Re-Imagining the Self in Nature: Through the Lens of Forugh Farrokhzad

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Re-Imagining the Self in Nature: Through the Lens of Forugh Farrokhzad

Re-Imagining the Self in Nature: Through the Lens of Forough Farrokhzad

By Matilda Moffitt

The established language of nature in classical Persian poetry is used by Farrokhzād in new ways to re-imagine the female subject, who has often been limited by the language and stories that depict her. In her poetry, Farrokhzād draws upon a host of natural images to illustrate and reflect upon the self-image of a distinctly female persona who appears to be the same “I” throughout her collections. In this final part of the blog series, we will explore how visions of this ‘self’ are revised in nature, opening up different manners of existence and perception in the world. Marginality, transgression, and self-perpetration are three important themes across the collections that will allow us to explore this idea further.

Portrait of Forough Farrokhzad, from, 2021

Exposition of Marginality

One of the earliest ways in which Farrokhzād uses natural imagery is to expose the social conditions necessitating a woman’s marginality and silence. This is often achieved by the persona’s perception of entrapment, wherein she is set apart from or deprived of natural landscapes.

The physical and psychological containment of an identifiably female speaker is particularly apparent in poems such as “The Window” (پنجره panjare), “Captive” (اسیر asir), and “Wind Up Doll” (عروسک کوکی arusak-e kuki). In the latter poems the persona is envisioned as either a “captive bird” or “mechanical doll” who is structurally entrapped by their domestic enclosure. The narrow scope by which they can perceive the outside world is a metaphor for the limitations of their existence, commonly represented in Farrokhzād’s poetry by the motif of the persona behind the glass window:

یک پنجره برای دیدن
یک پنجره برای شنیدن
یک پنجره که مثل حلقه چاهی
در انتهای خود به قلب زمین می رسد
و باز می شود به سوی وسعت مهربانی مکرر آبی رنگ

Yek panjare barā-ye didan
Yek panjare barā-ye shonidan
Yek panjare ke mesl-e halqe-ye chāhi
Dar entehā-ye khod be qalb-e zamin mi-resad
Va bāz mi-shavad be su-ye vos’at-e mehrabāni-ye mokarrar-e ābi-rang

‘One window for seeing
One window for hearing
One window, which like the shaft of a well
Extends in its depths to the heart of the earth
And opens towards the expanse of this blue and recurring kindness.’

Image by Hannah Tims on Unsplash, 2018

Whilst the “quest for autonomous self-definition” in poetry by women often begins with a set of images which register conditions of muteness, deformity, or invisibility, such representations do not subside completely in Farrokhzād’s later poetry. “The Window” and “Wind Up Doll” are from Farrokhzād’s fourth collection, “Reborn” (تولدی دیگر tavallodi digar). At the same time, the first two collections “Captive” and “The Wall” (دیوار divār) are, by definition, preoccupied with enclosed spaces.

Exploration of Transgression

Another way in which Farrokhzād uses natural imagery is to explore the poetic persona’s ability to transgress in, and thereby transform, her environment. This is typically carried out in conjunction with a celebration of the body and sexual pleasure, as in “On Loving” (از دوست داشتن az dust dāshtan). In this poem, there is a greater sense of the persona’s agency in their explorations beyond the four walls of the home, although it does take place in the speaker’s imagination.

In “On Loving” from Farrokhzād’s first collection, we are presented with a persona who longs to subsume herself in her lover and has a violent desire for self-annihilation in loving them. The poem begins with a powerful assertion of creative agency, where the speaker describes how her harnessed emotions “set ablaze/the muteness of these blank pages”. However, the persona, like the intensity of her poems, burns with a passion so intense that she feels she will be consumed. Although the act of loving her partner has generated this fierce energy, it appears that it can only lead to destruction in “the flames’ relentless craving”. Simultaneously invoking ideas of creation and death, the speaker wishes to annihilate and re-create herself in her lover, breaking her “head” and her “body” on mountain rocks and ocean waves.

Unlike poems such as “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season” (ایمان بیاوریم به آغاز فصل سرد imān biyāvarim be āghāz-e fasl-e sard), in “On Loving” the speaker’s conception of herself is inextricable from her lover. She has not yet acknowledged, at least fully, the dark place within herself where her true spirit rises “beautiful and tough as chestnut.” Although acts of transgression have been carried out, the speaker of “On Loving” confesses that her poems are “shamed by its desires”. In other words, the self is not yet realised independently from how others perceive her.

Image by Georg Eiermann on Unsplash, 2020

Transgression is a key to Farrokhzād’s poetry and should not be taken lightly. Disregarding gender roles and revealing ‘masculine’ urgency and passion, the poet creates realistic and vivid portrayals of women who are full of life.

Expression of Self-perpetuation

Whilst natural spaces can be sites for rebellion, they are also centres of life that sustain a speaker who increasingly develops a sense of belonging in the world. In poems such as “Reborn” and “On the Earth” the persona is certain of a regenerative power to transcend a limited perception of herself and re-imagine herself as part of one unit of being. There is a greater awareness of the rhythm of life and the persona’s existence within it, rather than a sense that she cannot partake in it or must control it to achieve parity. It is in “Reborn” that the poetic persona asserts:

دستهایم را در باغچه می کارم

سبز خواهم شد، می دانم، می دانم، می دانم

و پرستوها در گودی انگشتان جوهریم

تخم خواهند گذاشت

Dast-hā-yam rā dar bāghche mi-kāram
Sabz khāham shod, mi-dānam, mi-dānam, mi-dānam
Va parasto-hā dar gudi-ye angosht-ān-e jowhari-yam
Tokhm khāhand gozāsht

‘I plant my hands in the garden
I will grow,
I know, I know, I know
and the swallows will lay eggs
in the hollows of my inky fingertips.’

Image by Chris Yang on Unsplash, 2018

The concept of self-perpetuation through nature is further developed in “On the Earth” (روی خاک ru-ye khāk) where the self is fully integrated with the natural world. Rather than her lifeforce being diminished by her environment, the persona sees herself as subsisting through nature:

هرگز از زمین جدا نبوده‌ام
با ستاره آشنا نبوده‌ام
روی خاک ایستاده‌ام
با تنم که مثل ساقهٔ گیاه
باد و آفتاب و آب را
می مکد که زندگی کند

Hargez az zamin jodā nabude-am
Bā setāre āshenā nabude-am
Ru-ye khāk istāde-am
Bā tan-am ke mesl-e sāqe-ye giyāh
Bād-o āftāb-o āb rā
Mi-makad ke zendegi konad

‘I have never been separate from the earth
I have not been familiar with the stars
I have stood on the earth,
my body which, like the stem of a plant,
sucks in wind and water and sun
to live.’

Although the female body has been closely connected with natural imagery in many early poems, it is in the collection “Reborn” (تولدی دیگر tavallodi digar) that we find a complete integration with nature that is undetermined by the persona’s relationships and social convention. Rather than expressing a desire to escape or subdue matter, there is a realisation that “the function of the spirit is to celebrate matter”, that humanity is itself a part of this cosmos, that its order is knowable and that knowledge of one aspect will lead to knowledge of the others.

Conceptualisation of the Self in Society

The final use of natural imagery that will be explored is particularly apparent in Farrokhzād’s final collection “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season”. In this collection, we see the speaker more fully articulate and challenge societal norms through depictions of nature that reflect the ills of society. As a result, the speaker’s sense of self is expressed in relation to the family unit and wider community.

Departing from previous portrayals of nature that are often characterised by life and hopefulness, the poem “I Feel Sorry for the Garden” (دلم برای باغچه می سوزد del-am barāye bāghche mi-suzad) offers an alternative vision of a garden characterised by putridity, death, and suppressed emotion. In this poem, the sickness of society is envisioned in the garden’s defilement and degeneration, where the artificiality of convention and public façade is contrasted with the truth and innocence of the garden’s inhabitants.

Unlike previous articulations of the garden as a large, walled enclosure (باغ bāgh) such as in “Conquest of the Garden” (فتح باغ fath-e bāgh), this is a distinctly residential garden (حیاط hayāt). Consequently, we get a more intimate view of the persona’s life and relationships. Various family members interact with this garden, yet their activity reveals to the reader that they are troubled both individually and collectively. The garden reflects the ills of a family riddled with problems: the father “curses all the birds and all the fish” in his frustration at his own life; the mother “prays all day” and believes the garden has been polluted by the “heresy of a sin” rather than their own carelessness; the brother laughs derisively at the state of the garden and gets drunk alone; and the sister, who was once a friend to the flowers, is now an “artificial” wife in an “artificial house”. The family’s lack of interest or engagement with the garden is indicative of a wider sense of self-interest and superficiality that the speaker is openly critical of.

Image by Nastaran Taghipour on Unsplash, 2022

In the last few stanzas of the poem, Farrokhzād broadens the scope of her vision beyond that of the nuclear family to comment more generally on contemporary Iranian society as a whole. In Farrokhzād’s apocalyptic visions, school children fill their bags with grenades and neighbours plant “bombs and machine guns” in their gardens, using their tiled ponds to “conceal sacks of gunpowder”. The speaker is at a loss as to how she might rectify the situation and save the garden from “the idleness of all these hands” and “alienation in all these faces”, from “the age that has lost its heart”.

Although “I Feel Sorry for the Garden” presents us with a bleak vision of mankind, there is an implication that we can recover ourselves if we regain the “heart” we have lost. The speaker is insistent that we have lost our connections to our environment, and thereby ourselves since we belong to one another. Whilst she despairs of others’ heartlessness, in the poem “Only Voice Remains” (تنها صداست که می ماند tanhā sadā-st ke mi-mānad) the persona resists such cruelty and blindness by courageously asserting that “the four elements alone rule me” and it is “the flowers’ bloodstained history that has committed me to life.”

Throughout Farrokhzād’s work, we can identify a female poetic persona who appears to undergo a development in her self-perception via shifting conceptualisations of the world around her. Whilst there is no clear disjunct we can point to that signifies an ‘incomplete’ and ‘complete’ perception of self, there is across Farrokhzād’s collections a continuous, yet irregular, development of this sense of self. By the end of her work, the speaker offers us clear and cutting portrayals of the world she lives in, perceiving that it is only through her connection with the earth that she can survive and even thrive within it.

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