‘Send me a patch of blue sky’
Born in Mashhad in Iran in 1938, Esma’il Kho’i is the best known Persian poet living in exile. From 1967 to 1982 he was a leading representative of modernism and a chairman of the Writers’ Association in Iran. He took the revolution as an opportunity for profound social changes but in 1983 had to flee from persecution by the Islamic republic and has since been living in London.
Esma´il Kho´i was born on 39th June, 1938, in Mashhad, the holy city in the province Khorassan in north-east Iran. He there went to school and in 1956 published his first book of poetry, which he later made light of as a sin of youth. In 1957 he began to study teaching at the Pedagogic High School in Teheran, then on completion of the course he received a government grant in 1961 to study philosophy at the University of London. On gaining a master’s degree and Franca, an Italian fellow student, as his wife, he returned to Teheran, to teach at his old high school.
In 1967 he brought out a book of poetry, which he then did once a year up to 1973. The series established him as the most eminent Persian poet writing in the tradition of Nima Juschidsch, Ahmad Schamlu, Mehdi Achawan-Ssaless and Forugh Farrochsad and brought him a lasting place beside them in the rich history of Persian poetry.
Schooled in philosophy and the western variety of Marxism, Esma´il Kho´i was able to frame dialectical thought and historical materialism in verse of notable finesse, which gave him a chance to move readers in a way new in Persian poetry. In ‘The North too‘, the speaker describes rain dilapidating slums in the south of Teheran and goes on to consider social structures and to rail against inequality, thus paving the way for an uprising. On a philosophical plane, the poem begins by describing a catastrophe and goes on to reflect on decay and renewal, on death and rebirth,’ say Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Michael Beard in their introduction to ‘Edges of Poetry‘ (1995).
But even in those years, childhood memories emerged as did the topos of the ‘maykhaneh‘, the wine-house, as an intellectual oasis for poets left to drown in alcohol, be it wine or vodka. Here too there is an echo of Kho’i’s favourite poet, Hafis, whose turban was likewise reddened with wine.
In the years before the Iranian revolution, Kho’i’s situation became precarious. On the one hand he was committed in practice to the revolting left, yet on the other hand he was unable to stifle his own misgivings. He was able to express this ambivalence in his poems but was unable to discuss the situation in public without putting his life at stake under the Shah’s oppression. The conflicting currents affected his personal life too in causing his marriage to break up. He had a whirlwind love affair, which whirled him back to his wife, but he found then that he was unable to turn back the clock.
His works reveal the scope of his concerns in these years. ‘Kho’i’s poetry, be it anchored in the Bible or based on seemingly trivial events, changes the essence of the personal finally into the feeling of motion through time, due to the keen sense of history in the background. Great or small images and events seem to yield their historically determined qualities to the poetic gaze. They yield poetic opportunities, whether they belong to the main thread of a universal tale or to a private event; whether they are ascribed to a larger context or not.’ (ibid)
One of the most important poems from this period is ‘Yes, my younger Brother’ from 1977, in which two generations of political activists meet each other. The author, as implied by the form of the poem, is a spokesman for the elder generation, which is upbraided by the younger for not furthering the revolution with enough zeal. Kho’i replies that the task of his generation is to portray the future, even for the young. His reply is rejected as not meeting the needs of the time, and Kho’i realises that, as a witness of earlier events, he is being criticised on their account. Yet even the translation of this masterpiece leaves the reader feeling that Kho’i’s basic doubts about means are justified. The dialogue form, perfected in many poems, serves to explore human relationships.
In the two years before the Iranian revolution, the Iranian Writer’s Association from 20 years earlier, had a leading role in intellectual debate. In 1979 Kho’i was called to its governing board and stayed on it till fleeing from Iran in 1983. At this time the Association was constantly attacked by the Islamic republic, since the mullahs’ fanatical followers saw in it the liberal and progressive ideas they loathed. Still, Kho’i was able to stand as a candidate for the Iranian parliament in 1980.
The election was never held. Kho’i was now exposed to the frantic hatred of Khomeini’s youthful disciples, who were encouraged to attack bookshops and other cultural institutions and even to smash the homes of dissidents. The attacks against the Writers’ Association culminated in the prosecution and execution of Said Soltanpur and the prosecution and mopping up of hundreds of other intellectuals. This was the bitter fruit of what many intellectuals had themselves watered. Esma´il Kho´i went underground at the start of 1982, and in spring 1983 left Iran secretly to save his skin.
‘Imam of the Plague‘ describes his feelings after successfully fleeing to Italy and seeing his homeland change into a bloodbath, whereas ‘Return to Borgio Verezzi‘ records the inner dereliction and wounds arising from his banishment and time in exile. ‘Anachronism‘, which appeared just after his move to London, contains poems written during the turbulent years in Iran. Since 1984 Kho’i’s poems have focussed on exile, memories and reflections. His attention has turned inward, tracing the debris of great events in feelings and other reactions, in shifts in the sense of reality, and in crises of apathy and agony.
In 1992 in London there appeared a collection of poems describing the ‘ups and downs of the soul and the world’ and exile as a place which baffles understanding and numbs reactions, deadens the soul and veils painful memories. Anger and shame, pride and disgrace, as also the loneliness behind them, tinge awareness of the present, so that surfeit and boredom can be relieved only by irony. But Esma´il Kho´i does not take resignation to be a solution. His voice is still his own in defending human rights and political freedom all round the world, especially if they are jeopardised due to Iran.
Hence as Salman Rushdie’s life was threatened by Khomenei’s fatva, Kho’i wrote him a verse letter in English, not without a glancing blow at his adoptive motherland and her head of state, and not without hiding his whereabouts.
Kho’I’s last publications are more concerned with the tradition of the Persian lyric. Hence the collection entitled ‘Send me a Patch of blue Sky‘ is written in the rubaiyyat form favoured by Omar-i Khajyaam. ‘Paradoxically, Kho’i’s reverence for the classical aesthetics and for that of Hafis in particular is especially revealing if the degree to which he seems to break with this tradition in practice is taken into account. The words of his poems often seem to fall in an avalanche of short lines, in a shower of accelerating figures of speech, which in the course of a page reveal a thread of persistent thought. His poetic skills emphasise the typical features of the language...’.
It is impossible to consider the individual features of a poem by Kho’i without first appreciating its abstract roots. Again and again his ideas appear to be products of the language itself, but then a gap is sensed between the content and the form, as if Kho’i wished to point out that certain features of the material world are changed in our perception and awareness of them.’ (ibid)
Ideas presented in poetry like Kho’i’s are distanced by stylisation, enabling readers to toy with them while enjoying the beauty of sound.
Some of Kho’i’s poems, from various periods, have been translated into German by Kurt Scharf and published by various companies. Two ample volumes have appeared in English.
Events at the HKW:
Sunday, 9th February, 1992
Blue – Hue of Eyes, None
Literature and Music from the exotic Orient
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Sunday, 12th October, 1997
Interlit 4: Other Times
Leap and Leap Forward
Shirley Geok-lin Lim
Organiser: House of World Cultures with Interlit e.V. Erlangen and the Literary Colloquium Berlin
Sunday, 29th March, 1998
Table talk with
Adonis, Zygmunt Baumann, Rachid Taha und Essma’il Cho’i
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: Beate-Ursula Endriss
Esma´il Kho´i was born on 30th June 1938 in Mashhad in Iran, where he went to school and published his first slim volume of poems in 1956. He later made light of this work as a sin of youth. In 1957 he began studying at the Pedagogical High School in Teheran and in 1961 was given a grant by the government to study in England. He there took a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of London and wed Franca, an Italian fellow student with whom he returned to Iran to teach at his old high school.
From 1967 to 1973 he brought out one book of poetry a year, including one extra book in 1973. These earned him the reputation of being the most interesting new writer of Persian poetry. His sixth book appeared in 1978, on the eve of the revolution. He is known for pouring new wine into old jars, especially as regards social responsibility.
As a Marxist and connoisseur of western philosophy, he improved political discourse in Iran, giving it more acuteness, scepticism and seriousness of purpose. The years up to the Iranian revolution were marked by political polarisation, a more radical assault on the Shah’s regime and increasingly brutal repression.
Kho’i sympathised with the left, but from 1969 on, he aired his doubts as regards methods, especially those of the guerrillas. These years also witnessed the break-up of his marriage, which had given birth to two children. As poets and other writers spent ten nights in giving voice to their vision of change in 1977, Kho’i was a passionate advocate of revolution.
He became a leading representative of the Writers’ Association, and after the first free elections in March, 1979, he was a chairman of this highly esteemed body at the hub of intellectual life in revolutionary Iran. Since 1982 – Said Soitanpur had been jailed and executed, and other intellectuals were threatened – he vigorously resisted attacks and repressive measures from the Islamic republic and its fanatical devotees, but in the spring of this year he had to go into the underground. A year later with his life imperilled, he left the land secretly.
Imam of the Plague and Return to Borgio Verezzi are well known poems written at and reflecting the start of his exile. In 1992 he published a set of poems in which he describes the ‘ups and downs of the soul and the world’, anger and apathy, pride and shame, and his own brand of loneliness or neglect in exile. The lack of a home of his own has coloured his experience of exile, as described in Big Clean-Up from 1988.
Despite his political wakefulness in dealing with current events, his later poems are more introverted, ranging from criticism of tacitly adopted attitudes (Bad Boy) to childhood memories (At the Window of Memory, and What a Feeling of Loss).
Esma´il Kho´i lives in London, shaken by the violent death of his son but still with a voice calling for human understanding. It pays serious attention to experiences of loss and sorrow, and it constantly speaks out against injustice and persecution, especially when the Islamic Republic of Iran is involved.
Edges of Poetry: Selected Poems
Selected Poems of Esmail Khoi, Santa Monica 1995: Blue Logos Press (trans. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak & Michael C Beard)
Yek Tekkeh Am Aasemaan-e Aabi Beferest (Send me a Patch of blue Sky)
Negahay-e Parishan beh Nazm
Ups and Downs of the Soul and the World
Az Faraaz-o-Forood-e Jaan va Jahaan
Dar Khabi az Hamaaree-i Heech/ In a Dream of endless Futility
Langgedicht, Los Angeles 1988
Siakhal (Jackal) selected poems
Since the Earth is the Earth
The bloody Nightmare of the Awakening
On the Coasts of Sitting and Being
Beyond the Night of the Present
A Poetry Collection
The Sound of Words of Love
From the Sea-Seekers
On the Roof of the Hurricane
On the galloping Charger of the Earth
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Debates, lectures, concerts, readings
(26 March 98 - 24 January 99)