White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad

$18 Argos Books (70 pages)

Iranian-born Swedish national Athena Farrokhzad movingly tells one family’s immigration story with six voices, distinct not in delivery but in vantage, interpretation, tone, and approach. We get metaphorical language, blunt colloquialisms, warped adages, cultural sayings; and then, most importantly, we get the variable faces of love. Arranged sparingly on the page in white text over black strips, White Blight is communicated alternately by mother, brother, father, uncle, grandmother, and, lastly, the speakers’ unnamed antecedent, presumably an abstracted Farrokhzad, through whom all speech is funneled (with most lines beginning “My […] said:”). Each member views the collective uprooting—this life-altering experience—with a different retrospection, bringing to the table debts of gratitude, traumas of war, exhibits of globalization: versions to be seen/heard/processed by the poem’s stenographer. Even the act of transcription that has provided us with the privilege of reading this phenomenal work cannot escape its own judgment mill: “My mother said: All families have their stories / but for them to emerge requires someone / with a particular will to disfigure[.]” For me, this becomes the chorus—that relativity or selectivity are innate to story, that others involved must and will disagree, that deliberate muteness abounds in corners. So, how important it is for everyone to tell their own stories.

 Though it is hard, always, to know whether poetry in translation is in one sense or another faithful to its source, I do feel sharply the emotions emanating from Farrokhzad’s book and I do follow doggedly from page to page its propulsion to the last word and I do connect to all of its sensitivity, accusation, grief, and hope. Then, in this sense, Jennifer Hayashida has indeed translated White Blight faithfully; has generated a belief that to familiarize oneself with Athena Farrokhzad’s poetry is to refamiliarize oneself with the world.

* * *

(from page 47 to page 52)




My uncle said: The war has never ceased
You have only ceased being the victim of war







My mother said: Do not bury me here
Bury me where the veneer of civilization has peeled
Spit out my language, return the milk to me






My grandmother said: When you are from a place it is inescapable
You can say I changed there
I left the gathering of stones
Or I was never intended for frost-ridden dawn
But you cannot say I am from nowhere
I belong to no place








My father said: The one who travels is redundant to the place they came from
My mother said: The one who travels thinks they are essential to the place they come to
My father said: The one who travels is redundant to the place they come to
My mother said: The one who travels thinks they were essential to the place they came from
My uncle said: The one who travels knows nothing about place



My father said: We are still there, even if time has separated us from the place
My mother said: Our ceilings are as high as the floors warrant






My father said: The farther you move from the scene of the crime,
the more you are bound to it
My mother said: The more you care for the wound,
the more it festers

My grandmother said: What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts

My uncle said: Do not forget that you walked these streets as a child
Do not forget that all that matters in a revolution
is the daughters’ decisions between the lines of the poem




My mother said: If you do not speak to someone for whom you can abandon language
there is no point in speaking


My uncle said: If you do not tremble when you cross a border
it is not the border you have crossed

Posted by Alexander