Sassan Tabatabai: Poetry, Observation, and Form


"For me, there is something so solid and comforting in stone" says Sassan Tabatabai in our conversation, and in his poem "Firestones" the words roll, weigh and satisfyingly click together.


I was collecting rocks on the Cardiff coast,

a testimony to centuries of silt

left on the shore, of sediment pressed into stone:

sandstone, shale, tufa, travertine, jasper, flint.

There was the stone that knew the sadness of the sea,

that saved its secrets. It was pock-marked with holes

and lay half-buried in sand eager to save

the ocean's spray, like tears, in its miniature pools.

There was the stone that always rolled in place.

It had rolled round and round with each wave,

desperately trying to control the tide.

The was the stone that shoe rings upon rings

placed by the seas over the years,

that kept time for the Pacific.

There were stones that breathed sulfur,

that sparked when they touched.

Unremarkable in luster or shine, they

were the lovers of the ocean, firestones

whose sparks were not dampened by salty waves

(but they only made sense in pairs).

And there was this one, more white,

more brilliant, more polished than any stone.

But it was once upon a shell;

it needed centuries to become stone.

It was a counterfeit firestone:

it did not breathe sulfur, it could not make sparks.

I traced my steps back along the Cardiff coast

and the stones I returned to the sands.

The ocean's secrets would be well-kept by the stones:

its tears would be stored in pools,

its tides kept in check,

its years measured in rungs.

But love itself I could not leave on the beach.

I kept the firestones.

Discussing this poem with Sassan, we touched on Scholar's stones came up and also Gerard Manley Hopkins's journals full of words/names.

From here we moved to other poems and poems and Sassan's work in different languages (Persian, English), poetic traditions (haiku, Sufi poetry, ghazal) and activities (writing, translation, teaching). His dissertation on Persian poet Rudaki is mentioned. His "messy" practice across these many boundaries expresses a kind of playful profusion, ultimately rooted in sound, word, and the music of the lines.


As a boy, I waited for the smile to appear in you.

Listened for echoes of the sigh I could hear in you.

You are the mirror where I have sought the beloved:

Her hyacinth curls, a nod, a wink. a tear, in you.

In the marketplace you can learn your future for a price.

They are merchants of fate; I see the seer in you.

What had been buried under the scriupture's weight,

Its truth, without words or incense, becomes clear in you.

They who bind you on the altar of sacrifice

Hide behind masks; don’t let them smell the fear in you.

As I approach the house lit by dawn's blue light,

Step by step, I lose myself, I disappear in you.

We closed out our talk with a reading of Sassan's translation of David Ferry's "Resemblance" (also featured in episode 55), with the Persian and English stanzas alternating.

Sassan's book Ferry to Malta will be out in April, and you can hear him read and discuss his work April 27th at Brookline Booksmith.

Read the transcript here

Your Host

Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz

Free-ranging discussion of books from the past that cast a sideways light on today's world. Recall This Book is hosted by Elizabeth Ferry, Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and John Plotz, Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative.

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