Guest poem sent in by Reed C. Bowman
(Poem #1147) The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah
(An Old Persian Legend) to C. E. H. It started with a stabbing at a well Below the minarets of Isfahan. The widow took her son to see them kill The officer who'd murdered her old man. The child looked up and saw the hangman's work -- The man who'd killed his father swinging high, The mother said: 'My child, now be at peace. The wolf has had the fruits of all his crime.' From felony to felony to crime From robbery to robbery to loss From calumny to calumny to spite From rivalry to rivalry to zeal All this was many centuries ago -- The kind of thing that couldn't happen now -- When Persia was the empire of the Shah And many were the furrows on his brow. The peacock the symbol of his throne And many were the jewels and its eyes And many were the prisons in the land And many were the torturers and spies. From tyranny to tyranny to war From dynasty to dynasty to hate From villainy to villainy to death From policy to policy to grave The child grew up a clever sort of chap And he became a mullah, like his dad -- Spent many years in exile and disgrace Because he told the world the Shah was bad. 'Believe in God,' he said, 'believe in me. Believe me when I tell you who I am. Now chop the arm of wickedness away. Hear what I say, I am the great Imam.' From heresy to heresy to fire From clerisy to clerisy to fear From litany to litany to sword From fallacy to fallacy to wrong And so the Shah was forced to flee abroad. The Imam was the ruler in his place. He started killing everyone he could To make up for the years of his discgrace. And when there were no enemies at home He sent his men to Babylon to fight. And when he'd lost an army in that way He knew what God was telling him was right. From poverty to poverty to wrath From agony to agony to doubt From malady to malady to shame From misery to misery to fight He sent the little children out to war. They went out with his portrait in their hands. The desert and the marshes filled with blood. The mothers heard the news in Isfahan. Now Babylon is buried under dirt. Persepolis is peeping through the sand. The child who saw his father's killer killed Has slaughtered half the children in the land. From felony to robbery to calumny to rivalry to tyranny to dynasty to villainy to policy to heresy to clerisy to litany to fallacy to poverty to agony to malady to misery -- The song is yours. Arrange it as you will. Remember where each word fits in the line And every combination will be true And every permutation will be fine: From policy to felony to fear From litany to heresy to fire From villainy to tyranny to war From tyranny to dynasty to shame From poverty to malady to grave From malady to agony to spite From agony to misery to hate From misery to policy to fight!
[Note: if you can't get this by e-mail, the "From...to...to..." sections, as well as the first part of the title, "The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah", should be set in italics.] I heard this poem on BBC Radio 4, read by the poet. 'Read' is an insufficient word, though, for the passionate, angry, bitter rendition he gave. I've been trying to get them to put up the audio file on bbc.co.uk so it can be heard more widely, but I was impressed upon finding it and reading it to see how strongly it encourages the style of reading Fenton gave. It was read fast, and staccato, with heavy emphasis on the line endings. The first and second normal verses start out a bit slower, less emphasized and broken, but the emphasis and staccato feel increases with the speed from the first to the second to the third, while the refrain is all but spat out full speed from the beginning. Now that I've got a book of his poems (Out of Danger, Noonday Press 1994), I find he frequently uses repetitions and permutations with similar effect. In some ways the strange and bleak refrain running through this poem could start to sound like Dr. Suess, but for the actual vocabulary employed. This poem could in one respect be summarized by the phrase 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose'. The will to end the oppression of the Shah brings about another oppression no less horrible. It is about repetition, the historical perpetuation of violence and oppression, and repetition and circularity occurs on several levels in the poem, and is driven home by the final part, encouraging you to rearrange the terms, causes and effects as you will, and come up with truth in each and every permutation. But also the whole poem, which keeps up the pretense of speaking of times long past, in the atemporal terms of a legend, reminds us that this is the way things were in the beginning, are now, and ever shall be. The structure of almost every line reinforces the crumbling-and-tumbledown-and-crash rhythm with which Fenton read it, which makes it all the more bleak and grim. The curious, surprising, direct repetition in the beginning of each line of what I'm calling the refrain - 'From x to x to y' - drives home the cyclic nature of the errors and horrors, and yet sees, or foresees, the final collapse into the worst, final consequence of its monosyllabic end. RCB [Martin adds: In later correspondence, discussing the oddly scanning line "The peacock the symbol of his throne", which I thought perhaps missing a word in the transcription, Reed confirmed that the line was correct, and added: The poem, as perhaps I should have mentioned, was set to music, along with several others in the book, mostly about horrible, bleak wars and tyrannies of recent history, in a 'pocket musical' called 'Out of the East' (which is also the title of an incredible poem, similarly depressing and yet drivingly energetic, about the war in Cambodia and the making of the Khmer Rouge). It was performed in 1990 as a song. But when I heard it on the BBC it was just a reading by the author, however energetically performed. In the musical version, that hypometric line could sound natural - I'd love to hear it. ]