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The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah -- James Fenton

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!
-- James Fenton
[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.
]

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