In a recent review by Anya Sivajothy for The McGill Daily, she calls Faraj Bayrakdar’s Mirrors of Absence “a powerful collection of poetry that entangles the reader within the nebulous and peripheral existence of the speaker, which can be attributed to Bayrakdar’s own experiences of imprisonment”.
Sivajothy begins by discussing “Intro”, the first poem in Bayrakdar’s collection, which “projects vivid images of reflection into a whirlwind of thought”. For this reason, Sivajothy calls “Intro” “an apt introduction to Faraj Bayrakdar’s book of short verses which complicates ideas of identity, freedom, and imprisonment – all set within the context of a poet struggling with his identity while living under a tyrannical regime”.
Bayrakdar’s collection draws on his experiences of being “imprisoned by the Hafez al-Assad regime in 1987” for fourteen years, and each poem reflects the conditions of this captivity. Sivajothy explains that “while some longer poems are marked by a cutting violence, others are composed of short lines that impose a juxtaposition between anger and resigned sorrow. Such lines cast this sorrow toward a constrained God who is silently watching the treachery unfold”.
Bayrakdar’s poems use this constrained simplicity to draw in the reader, strongly conveying the psychological trauma experienced by the poet. Each poem becomes a different kind of mirror: “when readers come up for air, they are just as implicated in the final interpretation as the author’s original intention, reflecting their own internal state onto the poetry”. Sivajothy concludes her review by stating “much of the directness and straightforward nature of this translation can be attributed to John Mikhail Asfour”. She also points out that “as with all translation, a worry remains over the ideas that are potentially lost in translation or untranslatable. This inevitability evokes another tragic sense of absence that further adds to the layers of restrained sorrow surrounding the work”.
Faraj Bayrakdar was born in Homs, a city north of Damascus, and spent almost 15 years in Syrian prisons. Before he was first arrested, he had already written three collections of poetry. He wrote a fourth while in prison entitled A Dove with Wings Outspread. In 1998 Bayrakdar was awarded the Hellman/Hammett award, and the American PEN Freedom-to-Write award in 1999.
John Mikhail Asfour is the author of five volumes of poetry, the most recent being Blindfold which speaks about his experience being blinded by a grenade in his native Lebanon at the age of 13. He was the editor and translator of the anthology, When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, which was shortlisted for the Canadian League of Poets Award. One Fish from the Rooftop was the recipient of the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize and Fields of My Blood received the Canada Council for the Arts Joseph Staufford award. John Mikhail Asfour died on November 2, 2014 while his translation of Mirrors of Absence was being edited.