Bänoo Zan

Letters to My Father

Bänoo Zan, Letters to My Father
By 
Bänoo Zan
Piquant Press, 41 pages, $18.50
2017
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

Bänoo Zan’s second book of poetry, Letters to My Father, opens with her rationale for seeking refuge in poetry, and fleeing from stories. “Stories distort the truth by virtue of their claim to facts. It is only when stories have exhausted themselves that poetry happens,” she writes. The poems, which are dedicated to and about her father, explore Zan’s search for reconciliation after learning about his death in 2012. Zan didn’t attend her father’s funeral or several memorial services in Iran, but he soon became the muse for this deeply personal collection.

While Zan and her father may have been separated by borders and continents, her poetry resists being broken up by descriptive titles or section dividers. The poems, which are simply numbered one through forty-one, flow seamlessly from one to the next without the narrative constraints of a story, all while achieving continuity and masterfully weaving together imagery from both locales. From tragedies and epics to ghazal and qasidas—which are Arabic words for poetic forms—Zan skillfully alludes to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, in the same breath as Mansūr al-Hallāj, a Persian mystic and poet. Time and geography are intertwined, where Zan refers to her father as the country she left, a “land of conflicts / unexplored,” in which she is still very much a citizen.

Despite being a poet with a facility for language, the overwhelming silence that Zan describes between daughter and father sits at the heart of their struggle for familial communication. “Your loss / is the absence of words / and there is no love / where there are no words,” she laments. These conflicted feelings can be traced through every single poem, where silence in life and death is a barrier to reconciliation. “Silence was our language,” Zan writes, where his “lips guarded [his] heart”, and his voice was a “silent kiss.” His death was but a “rehearsal for life,” where a daughter finds herself caught in a war that “doesn’t end / with the end of life” and must now learn to live after loss. While he is free from “life, love / pain and faith,” she must walk the earth bearing the weight of grief.

The most emotional use of language comes in one of the final poems, where Zan slips from using “Baba,” the Persian term for father, to a single utterance of “Dad.” Toward the end of the collection, the poet mourns the silence that defined this daughter-father relationship: “Love made us cowards / with more pauses than words.” Zan mentions that she decided not to use her introductory remarks as a confessional, and it’s easy to see why—her poems reveal far more. If stories distort the truth because of their claim to facts, as Zan says, and poetry allows us to write our own stories, then the poet’s truths lie somewhere within these lines—look for them.

Nadia Siu Van is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is currently the reviews editor at Shameless magazine.

Songs of Exile

By 
Bänoo Zan
Guernica Editions, 148 pages, $20.00
2016
Reviewed by 
Jessica Rose

The poems that populate Songs of Exile, Bänoo Zan’s first English collection of poetry, aren’t autobiographical; however, they reveal a deep empathy for those who face, or have faced, political or geographical exile. Zan—a poet, translator, and the founder of Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse poetry reading and open mic series—knows isolation and longing as a newcomer who left her beloved Iran and landed in Canada in 2010. 

Powerful in its brevity, Songs of Exile explores displacement, intimacy, and fear in short, chaotic bursts. “I’m not committed to a narrative structure,” writes Zan at the end of the collection. This is no more evident than in her poem “Toronto 2012”: “You answer my call / by calling / me / What does it mean / to mean / nothing?” she writes. Throughout the collection, these short, almost choppy lines, characterized by minimal punctuation, force readers to take pause, allowing them to easily digest Zan’s deeply affecting poems. 

In Songs of Exile, Zan commits to the use of a number of literary devices, most notably repetition, as evidenced in the collection’s third poem, “Phoenix (III)”. “Feathers are together / phoenix is alone / Phoenix loves death / Fire loves life / Phoenix is fair / beauty is foul / Phoenix fears immortality / Fire fears death,” she writes. Repeating syllables, words, and entire phrases, Zan uses repetition for emotional impact, especially in moments exploring love and death.

Songs of Exile is often allegorical, brimming with familiar faces from religion and Greek mythology, among them Plato, Athena, Moses, and Oedipus, who, of course, imposed self-exile. 

Zan juxtaposes these mythical figures against the struggles newcomers face coming to Canada today, reminding readers of the world’s long history of exile and longing for freedom. Footnotes provide readers with context and translations that are crucial to understanding these sparse, but complex, poems. 

Zan is playful with language, exploring not only words themselves, but her role as a storyteller and wordsmith. “Language / is the music / my body is playing,” she writes in “Words (III) “I was not made / for this melody / nor the one before / I am forever silent.” 

Songs of Exile is above all about longing—longing for a homeland, longing for a lover, longing for a better understanding of one’s self. “I had left my treasures to poverty / my story to those who prevail / I had left my self behind,” writes Zan in “Journey,” one of the collection’s many poems that force readers to consider the pieces newcomers leave behind in their homelands, and their ongoing struggle to recreate a place in which they feel they belong. 

Jessica Rose is a writer and editor living in Hamilton, Ontario. Since earning a degree in journalism from Carleton University, she has written for publications across Canada. When she isn’t writing, she’s organizing. She currently sits on the board of gritLIT, Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival as Director, Program Advisory.

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