The complete poem Water’s Footfall is available as a chapbook, including primary language and complete translator’s note here.
from “Water’s Footfall”
by Sohrab Sepehri
(Translated by Kazim Ali with Mohammad Jafar Mahallati,
Omnidawn Publishing, 2011)
From Kashan I came, and I do all right.
I have a piece of bread, some smarts, a little bit of wit.
I have a mother, better than the bright green leaf,
and my friends, like the river streaming.
I have a God as well who lives right around here somewhere…
among these night-blooms, or there at the foot of the white pine,
past the stream’s consciousness, past all the statutes and laws of the reeds.
I am a Muslim:
The rose is my qibla.
The stream my prayer-rug, the sunlight my clay tablet.
My mosque the meadow.
I rinse my arms for prayers along with the thrum and pulse of windows.
Through my prayers streams the moon, the refracted light of the sun.
Through translucent chapters I look down at the stones in the stream-bed.
Every part of my prayer is clear straight through.
I begin my recitation when I hear the wind’s call to prayer from the cypress tree minaret.
I start to whisper after the grass proclaims the allahu-akbar,
after the stream’s surface sings qad-qamat-as-salaat—prayer time has arrived!
My Ka’aba is there on the stream-bank, in the shade of the acacia trees.
Like a light breeze, my Ka’aba drifts from orchard to orchard, town to town.
My black stone is sunlight in the flowers.
From Kashan I am, a painter by trade.
Sometimes with paint and paper I build a cage of colors and offer it at market
to free your lonely heart with the song of the poppy inside—
When my father brought me Sepehri’s books he was again whispering the azan in my
one ear, the iqamat in the other. It was Marco Wilkinson who first read lines to me
from Sepehri, “I am a Muslim. The rose is my qibla.” As for me, I had to dream Sepehri
before I could write him, I had to write him before I could read him.
Above all, his rapture and his rhythm and the breath that moved through his lines were
what I tried to stay faithful to rather than the mechanics of sentence structure and
syntax, which are, after all, things that famously do not translate. Sepehri’s text is laced
together by repetition, anaphora and a set of culturally freighted words and symbols.
I tried to bring the music out into an English version which sometimes uses synonyms
rather than repetition and occasionally uses a stanza break to add emphasis during a
litany, but truly the poem’s most important qualities—ecstasy, fever, ardor—hardly need
a body to translate them. They sing out through any words; they will not be contained.
About Sohrab Sepehri:
Sohrab Sepehri was born in 1928 on a journey between Kashan, his family’s home, and Qum. An acclaimed painter, Sepehri published eight books of poetry during his lifetime and traveled widely throughout the world, including Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, China and Japan, the United States and South America. Many of his poems were influenced by his relationship with nature, and his studies of Eastern philosophy and visual arts and were often composed in a cadence similar to spoken language, considered a radical innovation at the time. Sepehri died in 1980 and in Iran is considered to be one of the most important poets of the twentieth century.
Kazim Ali is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and essays, including most recently Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence, and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. He teaches at Oberlin College in the Creative Writing and Comparative Literature programs and in the Stonecoast MFA Program.
Mohammad Jafar Mahallati is currently Presidential Scholar in Islamic Studies at Oberlin College. He served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989 and successfully negotiated a peace agreement to end the war between Iran and Iraq. His scholarship has focused on Islamic and Sufi poetry and most recently on the philosophy of friendship. Mahallati has published in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune and other papers.