- That Which Is Left Unimagined
Ruth Valentine Shahram Karimi, illustrator
42 Pages; Print, £10.00
The genesis of Ruth Valentine's Rubāiyāt: For the Martyrs of Two Wars, published in 2017 by Hercules Editions as a truly lovely, illustrated chapbook, lies in a trip Valentine took to Iran around the time that the Rouhani and Obama administrations negotiated the nuclear arms deal from which Donald Trump recently withdrew. Valentine was struck on that trip, she explains in her afterword, by "the disquieting gaze of the 'martyrs,'" young men who sacrificed themselves for their country during its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s—many, if not most, in the grips of an authentic religious fervor. These young men have been officially memorialized throughout Iran in portraits that "look down [on passersby] from lamp-posts and drinking fountains," not to mention the sides of buildings, both large and small—constant reminders of the sacrifice to which Iran's government, in the name of the Islamic Revolution, calls its young men.
Giving context to Valentine's "disquieting" experience is Kamin Mohammadi's helpful introduction, which explains Iran's cult of martyrdom for those who are unfamiliar with it. That this explanation is even necessary reveals why Valentine found it impossible to write about the martyrs until she returned to England and read a newspaper story about "the death of a young Black man on the streets of South London." What that news story provided was a "second, complementary theme," rooted firmly—as the martyrs were not—in Valentine's own experience, giving her a way, as Malika Booker, says in her foreword "to make plain the fact that in both locations [Iran and England] boys are innocent victims, and … to create a dialogue [about this fact] across geographical boundaries."
That's a tall order for a poem of just over one hundred lines, especially one that tries not only to elegize those boys, but also to provide a critique of the masculine nihilism that renders their deaths all-but-inevitable. Indeed, the front and back matter—of which there are more pages in the book than
poetry (ten vs. nine)—is clearly intended to account for the ambitiousness of this scope. It is, therefore, a testament to Valentine's talent that the poem is what commands our attention. Here, for example, is how she memorializes one of Iran's martyrs who never should have been one:
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.
This quatrain is a rubai, a Persian verse form most commonly associated in English with Omar Khayyam (rubāiyāt is the plural). Valentine writes about the aesthetic and political implications of her decision to use this form in her afterword:
I turned to the form not only because it felt culturally appropriate, for all my misappropriation, but because I found the rhyme-scheme provided a kind of stern certainty. As the sequence grew, the taut stanza both contained my growing anger and (with the enjambment) allowed it to overflow.
In fact, Valentine does not always strictly adhere to the form's aaba rhyme scheme, though the modulations she employs (about which more towards the conclusion) actually heighten the scheme's emotional power when, as in the example above, the rhymes do match up precisely. She achieves a similar effect in these lines about one of the boys from London:
This one a baseball-player, loose-limbed, tall,A good friend, joker, party-goer. All The young girls watched him move. The quiet oneHe'd loved since childhood saw him flinch and fall.
The power of these lines notwithstanding, it's telling that nowhere in the poem does Valentine explicitly identify any of the dead English boys by race or ethnicity, especially since she goes out of her way to locate the boys from Iran firmly in their Iranian and Muslim identities. This matters because it means we do not see...