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Songs of Exile

by Bänoo Zan

Bänoo Zan immigrated to Canada in 2010 from Iran, where she taught English literature. The poems in her debut collection are not overtly autobiographical, but nevertheless powerfully convey the immigrant experience. The language is spare, but the poems are not slight. Repetition across and within poems gives them an incantatory quality and a mesmerizing effect: “Flames are together / fire is alone / Feathers are together / phoenix is alone / Phoenix loves death / Fire loves life …”

9781771830874_largeAnd there is a richness of allusion. These poems are peopled by figures from Greek and Persian history and mythology: Socrates, Plato, Prometheus, Icarus, Athena, Oedipus, Antigone, Ärash, Tahmina, and Gord-Äfarïd. The immigrant experience is cast as a hero’s journey – an Iranian, Muslim, and female hero (or rather heroes, for there are multiple voices in play), the intersecting facets of identity conditioning the narrative.

Zan illuminates the paradox of freedom as exile, “the ambiguous light of liberty.” One may leave home for good reason and be relieved to have arrived elsewhere, yet still long for the place one has abandoned: “I wish / I never had to wish / for what / I let go.” The remembered sensory detail of home becomes more vivid than prosy present surroundings, and the moments when the two collide, as in “Azän on a Toronto Streetcar,” overwhelm the reader with emotion. It is not just landscape, family, and friends that are left behind, but also language, and the self that language created: “And when I am journeying / to the other / the language does not accompany me.”

A particular pleasure is a series of meta-poems threaded throughout in which the power and limitations of language are playfully explored. In dialogue between poet and poem, the poem’s disloyalty and deceptiveness are revealed. The poem cheats on the poet and climbs into bed with politics. The poet strives for control, but ultimately arrives at contradictory pronouncements: “I cannot write me / I am not what I write / I am the writer who writes me.”