Rebecca Ruth Gould is a poet and translator. Her most recent poetry collection, Beautiful English has just been published by Dreich Press and copies can be purchased by clicking on the link. Her other books include Writers and Rebels (2016), Cityscapes (2019), and The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism (2020, co-edited with Kayvan Tahmasebian). She teaches at the University of Birmingham and serves as poetry book reviewer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books. Her website is https://rrgould.hcommons.org and she can be found on Twitter @rrgould.
Previous Featured American Poets
THW 21: March 8, 2021 THW20: December 4, 2020 THW19: September 5, 2020 THW18:May 4, 2020 THW17: March 7, 2020 THW16: December 4, 2019 THW15: September 5, 2019 THW14:June 3, 2019 THW13: March 6, 2019 THW12: December 10, 2018 THW11:September 5, 2018 THW10: May 21, 2018 THW9: March 7, 2018 THW 8: December 6, 2017 THW 7: September 10, 2017 THW6: June 3, 2017 THW5: March 7, 2017 THW4: December 6, 2016 THW3: September 1, 2016 THW2: June 1, 2016 THW1: March 1, 2016
Why I Write
My writing is inspired by the cities where I have lived. I have passed significant portions of my life in Tehran, Isfahan, Damascus, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Cairo, Tbilisi, Hyderabad, and Yerevan. In many of these cities, I have been profoundly transformed by the history and literature of past centuries. My travels and reading have also changed my perspective on the suburban American landscapes of my childhood, which rarely figures into my poetry. They have given me the ability to link past civilization to our postcolonial present.
My travels and study of the Middle East have also awakened me to the political potential of poetry to reshape the world. Poets whom I take as models include Mahmoud Darwish, Zbigniew Herbert, Langston Hughes, Eavan Boland, Bertolt Brecht, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The Russian poets Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva gave me my first taste of poetry in a foreign tongue, followed by the medieval Persian poet Khaqani of Shirvan, whose lyric and political poems have been a source of longstanding fascination. (They were also the subject of my dissertation and now forthcoming book, The Persian Prison Poem.) Of the poets I have translated, the Georgian modernist poet Titsian Tabidze and the modernist Iranian poet Bijan Elahi are closest to my heart.
Nearly everything I have written is rooted in a person or a place I have loved. As Jane Austen says in Persuasion, ‘one does not love a place less for having suffered in it.’ To this I would add that the suffering associated with a place can become a source of inspiration when it compels the writer to put in words what I have experienced there. As with places, so with people: whatever burdens of memory they impose, they compel me to give verbal form to my experiences.
When I stumble in my writing, uncertain what to say or how to say it, I turn to translation, sometimes alone, or sometimes with a co-translator. It is here, amid Persian, Russian, Georgian, that I discover myself in another tongue. Translation, like poetry, is inevitably a search for the voice of the other, who often resides within one’s self. (RRG)
Rebecca Ruth Gould: Six Poems from Beautiful English
Your nineteenth century speech
is more contemporary to me
than the news cycle.
Its measured iambs palpitate
so abstracted is it from
the detritus of everyday life,
& so oblivious to the streets
I walk on
as I await your arrival
from Iran: your first entry
into my universe.
Then we can no longer pretend
to be divided by hemispheres
or rely on the civilizational clash
of East and West to explain how
our words cross borders without
reaching their destinations.
Your peculiar English
is a beautiful distortion
of familiar sounds,
bound together into knots
that roll softly on my tongue.
Every syllable punctures an illusion.
Your antiquated diction rouses me as
a constellation stirs the stars
in unexpected, opposing directions.
Your English is a survival skill:
disciplined & distant,
crafted as if to remind me:
Language is mastery.
Instead of speaking needlessly,
we should bite our tongues.
Every sentence manifests vigilance
& strips off the masks I use
to distance myself from you.
All my words
xxxxxxx—all my Englishes—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxlie exposed before you.
Meanwhile, you speak the veiled language
of Hafez & Sadi to your mahram.
Many secrets are kept from me.
Our civilizational gap
confines me to the outer edges
of your intimate galaxy.
This closure mirrors another division,
imposes another veil on your tongue,
as if our differences were the stuff of wars
& to speak would be treachery,
& the thing you placed in my hands
when I visited your homeland
was less a sign of our proximity than
a gift given to strangers,
passing through alien territory.
Our lines break over us
xxxxxxxlike waves on the beach.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxThe eye’s high tide
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxpunctuates our every unsaid goodbye.
Our line breaks are suspended between our tongues’ nativity.
xxxxxxxThe pearls of Ibn Hazm’s necklace scatter
xxxxxxxxxxxxxacross English grasses.
Our line breaks
xxxxxxxmold our bare bodies in each other’s image.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxBlind to our bind, our lines
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxposition us on opposing sides of this divide.
Earth’s pendulum encircles our breaking lines.
xxxxxxxThe moon milks
xxxxxxxxxxxxxwith the light of other galaxies.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxYour red lines have been crossed.
You forded the Rubicon
xxxxxxxonly to discover it was a stream compared to the oceans
xxxxxxxxxxxxxyou would cross in migrating
to a language
that your lines could not tame.
Our line breaks hang between us,
xxxxxxxuntil the scaffolding collapses.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxThe bridge that held us up exposes its gaps.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe lines scatter like our nascent thoughts.
This is the difference between the way our lines break each other’s hearts:
xxxxxxxfor you the door’s tapered whisper, closing,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxis for me our love’s perpetual opening.
The girl who invited me
to stay in her tent camp
so she could teach me Chechen
sat steadily in the corner,
fearing any motion
that might trigger an explosion.
Grozny’s flats were levelled.
Dolls lay disembowelled on the floor.
Glass shards covered the earth.
The road’s yellow ribbon rolled
like a carpet, lining my escape
route to Vladikavkaz.
The siren song of battle
trilled its endless, plaintive moan.
Contraband, listened to by everyone.
Jerusalem limestone spreads
like an occupation over
the ancient city of Bethlehem.
Cats congregate along
dangerous intersections where
concrete walls break into homes.
Workers pass the dawn
behind the bars of checkpoint 300,
waiting to build settlers’ homes
with stolen limestone.
Children must be fed.
Their hands are pressed against the bars.
Neither Palestinian nor
Israeli, I dwell in complicities
of routine hypocrisies.
beneath the sun’s glare,
wrapping the occupation
in the mirage of purity.
Others have suffered more,
but rarely has a state done so
stripped a people of dignity,
forcing them to live in the shadow
of another’s people’s atrocity.
xxxxxxxbuild bridges of broken memories
xxxxxxxxxxxxon captive, occupied territory.
My udon noodles were longer,
thicker & probably tastier
than your beef tongue.
I never found out
because I forgot to eat,
as I often do when captivated
I grasped the chopsticks
in my hand & watched
you check your watch
every five minutes.
You were working to a deadline.
There was something wrong—
yet also right—about being
together with you,
eating pan-Asian in St Pancras,
you telling me about your wife’s
previous sex life & me
projecting my every thought
of you onto someone else—
so that our friendship would
never abandon its purpose—
& the Muslim formulas
that we repeated as infidels,
binding our heresies together.
‘In sha’ Allah. If God wills,
there will be mercy on us.
I thought about how
it would have been to be
a sibling to you, or a lover
or just a friend, unburdened
I thought about your wife too
& the strength of her will
& you reading stories
to your daughter every night in bed.
All this passed through my head
as you stood to pay the bill.
A life lived well flashed before me
& I just wanted to tell you:
May God be praised.
May peace be upon you.
The cosmos is a Kaba
stretched against the sky,
stripped of signs.
The firmament echoes God
speaking to Muhammad,
dictating the Quran.
Back then, the sky was synchronized
to the cycles of time
& the Pleiades watched over us.
Back then, the Kaba circulated overhead.
Everything that happened on earth
was mirrored above.
God was undead.
The signs on the Kaba have ceased
speaking our tongue.
We are in prison, waiting
to hear our names.
We make up our languages as we go along.