» Book Review
Letters to My Father by Bänoo Zan
Piquant Press, 2017
A mournful meditation, Bänoo Zan’s Letters to My Father is a collection of forty-one poems, each charged with the turmoil that’s birthed in the meeting of grief and memory. If taken in one long gulp, its power will sear through you. A few sips of Bänoo Zan’s poetry will disperse deep into your soul, relieve your aches, and balm your losses. Its collective experience is disarming.
Zan dedicates her second poetry collection to her father, Parviz Ghanbaralizadeh, who passed away in 2012 in Iran, while she was striving to build a new life in Canada. When news reached Zan, she chose not to visit the funeral or memorial services held in her father’s honor. Removed from the scenes of bereavement taking place in her hometown, Zan turned her pen to a flowing, emotional outpouring of verses that expressed what was left unsaid and explored their complex relationship.
The painful reality that strikes out possibilities to reconcile or reconnect with the one who has passed on is central to this collection. The persona’s anguish makes her wish for death and doom, in hopes that it’ll bring her the reconnection she desires, a reconnection that wouldn’t be possible in life:
If you ever loved me
wish me a death so final
it would rescue the heart
If you are still somewhere
waiting for me—
prophesy my doom
There’s an evocative quality to Zan’s uncluttered and orderly writing style. Stripped down to their ultimate simplicity, the poems aren’t titled, just numbered, focused on the central vision of the poems. The emotions and situations that she probes are accessible to the reader, though laced with deeper complexities, as in poem number 41:
mourns the ocean
The brief and bare sentences tie up with clear and distinctive imagery to offer a profound view of some of the most disquieting situations in life.
There’s an intimacy that seeps into the imaginings of Zan’s poetry, creating a soulful and transcendent narrative. With grief as a catalyst, Zan explores the posthumous reconciliation of a father and daughter, and couples it with a spiritually charged, introspective layer.
Throughout the collection, the persona tries to connect life with death, both functioning as depictions of herself and her father. She traverses the realities of what death represents, linking everything back to herself. Her father’s death becomes a mirror that reflects the turmoil within her. The collection’s opening poem evokes a sense of longing that sets the tone:
I want you back
from the red of brown
to the blue of green
back from the phallus of death
to the womb of life
from unknown harmony
to known horrors
The poem circles back to the verse, “Leave me with you / as death with life,” an idea that the persona often reconstructs to portray an attachment that exists beyond death. She tries to search for her own emotional equilibrium in her father’s absence and recognizes in herself the reverberations of the bond they shared while he was alive. She tends to look for a rendering of herself in what existed of him. In poem 11, she writes:
I am your epitaph
She sees herself as a final remnant of his beloved existence. In the consecutive poem, the persona confesses her regret, “I wish I had / shared you / with me.”
With its emotional depth comes a universal appeal; at a core level, people form connections and experience loss similarly. We’re all made up of stories, and in Zan’s poetry the essence of the story is in moments of being and existing. These moments are powerful enough to resonate with the reader, regardless what their personal worldview may be.
One thing that adds to the universal appeal and strength of Zan’s poetry is her alignment of Islamic and Arabian traditions and prophetic stories with the symbolism in western myths. In her poetry she invokes Narcissus, Agamemnon, and Ophelia with the same ease with which she imagines herself as her father’s prayer rug. In poem 30, Zan writes:
If I were your prayer rug
I would water
your desert hands
Religious and cultural notions become instrumental in her attempts to understand death.
Bänoo Zan’s previous poetry collection, Songs of Exile, was the first to be published in English (Guernica, 2016). Songs of Exile touched upon themes that erupt from becoming an immigrant and also addressed socio-political issues related to gender, ethnicity, and colonization. In comparison, Letters To My Father is a deeply personal poetry collection, one that must have required bravery on Zan’s part to share with the world. Zan’s poetry is a reminder that the discord caused by shifting ideologies does not have to license the irreparable rupture of our blood bonds. In this, Letters To My Father becomes a persona’s cathartic attempt to reconcile with another in death, through poetry infused with life.