dVerse — Poetics — Alchemy of Freedom


Ahmad Shamlou احمد شاملو

Ahmad Shamlou

The misconception of totalitarianism is
that freedom can be imprisoned.
This is not the case.
When you constrain freedom,
freedom will take flight
and land on a windowsill.
— Ai Weiwei


They cough at soot of hell’s belch
long before others smell smoke.

They hear change in morning notes;
doves flutter away, ravens descend.

They smell when stew takes a turn
and, though hungry, step out of line.

They feel monsters tingle up spine
when a friendly neighbor disappears.

Steel of bullets, swords dis-integrate
to re-form in a poet’s being; to yet feel,

To stay, to speak, to risk all to dispel;
Brave alchemists that turn shit to gold.


When I saw Paul’s prompt subject, I immediately thought about Ai Weiwei, his exhibit at Meijer Gardens a few years ago, and an exhibit he did at Alcatraz a few more years back. The top quote opens the online exhibit. As you scroll through it and as you reach the end you see Ai has named many political prisoners, past and present. It is there that I found Ahmad Shamlou’s name.

In This Dead-End Road by Ahmad Shamlou

They sniff your breath
lest you have said: I love you.

They sniff your heart–
                    (such strange times, my sweet)

and they flog love
at every checkpoint.

                             We must hide love in the backroom.
In the cold of this dead-end crooked road

they stoke their pyres
with our poems and songs.

Don’t risk thinking,
                         for these are strange times, my sweet.

The man who beats at the door 
in the nadir of night,
has come to kill the lamp.

                                We must hide light in the backroom.

Those are butchers in passageways
with their chopping blocks
and bloodied cleavers.

                      (Such strange times, my sweet)

They carve smiles off faces
and sever songs from mouths.

                               We must hide pleasure in the back room.

Canaries are barbequed

on flames of lilies and jasmines…
                       (such strange times, my sweet)

and the devil, drunk on victory, 
feasts at the table set for our wake.

                         We must hide God in the back room.

from Sholeh Wolpe’s website:
(translated by Sholeh Wolpé)  From: The Forbidden—Poems from Iran and Its Exiles

I also found another English translation by Franklin Lewis that also includes the original Persian language as well as information about when it was published here.

from wikipedia:

Ahmad Shamlou (Persian: احمد شاملو,) also known under his pen name A. Bamdad (Persian: ا. بامداد) (b. 12/12/25 – d. 7/23/00) was an Iranian poet, writer, and journalist. Shamlou was arguably the most influential poet of modern Iran… Abdolali Dastgheib, Iranian literary critic, argues that, “Shamlou is one of the pioneers of modern Persian poetry and has had the greatest influence, after Nima, on Iranian poets of his era.” Shamlou’s poetry is complex, yet his imagery, which contributes significantly to the intensity of his poems, is accessible. As the base, he uses the traditional imagery familiar to his Iranian audience through the works of Persian masters… For infrastructure and impact, he uses a kind of everyday imagery in which personified oxymoronic elements are spiked with an unreal combination of the abstract and the concrete thus far unprecedented in Persian poetry, which distressed some of the admirers of more traditional poetry.

Shamlou has translated extensively from French to Persian and his own works are also translated into a number of languages. He has also written a number of plays, edited the works of major classical Persian poets, especially Hafez. His thirteen-volume Ketab-e Koucheh (The Book of Alley) is a major contribution in understanding the Iranian folklore beliefs and language. He also wrote fiction and screenplays, contributing to children’s literature, and journalism.

Shamlou was a Marxist and a socially minded intellectual who has woven personal love and affection together with his social attitudes. He was a major force in the intellectual movement opposed to the former Shah of Iran before the 1979 revolution. During his long life, Shamlou was politically active and imprisoned twice, first after the end of World War II and then after the 1953 coup, but he continued to remain socio-politically active by writing poems devoted to political and social critique even after the Iranian Revolution. In 1976, he left his country as a form of protest against censorship and the suffocating political atmosphere. In 1977, one year before the collapse of the Shah’s Regime, he signed an open letter which supported the rights of gathering for members of The Writers Association of Iran. New Islamic regime wasn’t favorable to him, considering him as an anti-Islamist nationalist element, a traitor and a Westernised writer. However, with a view to his popularity, the ruling clerics could not arrest him, but at the same time didn’t allow publication of his works for many years. Since the early 1990s his poems have appeared in many literary journals.

Paul Vincent Cannon is today’s host for dVerse’ Poetics. Paul says:
So, my invitation is to write a poem, using any form, that highlights the plight of those poets imprisoned for their craft.


25 Comments Add yours

  1. Grace says:

    Whew, this is a lot to take in and I am learning more about his work and case. These poets are so brave and I love this part:To stay, to speak, to risk all to dispel;
    Brave alchemists that turn shit to gold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Thank you, Grace. I’m left speechless when I see what one fearless and focused poet can do. Truly inspirational.


  2. I love the way you describe the totalitarians… and of course the poets standing up to them…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Thank you very much, Bjorn (and glad to see you back.)


  3. I love it .. what Grace said Li.. nice! 💞

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Thank you, Cindy ❤ 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. kim881 says:

    This is such a great prompt for finding out about poets I have never heard of, Lisa; thank you for introducing me to Ahmad Shamlou and his poetry. The example you have given made an impression on me, although I wish I could read it in its original language – so much is lost in translation. The opening lines of your poem are powerful, especially ‘hell’s belch’ and you too have included birds. I also like the effect of monsters that ‘tingle up spine when a friendly neighbor disappears’ – we can only imagine what it must be like to live in that kind of fear.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. pvcann says:

    Wow, what a poem! I almost included Shamloo (so many to choose from – sadly). This packs a punch. And that last line makes we want to shout Yes! to the real freedom and power of the word over tyranny. Thank you Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      You’re welcome, Paul, and Yes!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. memadtwo says:

    Brave alchemists…we must always honor them, never forget. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love both–yours and his.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Thank you, Melissa. He’s an extraordinary poet and when I see what he was able to accomplish in his life, despite all of the forces trying to stop him, I am blown away.


  8. rothpoetry says:

    An excellent post for this prompt Lisa. Amazing words even with translation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Dwight, thank you very much. I’m so glad that Paul chose what he did as a prompt. Yes, the poem he wrote vibrates with power.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. rothpoetry says:

        it really does!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Sadje says:

    Thanks for introducing us to this amazing poet and person. I love your very evocative poem Li.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Sadje, thank you very much and I was happy to learn more about him while putting the post together.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sadje says:

        You’re most welcome.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Badfinger (Max) says:

    I love his quote…it’s so true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Thank you very much. Also, on another subject, I got the pics. Talk about the icing on the cake. Life is good.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badfinger (Max) says:

        Oh yes…makes me want to get my passport and go.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. msjadeli says:

          I hear you!

          Liked by 1 person

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