Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition
Translated by David and Sabrineh Fideler
Publisher: Novato, CA: New World Library: 2006. 251 pages.
David and Sabrineh Fideler, translators and editors of this book, note in the introduction that most English-speaking readers are familiar with Rumi, since he is widely acclaimed as “the best-selling poet in the English language” today. But, the editors observe, Rumi is not a “lone figure,” rather an “extraordinary representative of a much larger tradition of Persian mystical poetry, which reflects the same themes, the same beauties, the same insights.” Their purpose in assembling verses from some eighty Sufi poets spanning a thousand years is to introduce English-speaking readers to this rich mystical and literary tradition.
In spite of the vast cultural, geographical, and temporal breadth of Sufism, the poems in this volume clearly show the essential unity of its mystical message. Observing that a central theme in their selection of poems, and in the Sufi tradition as a whole, is the transformative power of divine love, the editors chose the title Love’s Alchemy for their volume.
A poem by Khaqani Shirwani explains this alchemy – its origin, its method and its purposes – in just a few words:
The bird that sings
The messenger skilled
In the language
Of the unseen world
It is love that speaks to you,
Calling you beyond the limits
Of this created realm.
That which frees you
From your tiny self
Is also love.
Why is love necessary? For the Sufi, true love, however difficult, is life itself. As Awhad al-Din Kirmani writes:
Love is a source of a great many troubles.
But lacking love
Is a disgrace
For travelers on this path.
Love is the life force of the entire universe—
Those who lack love
Are already dead.
Sufi mystics urge us to live in this love now, not waiting for the life to come. Fakhr al-Din `Iraqi writes:
Seeking life without the Friend’s presence,
You didn’t spend a moment waiting at love’s door.
My God! Sit down and mourn your loss!
That time is gone when you could have been living.
We may not see it, but this love is all around us. We may not know it, but many have already followed it back to its source. In the words of Muhammad Shirin Maghribi:
Love’s concert is calling,
But the flute can’t be seen.
The drunks are in sight,
But the wine can’t be seen.
This very way—
Don’t be surprised
If their trace can’t be seen.
To find the treasure of love, poets urge the seeker to look within himself, beyond the barrier of ego. Sana’i writes:
Topple the ego to find yourself.
Why worry about the stars
When you are your sky?
The world is full of obvious things,
You’re a hidden treasure.
Remember with joy, you are your world.
The mystery of love is beyond thought or imagination, and yet closer than we think. Sadr al-Din Qunawi writes:
The way of union
Is not what we thought.
The world of soul
Is not what we imagined.
The Fountain of Eternal Life
Is closer than you think.
The Water of Life
Is in this very house—
But still, we need to drink it.
In the end, love leads to the annihilation of the self in God. `Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani, addressing the divine beloved, writes:
With your irresistible glance,
You captured my heart and soul.
Having robbed me of those,
Take away my name and accomplishments too.
If any trace of me remains in this world,
Please, don’t delay – take that too.
Decrying the tendency today to generate “renderings” of Sufi poetry sourced only in earlier translations into English, the editors offer fresh translations from the original Persian sources, providing citations to those sources on their website www.sufipoetry.com. In an appendix, they explain the forms of Persian poetry and give examples of the original (phonetically rendered in English letters) and the translation, so that the reader may see the rhyming scheme and hear the melodic sound of the original. They invite the reader to visit their website to hear recordings of Persian poems and their English translations.
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