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Love's Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition.

Love's Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition

Translated from the Persian by David and Sabrineh Fideler

New World Library

14 Pamaron Way, Novarro, CA 94949

ISBN: 1577315359, $18.00, 224 pp.

For years, Rumi has been the best-selling poet in the United States. Love's Alchemy opens the door onto Rumi's colleagues in the Persian mystical tradition. Translated from the classical Persian by husband and wife team of David and Sabrineh Fideler, Love's Alchemy includes selections from all the major Persian Sufi poets, some of whom are famous in the West, such as Hafiz, but many of whom are not.

This is not the kind of poetry book one reads quickly, absorbing feelings and images. Rather, the poems in Love's Alchemy are like a fine merlot, meant to be imbibed slowly--you begin by sniffing their aroma; then hold them up to the light and savor their color; inhale their bouquet; hold the words in your mouth, let the taste of them sink into your pores; feel them warming your throat, let their wisdom spread through your veins and into the depths of your heart. This is how they were meant to be read--and re-read--with thought and reflection that allow the poems to challenge the reader's perception of the worldly and the divine, with a sudden gestalt of insight, with depth of feeling, and with appreciation for the many layers of meaning contained in each phrase.

While the poems are completely accessible on their own, the Fidelers have included a very useful short guide to understanding Sufi poetry in their introduction, as well as a glossary of important terms, a discussion of issues in translation, a guide to the various forms of Persian poetry, and notes on individual poems in the appendices. Of most interest to the general reader is the introductory material about the themes and the meanings of particular images that were common in the Persian mystical tradition. Also interesting is the discussion of the structure of the poems in the book, all of which take the " "ruba'i" form. Ruba'i are four line poems which condense a depth of meaning into a few words; good ones weave many layers of meaning into each line.

The poems presented in Love's Alchemy clearly are among the best. The translation, though, gives pause. Compare, for instance, the literal translation and the Fidelers' rendition as cited in Appendix 1, their discussion of issues in translating from classic Persian to modern English.

Literal translation:

Today, like every day, we are ruined - ruined. Don't open the door of thinking; pick up a lute. There are a hundred kinds of prayer, bowing and prostration. For the one whose prayer niche is the beauty of the Friend


Today, like every day, we are ruined and lonely. Don't retreat, fleeing your emptiness through the doorway of thinking. Try making some music instead.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel in prayer Hundreds of ways to open toward the heart of the Friend's beauty.

It seems to me that the Fidelers have lost something of the rhythm, the immediacy, the simple beauty, and depth of possible interpretations in their more abstract rendering. With the literal translation the reader has an immediate, intuitive grasp of the poem's meaning akin to the flash of insight one gets while reading a haiku. That first understanding is mellowed and deepened upon re-reading and reflection. But with the Fidelers' translation, the first intuitive understanding is lost, while the reader is led to the philosophical, religious conclusions that, we assume, spoke most loudly to the Fiderlers themselves. The poem remains insightful and thought-provoking, but certain aspects clearly have suffered.

As I read the poetry in Love's Alchemy, I couldn't help but wonder how many other poems might have been stronger, more direct in their impact, more reflective of the author's skill at layering meaning, if the Fidelers had chosen to be more literal in their translation rather than emphasizing the philosophical and religious insights that were, admittedly, the raison d'etre for the poems. I couldn't help but think that the Fidelers are better translators, and better Sufis, than they are poets.

Nonetheless, I found the poetry to be well worth reading. Indeed, Love's Alchemy is the sort of book that readers are likely to come back to over and over, reading only a poem or two at a sitting, taking the time to digest each one slowly and thoroughly. For those who are looking for an introduction to the world of Sufi poetry, it is an excellent doorway. For those who want to explore their own spirituality, it is a sure source of food for thought. For those who simply want to enjoy some classical Persian poetry, there may be better translations available, although they are not likely to contain a wider or more representative selection of poems.

Pamela K. Taylor, Reviewer
COPYRIGHT 2006 Midwest Book Review
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Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Taylor, Pamela K.
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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