translated by Haleh Liza Gafori
New York Review Books, 112 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
There’s no way to talk about Gold without sounding like a flower child spreading the gospel of peace and love, but is that such a bad thing? Love, after all, is the thing that brings us into this world, ties us together, and makes the days pass more pleasantly. Don’t we love to live and live to love? And aren’t all the best songs love songs? Yet, offering up love as a balm to life’s problems feels cheap. We’re often skeptical, understandably so, that love alone can save us from issues like debt, disease, and desolation. In Gold, Rumi speaks to our inner skeptics. Line by line, he tries to show us how love only helps and never hurts. “If you plunge like a fish into Love’s ocean,” he asks, “what will happen?”
This love of love is likely familiar to anyone who’s encountered Rumi before. Born in the thirteenth century in present-day Afghanistan, he remains one of the most popular poets in the United States. He was an Islamic scholar and a well-respected preacher for decades before he ever wrote a single verse. This changed when Rumi met the poet Shams-e Tabrizi, who turned him onto Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, and opened his heart to poetry. The body of work that resulted from this seismic meeting has been read the world over and endured nearly a millennium. However, Rumi’s popularity in the English-speaking world is largely built upon translations of questionable integrity. Many of Rumi’s English-language translators (notably Coleman Barks) don’t speak a word of Farsi, instead relying on old translations to rehash the poetry again and again. In a New Yorker article, Rozina Ali describes how much of Rumi is lost in this game of literary telephone, including connections to Islam that permeate his work. By and large, translators have found it acceptable to cherry-pick Rumi’s poetry and strip away its cultural and religious contexts.
Gold, translated beautifully by Haleh Liza Gafori, fulfills the need for a careful, considerate rendition of Rumi in English. Gafori’s task was not a straightforward one. The very word “translation” feels insufficient here because of how much this poetry was edited. In her introduction, Gafori explains that this collection is sourced from the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a sprawling text of over 40,000 verses. Each poem here had to be cut from this endless cloth, reshuffled, styled with modern enjambments, and, finally, translated. Perhaps it’s more accurate to think of Gold not as a translation, but as a collaboration between two equal poets that spans centuries.
And what music they make together. Gradually, these poems unearth a love-based philosophy for life. Rumi advocates for love in all its forms, whether it be romantic, platonic, religious, or personal. It’s in this last capacity that Rumi is particularly poignant. He has a sneaking suspicion that most of us don’t love ourselves enough, trapping us in unhappiness:
Caged in self,
you drown in anguish.
Storm clouds swallow the sun.
Your lover flees the scene
the night is moonlit.
Lovers drink Love’s wine.
It flows through you.
Rumi reminds us that there are two distinct versions of ourselves: the self that exists in our minds and the self that we show to the world. He wants us to reconcile these halves by loving the inner self, the part we hide away, until we only have one face to show. Rumi believes we can free ourselves from self-imposed restraints. Just as, “A lion leaps out of his cage. / A man leaps out of his mind.” Still, he acknowledges that being kind to ourselves isn’t always easy. Perhaps one reason we’re hesitant to accept love as a solution is that we’re not properly trained in it. Love isn’t a feeling, but an action that we must consciously make and consciously keep. Rumi describes the challenge of choosing love, and the rewards it reaps, writing:
I saw myself sharp as a thorn.
I fled to the softness of petals.
I saw myself sour as vinegar.
I mixed myself with sugar.
An aching eye seeing through pain,
a stewing pot of poison,
I was both.
Reaching for the antidote,
I touched compassion.
I touched mercy.
It’s an impressive feat that Rumi’s lessons, which can sound so heavy-handed in the abstract, land gently through Gafori’s verse. In the original Farsi, these poems were ghazals, a poetic form wherein individual couplets are linked by a common refrain. Gafori doesn’t reproduce this form exactly, but she does capture its springy, mantric effect. In one poem, Rumi and Gafori create an oasis together:
The cure is here, the cure for every ill is here.
The friend who soothes the ache is here.
The healer is here.
The healer who’s felt every shade of feeling is here.
They go on to decorate their oasis with sunlight and wine, with flowers and dance. It doesn’t matter where “here” is. “Here” is an atmosphere more than a place, but it’s real, and Rumi and Gafori lull us there. They don’t tell us why they’re bringing us there until the end, commanding us to, “Be silent now. Let silence speak.” Love can bring us to beautiful places, but we can only see their beauty if we take the time to do so. Gold is filled with these revelatory moments. Often, it’s a single line that neatly ties together a poem like the final, central cog that gets a machine running. Poems build to a pitch, release, and leave perspective in their paths.
“Every religion has Love,” Rumi writes, “but Love has no religion.” For Rumi, love is much broader than religion. To read Gold is to enter a world where love is water that drunkens the earth when it rains, or where love is a fire that we’re happy to let consume us. There’s something bittersweet in these wonderfully surreal images. They’re pretty, but they’re unfamiliar to our world. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel loved every time you got caught in the rain? Maybe Rumi’s poetry stays relevant because we still haven’t lived up to his ideals for what love can do for us. Love, paradoxically, is something larger than humanity but stems from individual humans. Rumi teaches us that love is inside all of us, and it’s our job to dig it up and show it to the world. Or, as Rumi puts it, “you are a gold mine, / not just a nugget of gold.”
Dylan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied creative writing and biology. He currently lives and works in Chicago. He’s often reading and writing, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a genetics lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
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