keeping time with blue hyacinths

First published in 2013 by the University of Arkansas Press

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“Like dreams peopled with healing clues, Wolpe’s poems are rich with surrealism and harmony, telling deep truths of women across cultures and languages.”

–Annie Finch


“A gifted Iranian-American poet beautifully explores love and the loss of love, beauty and war and the ghosts of the past.”

–Shelf Awareness Magazine

Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths

Sholeh Wolpé’s [2013] collection, Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths, journeys through changing seasons of love, loss, selfhood, and war.  Like steps in an intricate dance, her lyric poems move in rhythms and beats; they are pressing, political, intimate, tender, and inviting as she explores issues such as divorce, sex, exile, relocation, and Iranian womanhood.  Consolidating both her American and Iranian cultures together, Wolpé’s work demonstrates how malleable and mutable personal identity, culture, and nationhood can be—often within the same line.  In her poem “The Exiles,” she conveys how difficult it is to find meaning and home within the United States,

Our tongues lick time’s spiny slates,
bleed saliva flavored with abstractions:
“injustice,” “violations,” “freedom,”
our eyelashes thrash in indignation,
and our eyes claim pain…

but like the sea, we keep coming
fiercely, and we never arrive.

Journeying into memories of exile and loss, her concise, yet emotive lines pull readers into vignettes and anecdotes that expand diaspora and immigrant narratives. She employs luxuriant images of nature and time with political commentary and violence to convey how immigrants continuously cycle between strife, rebirth, and resilience when searching for home (“7th Movement”). In order to thwart “pain,” she blends Iranian history, culture, language, and poets in remembrance and in pride. For example, she tributes famous Iranian poets Rumi and Forugh Farrokhzad, and popular Iranian cultural figures Googoosh and Gharib Afshar for her “voice” (“4th Movement”) as a poet. Moreover, her poem ‘The Rosetta Stone” demonstrates how Persian language cannot be easily translated into English,

And Berkereh-shenasi is a specialty.
            Means parthenology, a word not found
in most English dictionaries.

Wolpé’s collection is divided into four parts. Each section starts with a quote from renowned American authors: Robert Frost (“The best way out is always through”), T.S. Eliot (“Where is the life we have lost in living?”), and Mark Twain (“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform”). Her final section, Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths: A Nowruz Sonata in 7 Movements, was performed live in spring 2012 with a musical accompaniment at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA).Divided into a prelude and seven movements, Wolpé’s sonata begins,

In the pause between spring rain
a woman pirouettes in a field.

Her skin is a thousand mirrors. (“Prelude”)

Dance and Iranian celebrations speckle into each movement, symbolizing the importance of music, poetry, and one’s culture as forms of political action and collective organizing. For example, Wolpé alludes to Persian festivities such as the Nowruz Persian New Year, Spring Equinox rituals, and haft-sin table adornments, such as “sabzeh—samanu—senjed—seer—seeb—somāq—serkhe” (“5th Movement”) and blue hyacinths, to celebrate Iranian culture, language and rituals.

In her final 7th movement, the poet calls for a communal and intercultural dance of sama (Persian for “to listen”), a Sufi celebratory ritual performed as dhiki (a form of invocation or remembrance of God) that symbolizes one’s spiritual journey to maturation and commitment to truth, love and service to creation, mankind and the universe,

Everything happens in sevens,
like the movements of this sonata
each a sama—meditative pirouettes—
between everything seen and unseen,
stumbling on nothing.

This is how we become pleasure,
a dance, a sin, uncommitted,
grace in movement, movement in grace,
like the lifting of a hand, the back-bending rise
of the chest, the rotation of the heart.

Using sama as a symbol for peaceable beginnings, and by incorporating spiritual practices of song, prayer and dance, Wolpé’s work bridges the U.S. and Iran together into political, meditative, artistic, and intellectual movements of sharing and listening that will circulate (pirouette) and continue to regenerate itself into the Iranian-U.S. imaginary.

Time passes us just as we each
pass time, and this is how we keep
time with spring’s blue hyacinths,
with the rotation of a goldfish
searching for a home.

Reviewed by Jewel Pereyra in The California Journal of Women Writers

“When Sholeh Wolpé asks ‘How hard is it to write a long song?’ she is reflecting on beauty and love in times of war and personal upheaval. She is reflecting on poetry’s absurd covenant with pain, loss, and violence–and its promise to find beauty through these human horrors. Her beautiful poems are at once sensual, meditative, raw in their honesty, and judicious in their fit use of language. This collection delights and disturbs, often in the very same poem.”

–Kwame Dawes