Words and Lives by Siavash Saadlou

Words and Lives
by Siavash Saadlou

My cousin Meysam says that my father wasn’t exactly made for war. 
“He would get misty-eyed,” he says, “as soon as you read him a poem.” 
My eyes glaze over a photo of Mahmoud with regret as I hear 
These words—in the photo he is standing on a rooftop in his 
Uniform, patchy beard covering his smiling, 21-year-old face. 
The photo was taken in Bukan, a small town in West Azerbaijan 
Province in Iran with a predominantly Kurdish population. 

     During the war, my father was occasionally asked to write letters 
On behalf of fellow soldiers to their families for his polished Persian 
And his decent handwriting. I imagine his hands holding the pen 
Carefully choosing words that would transcend the years. 
I’ve been thinking lately about the word “oppression,” coming 
From medieval Latin opprimere, meaning “to press down” 
       or “press against.” 

     On my twenty-fifth birthday, having already surpassed my 
Father’s years on earth, I hold what is said to be his last telegram 
In my hands, dated July 30th, 1988—92 days after I was born, 57 days 
Before he would have turned 25—numbers that mean absolutely 
Nothing except that one of us is dead and the other is alive. 
A row of words on some timeworn paper, the address 
Of the recipient appears on top, with this message under it: 
     My dear wife, hi, I am fine. And then, his full name. 

     I’m guessing these are his own words and not from some 
Ready-made template because “my dear wife” has come before 
Everything else. “He was quite romantic, you know,” says Meysam. 
“Whenever he visited us upstairs at the house and Grandma 
Gave him an apple or a peach—oh, he loved a good peach—
    He would say, I’m taking one downstairs for Rezvan.” 

     He must have had the urge to live together with his loved ones. 
This is the kind of urge you can’t press down or press against,
Just like seven-year-old Helen Ahmadi who was fatally shot on 
Her way home from school in Bukan on October 12, 2022. 
Apparently, she was chanting slogans like everyone else 
On the street that day. She must have been shouting 
Woman, Life, Liberty before being brushed aside by a blasting bullet. 
The picture on her obituary is of a girl wearing a golden 
Blouse, her bangs tidy, hear ears adorned with sparkling earrings. 

     So, when I think of the word “oppression,” I think among 
Other things, of lives and words in no particular order. 
I think of all the many words and all the many lives that 
Those in power deny us, that war and tyranny deny us—
Lives cut short, lips lopped off, words stuffed back in our 
Mouths, words that we could have said or written, words 
To ourselves and words to one another. I think of the bullet 
That tore into Helen’s body, the shrapnel shells that forced 
Their way into Mahmoud’s flesh, the chanting voices echoing 
In my head—all the many words giving life to a new poem.

First published in the Ignatian Literary Magazine

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Siavash Saadlou is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer whose poems have appeared in Porter House Review, Ignatian Literary Magazine, and Saint Katherine Review, among other journals. They have also been anthologized in Odes to Our Undoing: Writers Reflecting on Crisis (Risk Press) and Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press). His translations of contemporary Persian poetry have earned him the 55th Cole Swensen Prize as well as an honorable mention in the inaugural Stephen Mitchell Prize for Best Poetry in Translation. Saadlou is currently living in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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