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The Kindly Interrogator

Alireza Abiz

Translated by Alireza Abiz and WN Herbert

(Shearsman Books, 2021)

Reviewed by Sana Nassari

When I saw the interrogation rooms at Ai Weiwei’s 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London, I wished a Persian poet could convey such an experience in poetry. This is what comes off quite impressively in Alireza Abiz’s The Kindly Interrogator.

Published in English translation by Shearsman Books, this compilation includes selected poems from Abiz’s five books originally written in Persian, starting from his first poetry collection Stop! We Should Get Off! (1998) and ending with Black Line – London Underground (2018). 

As a Persian speaker, I have always followed the poetry of Abiz and his generation. A generation that went through several major social and political upheavals including revolution (1979), immediately followed by the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), the 2009 uprising, and so on. Indeed, one defining feature of Abiz’s poetry is its tie to the real life of the poet. He once stated that his poetry is inextricably linked to his lived experience. Given that so much of life is a social experience, most of his poetry, even the most personal, has a delicate relationship with the socio-political framework in which his poet-being identity is constructed. Some of his poetry’s elements and its characters can be interpreted as representations of overarching phenomena – an interrogator, for example, can represent totalitarianism’s panoptic power – while other poems, such as ‘The Café’, can convey various aspects of living under oppression or in a dogmatic society. 

In Abiz’s free verse poems, one can hear the echo of his Persian literary heritage. The purity of his language, which I feel is partially a legacy of the Khorasan province in which he grew up, helps him to construct an atmosphere of horror using just a few neutral words, allowing the reader to sense for themselves the impending catastrophe. Predominantly using declarative sentences, Abiz successfully employs the simplest structure to depict the narrator’s surprising repose while describing his traumatic experience of being interrogated. He also uses it for the horrifying imaginary situations in which the victim wishes to appear in different scenes with his interrogators and find a chance to calmly take revenge. 

Despite the modern thinking that it seems Abiz’s poetry emerges from, the presence of magical or mysterious motifs in his poems, ‘Detention’, ‘The Black Cat’ or ‘A White Bird’, signifies the rich Iranian cultural background in which the literary knowledge of the poet is rooted. Though Abiz has never considered himself an exiled writer, living the life of a migrant has formed a great part of his identity as a poet. Even his job, as a translator, provides a daily switching movement between two language worlds, Persian and English. 

As I went through the collection, I could visualise this contemporary poet, young like ‘The Tired Soldier’, old like ‘Pilgrims’, displaced, estranged from the homeland, alienated in a so-called second home, immersed in memories and fears, yet witty and optimistic.