In the days when I was Kevin in San Jose
and the girls at the mixer thought Iran was in East Asia,
my Catholic high school teacher warned me,
“You have trouble with winding sentences,
articles, prepositions, too many possessives.”
“Yes, I definitely have problems with relationships,” I pleaded,
“my cat hides in the drawers, afraid of my embrace.
My girlfriend sends coded messages, drawings of houseflies
to say bug off.” He chided, “Your paper on the God of Mohammad,
of Jesus, of Moses… You plagiarized Aquinas. Tulips aren’t arrows
pointing to Him.” I confessed, “I don’t know where He is, but I want
Him to come like the revolution.” I knelt, an infinity half-lit to detain Him.
How can you finish a sentence when the thoughts aren’t?
Galb, the heart in Arabic, is also the turning, a revolution.
During the hostage crisis, when I was Albanian,
my history teacher conceded, “You’ve to be born into English
to be its rightful citizen.” I wanted to be an American poet,
but was a Persian settler. I said, “I’m used to speaking in tongues,
been talking to Him in Arabic. I think He speaks in English now.”
When I was ten, my father went on hajj without telling me.
Late at night, when he didn’t come home, I unfolded the pages
of his pajamas, still smelling of yesterday, laid inside to find
the Silk Road, not knowing it wasn’t taking me to Mecca.
How else to express loss? My grandmother insisted Muslim
means submitting to words. She didn’t believe in the revolution.
She believed in discipline, inspected the bulbs to make sure
they were wearing their tunics, planted them properly, filling
the blanks in her English workbook. I stopped writing poems.
My philosophy instructor believed we’re inmates of language’s
dormitory. I watched the letters escape her mouth, absconded
with the freight. I admitted, “I know ‘whereof one cannot speak
thereof one must be silent’ but I heard proofs last night in the broken
syntax of the Pacific shore.” Late one summer in primary school,
when my friends were leaving Iran, I started naming the flowers
hiding outside my home after them. I didn’t know my friend
Mohammad was praiseworthy in Arabic and Farshad
happy in Persian. I knew Haleh, my sister who was staying
with my mother, wasn’t a flower, and Laleh, my girlfriend,
wasn’t the linden in the front yard, the ambient black
and white television, an empty house. I didn’t know lalehs
were tulips in English. I knew how their soft cheeks bruised,
their thirsty beaks bent to the sun. I knew how we fought at home.
I didn’t know the name of the Dutch naval admiral
or the spreading virus, the exotic pigments of the infected.
I didn’t know any youth sent to the Iran–Iraq War. I wanted
to be the uppercase I, standing tall, not them, not us.
The time I wanted to talk to Dante, I wasn’t thinking of translation.
My world literature professor said, “Why don’t you write about Islam?
Didn’t you read The Inferno? Mohammad is split open
from his chin to the anus, his entrails dangling between his thighs.”
She wanted me to present Rumi, pomegranates, and Muslims,
all of them raised and ethically traded. When asked where
I got my information, I admitted, “The Encyclopedia Britannica.”
She said, “Why write about words?” I heard the accent of my suitcase
from Tehran, stuttering down the San Francisco airport tunnel,
fined for its additional weight. There are different names, different
fruits for dates as they grow old. We have tareh, rokhmal, pahak,
karak, dom baz, rotab, khorma. She stressed, “Be careful of the profit,
the last prophet. You’ve a big responsibility. Explain how the tulip
isn’t the bloody heart of a martyr. How it’s Rumi’s wine glass.”
I was filling my pockets full of vows, peddling on the unpaved roads
between languages, with my father’s abacus.
When I started writing again, my poetry idol insisted,
“Why don’t you write in Persian. Don’t you like Ferdowsi
and Hafez?” I said, “Even in Persian He doesn’t answer.
But I’ll go on calling. I’ll ghazal open the screen door
to my English backyard, undress the lilies under the language’s
prism, take off their Times Roman suits, plant gh in the soil
of the alphabet. My present, silent vowels wrapped in words.
English, a turban worn by my thoughts.” I say, “I’m writing Persian
when my sentences drag, metaphors circle premises counterclockwise
to kiss the face of a black tulip. I’m writing Persian when my thoughts
lean toward the left, pushing words to the purdah side of the page.
When went becomes a vent and the west becomes a vest.
I’m writing Persian, when I say algorithm, arsenic, bazaar, bronze,
caravan, caviar, chess, dervish, gizzard, jackal, jasmine, khaki,
kiosk, lemon, lilac, magic, orange, paradise, peach, pistachio,
rose, serendipity, shawl, spinach, taffeta, tiara, tiger, tulip.”
Tulip comes from turban.