and as a clear view of someone, “like fish scales in the water” reflecting light and brightness and cleansing. Forough rhymes our understanding of water and fire as both being purifying. “I am talking about the silvery life of a song which a small fountain sings at dawn,” functions as another switchback in the climb of the poem. The visual of silvery life and a small fountain at dawn draw on the “fish scales in water,” and the “glow of our nakedness.”  With the internal, reversed rhyme in each line Forough changes the pace of the sounds, increasing the rhythm. In fact, every stanza that Forough begins with “sokhan az…” is meant to bring you closer to her own perspective. In this subtle way the poem is actually an argument and a testimony, and you might think the sensual parts of the poem disguise this but what if the sensuality is integral to the argument? This stanza might visually reference a kind of climax, with the fountain singing, but it is not the climax of the poem, it is the climb.  And I mean that it’s the physical set-up of sex acts for a climax or orgasm.

mā dar ān jangalé sabz seeyāl
shaby az khargooshān vahshee
va dar ān daryāyé moztarebé khoonsard
az sadafhāyé por az morvāreed
va dar ān koohé ghareeb fath
az oghāban javān porseedeem
ké ché bāyad kard 

we asked wild rabbits one night
in that green flowing forest
and shells full of pearls
in that turbulent cold blooded sea
and the young eagles
on that strange overwhelming mountain
what should be done.

The climax of the poem is in the next stanza, which ends “ke che bayad kard.” It’s the question of what should be done.  The question is a “strange overwhelming mountain” which in my opinion is a reference to orgasm. Forough conveys the race to orgasm, of sex with, “we asked wild rabbits one night in that green flowing forest and shells full of pearls in that turbulent cold blooded sea and the young eagles on that strange mountain what should be done.” The rabbits, pearls and the word “turbulent” to describe a sea convey sex. The “flowing” or “liquid” forest and “cold blooded” or troubled sea convey the plunge and draw of having sex. The young eagles are a reference to flying, of bringing you higher, bringing you on to that strange overwhelming mountain. Also, the act of going around to all these places, the forest, the sea, the mountain, and the exploring of these places are all symbolic of the body, sex and of the climb towards orgasm. This stanza describes the orgasm, the physical part of the love between two people that the whole poem is about, the climax of the poem visually and rhythmically, and the culmination of their love for each other in the question – what is to be done?

It's awesome, it’s great, I love it. What a perfect question to describe that feeling after an orgasm. A question that flings us off the edge of a mountain, which there is no real answer to. Orgasm is the answer to the question of sex, the question that sex inherently asks. Society perpetuates this ending of happily ever after – to describe life after marriage, life after falling in love, life after the birth of a child. But reality knows, that is not true. There is no such thing as endings in real life, it continues independent of who dies and who is born.  That’s nature, and this stanza purposefully uses a return-to-nature vibe. “We asked the young eagles what to do.”

hamé meedānand
hamé meedānand
mā dar khābé sard ō saketé seemorghān, rah yāfté-eem
mā hagheeghat rā dar bāghché paydā kardeem
dar negahé sharmāgeen golee gomnām
va baghā rā dar yek lahzé nāmahdood
kê dō khorsheed bé ham kheeré shodand

Everyone knows,
everyone knows
we have found our way
Into the cold, quiet dream of phoenixes:
we found truth in the garden
In the embarrassed look of a nameless flower,
and we found permanence
In an endless moment
when two suns stared at each other.

Forough masterfully steers us back (not quite full circle yet) with the beginning of the stanza, “hame meedanand, hame meedanand.” She uses this repetition and established rhyme scheme of the poem to break with the pattern for the rest of the stanza, using only alliteration and hidden rhyme.

Forough is proud of her love, of her understanding of truth and what she has learned about herself. I’ve mentioned love several times – this poem is clearly about love and the act of love, but Forough herself never uses the word love, and she uses the word cold – sarde – to describe a place where she is. The cold sullen window, the cold quiet dream of phoenixes. “We found our way into the cold quiet dream of phoenixes.” I think the cold quiet dream of phoenixes means honesty.

“We found truth in the garden in the embarrassed look of a nameless flower.” Honesty is quite embarrassing, and honesty is again something that people fear. The truth that they found is not each other, it’s not love even though it is through an act of love (sex) that they found it. The truth she references is honesty, which is freeing and righteous. The garden is oneself. Exploring the garden, conquering the garden, is about discovering yourself and the life altering, society-averse, fundamental truth that you find when exploring yourself and learning to love yourself is honesty. And I think it’s something that Iranians have a lot of trouble with, because it’s not polite to be honest. The garden as a metaphor for oneself is quite interesting to me, because sexuality is something you can explore by yourself but organized religion would have you believe it’s something you need someone of the opposite sex to understand. Just like how some people argue that gay women can’t *actually* have sex.  Exploring the garden as one would explore themselves is also not something organized religions would endorse because that leads to critical thinking and eventually diverging from societal expectations instead of conforming to and embracing societal ideals, put forth and promoted by organized religion. Organized religion needs the participation and enforcement of societal ideals of behavior in order to continue existing. Self-actualization does not exist in today’s organized religions. As soon as you understand that you can respectfully disagree with something, the religion has lost you because organized religion does not endorse respectful disagreement – they need people to fear an other or to fear alienation (i.e. damnation) to keep them devoted to the religion.

“We found immortality in an endless moment when two suns stared at each other,” To me this, “immortality in an endless moment,” again describes sex because I think sex is one of the only moments in life where we feel truly immortal. Its fundamental purpose, regardless of one’s own personal goals, is pregnancy – which is really the only way in which any of us are immortal, through our genetics as pieces of us living on in the next generation. This is emphasized in the reference and visual of the phoenix as a cyclical creature of rebirth. “When two suns stared at each other” definitely is an expression of equality, and I think she means that when a woman is in a voluntary sexual relationship, as a mistress perhaps, or even just a girlfriend, the two people are equals because she has the freedom to come or go. From a female perspective, when people are not bound to each other, they are more likely to see each other as equals instead of obligations.

Forough’s seventh stanza conveys a similar theme as in the first stanza – between “everyone knows, everyone knows” and “like a short spear will carry news of us to the city.” Everyone knows is a reference to the news of them that has made it to the city, and this excellent cyclical way the poem ties itself together towards the end is a sign of Forough’s skillful storytelling.

You might think that this is an excellent ending to the poem, two suns staring at each other. It’s romantic and beautiful and if you wanted to see this poem as only a love poem, it works. It’s cyclical and ends in a visual and metaphorical pairing. But this is not the end of the poem and I think to leave off the rest censors and fundamentally alters Forough’s message and her artistry. As simply a love poem, the power, perspective and argument of this poem is truncated, so here is the rest.

I am not talking about timorous whispering
In the dark.
I am talking about daytime and open windows
and fresh air and a stove in which useless things burn
and land which is fertile
with a different planting
and birth and evolution and pride.
I am talking about our loving hands
which have built across nights a bridge
of the message of perfume
and light and breeze.
come to the meadow
to the grand meadow
and call me, from behind the breaths
of silk-tasseled acacias
just like the deer calls its mate.

The curtains are full of hidden anger
and innocent doves
look to the ground
from their towering white height.

I love that line – “I am not talking about timorous whispering in the dark,” because it really communicates what Forough hints at in earlier parts of the poem; that she is not ashamed and refuses to act ashamed for the sake of others. It really emphasizes honesty to me, as I interpreted in my reading of earlier stanzas.  Her repetition and visual rhythm of the previous stanzas are preserved in this last portion, but it is also slightly different.

Although the poem does read well without it, this last part really contains the meat of feminist emancipation, and without it one might read the poem superficially as encouraging people towards relationships. What is often called “love poetry.”

Ending the poem with, “In an endless moment when two suns stared at each other,” is like a bus that drops you off at a spot where you can see where you first got on, maybe it’s actually a couple blocks away and you got off a stop too early, but it’s close enough that you inherently sense that the bus trip is a loop. Reading this last portion of the poem though, definitely takes you on a full complete journey because even if the poem leaves you in the same place now, your perception of an idea has been altered, something has changed. Ending with the two suns didn’t do that. Even the placement of the two stanzas that begin “everyone knows, everyone knows…” becomes a step that you take into the poem and out of the poem.

“I am talking about daytime and open windows” again is an outright reference to “that cold sullen window” of the second stanza. “And fresh air and a stove in which useless things burn” I love this line – what is she talking about by comparing these two things? Fresh air and a stove in which useless things burn. (This is exactly why I think these last stanzas reinforce my initial reading of the poem – which was not a complete version.) What useless things would give us fresh air with their burning – their destruction – if not the societal tools of our oppression, like patriarchy or religion perhaps?  Doesn’t this remind us of the images we’ve seen of women burning their hijabs in the street? A genuine yearning is contained in the words, “fresh air and a stove in which useless things burn.”

And land which is fertile with a different planting - I think the land here is women, body and mind. What do we think the different planting is? Instead of babies, which is traditionally what women are “meant” to be fertile for, what else could it be? Of the many things that grow inside of us, imagination is the one that always seems to freak people out. In Iranian culture, women have always been forces of creation, not just of other humans and whole future generations, but of power, survival, intuition, and imagination. Islam in Iran limits women’s rights, until their role in society is basically limited to reproduction and gender slavery.  And birth and evolution and pride – this is absolutely a reference to women’s rights. Pride is apparent in the following lines: “I am talking about our loving hands which have built across nights a bridge of the message of perfume and light and breeze.” This imagery immediately reminds us of the lamp, water and mirror – a visual rhyme, but she’s switched them into different senses that still impart clarity.

“Come to the meadow, to the grand meadow” references the garden, but she calls it a meadow in this line and in the following, “and call me from behind the breaths of silk tasseled acacias just like the deer calls its mate” as a return to nature, purity. In a way, I feel like she is slyly indicating that living as religion dictates is not natural but a perversion by somewhat explicitly saying her own sexual desires this way (just like a deer calls its mate).

The next line absolutely slays because it is so poignant, so honest, and so oblique. It’s concise but conveys a wealth of information at the same time. It’s like a code that maybe not everyone will understand immediately: “The curtains are full of hidden anger.” But I do, because I recognize that anger in me. “The curtains are full of hidden anger” is us, women and men. We are the curtains, and we are full of hidden anger. Iranian culture is a veiled society, regardless of gender. If you don’t wear a physical veil, you have a mental one. In my life, I have rarely met anyone who understood how much anger I carried in me who was not an Iranian woman.  Iranian women have a very complex relationship with anger because I think we all get so used to it that almost all of our other emotions are sustained by anger. It’s become a part of us, a part of who we are. I think this must be similar for many other people who were raised in very repressed societies and cultures, anyone who became very aware of those restrictions on them in adolescence, and I’m sure this line reaches out to them as well. “The curtains are full of hidden anger” is a return to the cold sullen window of the second stanza, where Forough began her journey.  But with the rest of the stanza, “And innocent doves look to the ground from their towering white height.” She conveys a sense of something else, like captivity.

The curtains are full of hidden anger
And innocent doves
look to the ground
from their towering white height.

With this final stanza, we are back in the room we started in – and it also seems like we never actually left. Forough took us to all these open places, through a window, into a garden, a forest, a sea, a mountain, a meadow - only to remind us in the most jarring way that we are actually trapped inside. Window treatments, what a classic metaphor to allude to the domicile of women. In an American reading of this poem, I think this would be a reference to the Cult of Domesticity, which was a prevailing value system for upper and middle class, white Anglo Saxon women in the Northeast of the US during the last 200 years, which emphasized defining what was feminine by measurement of four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. All of this is a very western Christian thing but I think it has a lot of parallels because it is inherently rooted in organized religion, like Islam, and many of the laws surrounding women’s lack of rights in Iran at this time are concentrated on making women behave in the same way.

The way Forough ends this poem is a really powerful statement, if not quite the hopeful one with two suns staring at each other. If two suns staring at each other is about equality, curtains full of hidden anger is decidedly speaking about inequality, emphasized with the juxtaposition of the innocent doves flying freely. Their towering white height conveys something unattainable, which I think we can assume is freedom due to the bird themes throughout the poem. I believe the birds are a symbol of freedom because they represent the ability to just go, across cultures, “as the crow flies.” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” as Maya Angelou wrote. In fathé bāgh, we return again and again to that cold sullen window of the second stanza. We are reminded of it every few lines, and our journey begins and ends with it. But what saddens me here is that by ending the poem in this way, Forough seems to be saying that freedom and equality can be found in romantic love but only in the brief experiences it brings you – it’s not real freedom and genuine honesty when there’s only one person you can feel that with. It makes me wonder what it means to only feel free with a certain person. It’s almost not so much that you would love them for being themselves but more like you love the way you feel when you’re with them. Is there a difference? One seems more selfish than the other, but I wonder how my own emotional bias influences this evaluation. It might not be very much fun to be the other person if they are essentially being used. If the relationship is always an escape for one person but not the other, isn’t that kind of unsustainable and tiring even if the roles occasionally switch?

Even in the two lines, “I am not talking about timorous whispering in the dark. I am talking about daytime and open windows and fresh air and a stove in which useless things burn” there’s actually nothing to imply that we are out of the room or outside. She gives us the impression of being outside but after re-reading a number of times, I think we stay inside the whole time. Isn’t that strangely tragic?

“The curtains are full of hidden anger” is an acknowledgment that even though she can experience joy and honesty and feeling free with another person, it hasn’t actually changed her life much. Curtains bracket a window – what does it mean that curtains full of anger bracket the (her?) view to the garden and the world beyond?

I love the internal rhyme scheme and repetition of fathé bāgh. The pattern of sounds is beautiful, it’s fluid and tells a story that brings you back to the beginning naturally. I enjoy the way Forough juxtaposes opposites visually, her brand of contrary rhyming, and this device almost functions like an argument, like she’s arguing something in the poem. I think we could talk a lot more about what exactly that is from different people’s perspectives.  

I don’t believe this poem is about infidelity exactly or even explicitly anti-marriage. She’s talking about herself and about her own experience. She makes it very obvious and sometimes very vague but the main meaning behind what she says and how she says it is that she may be doing something that will result in ostracism but she is not living her life for anyone but herself. She’s alone in this poem, even when she’s with a lover. She speaks from her own perspective, even when she says “we”.  She is the conqueror and she is the garden and what she has conquered is her fear. This poem is about her victory, her truth and her self-discovery.