A man goes to sleep in the town where he has always lived, and he dreams he’s living in another town. ...The world is that kind of sleep.
The words belong to the 13th century Persian poet Jalalu’ddin Rumi, and they provide a key of sorts to Susan Atefat-Peckham’s first book, That Kind of Sleep. Atefat-Peckham, born in the United States to Iranian parents, has gone to sleep in many towns, and her poetry is a synthesis of two very different worlds. Most of the poems take place in Tehran, and are a mixture of nostalgia for the people and bitterness towards the government, especially the hated postars (revolutionary guards). And, as is often the case with first generation immigrants, family is of prime importance—of the thirty odd poems in this collection, twenty-two revolve around family members.
Although quotes from Rumi are sprinkled throughout the book, Atefat-Peckham’s own style is much more American, resembling Adrienne Rich or Robert Lowell’s confessional poems. The words are dense, with few metaphors, and the highly-enjambed lines are seldom lyrical, although ... but enough of this—poetry, like wine, should be sampled rather than described. From When She Was Nine, then:
The Koran opened on a good page, so when she
was nine she slumped in her wedding dress,
half a woman, the swellings of her breasts
not quite swellings yet. Barely listening
to that man chanting from his heavy book,
she stood on a crochety stool, still not as tall
as her old husband, her feet groping the wooden
edges, afraid of falling.
In this poem, as in Pahlavi Street and Stoning Soheila, Atefat-Peckham cries out against the harsh treatment of women by the Islamic regime. She adds a distinctly American voice to this protest in Avenue Vali Asr where she writes:
We need anther Rosa Parks
to pin herself to that front seat
and say, I am too old for later.
The artist reveals a different side in her poems about her family, especially her grandfather, to whom she dedicated the title poem. That Kind of Sleep is long and complex, and from what I could make out it describes the actions of various family members on the day her grandfather tried to leave Iran. There are also two very beautiful poems about an older sister who died. One of them, Dreaming of a Dancer, is addressed to to the poet’s father:
He dreams her,
cold and asleep in the quilt an old man
gave when the car came to rest. To keep
her warm, he says, To keep her warm
The family members introduced in one poem play parts in others, and so the collection when viewed as a whole takes on the character of a meta-poem; or a quilt, plain but durable, woven with intricate thread. And, beyond that, they afford an inner glimpse of Iranian life—or at least of the upper-middle class Iranian society that Atefat-Peckham was raised in. She was born in New York City, spent much of her life in France and Switzerland (as well as summer visits to Iran) and now lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. She teaches creative writing and literature, which she sees as a way of opening dialogues between different cultures. That Kind of Sleep is a dialogue itself, in a way, between the United States and Iran—and between a wandering poet and the family she left behind. Published by local Coffee House Press, the book may be hard to find in stores, but can be ordered from www.coffeehousepress.org.
- Joel Van Valin