Theodore McCombs in Literary Hub:
“That anyone has ever been able to surpass one of the great figures of the Divine Comedyseems incredible, and rightly so,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, in his Nine Essays on Dante; “nevertheless, the feat has occurred.” Borges was speaking of the medieval Iranian poet Attar’s allegorical epic, Manteq al-Tayr, or The Conference of the Birds, and the magnificent image that caps the poem, of the mythical bird-deity of Persian literature, the Simorgh. Writers from Rumi to Borges to Porochista Khakpour have drawn on Attar and his sublime Simorgh, a vision of coherence in a divided world. Over eight centuries later, and with an exciting new translation released, by Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpé, Attar’s Simorgh still speaks to our moment of change and challenge: a moving and unsettling ideal from a very different, but very relevant time and place.
Farīd Ud-Dīn Attar, a pharmacist and poet in 12th-century Nishapur, Iran, composed The Conference of the Birds as a Sufi allegory for the soul’s journey to the Divine, with the Simorgh cast as the great king of the birds of the world. The birds look to the hoopoe, King Solomon’s favorite avian courier, to guide them on the Way to the Simorgh’s home on Mount Qaf. The birds present their fears, excuses, longings, and attachments to the hoopoe, who upbraids them to demolish their egos and fall into an ecstatic, irrational love with the Divine. The hoopoe illustrates each lesson with a series of parables on this not-quite-sane, often shocking love: there are kings who fall in love with male servants; there’s a Sufi sheikh who apostatizes for love of a Christian girl; there are blood-tears, and flayings, and every manner of holy fools ecstatically degrading themselves. The Way, Attar wants us to understand, is not confined by logic, worldly prudence, or even religious orthodoxy. Every form of ego must be sacrificed, even the conceit of rectitude.