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Rooja Mohassessy: California Poets Part 2, Three Poems

Rooja Mohassessy

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Rooja Mohassessy

Three Poems

Bahman Mohassess.





The thermometer grazes one hundred at near dusk. I squint into

the heat and walk with a self-preserving pace to the trash bin,

past the native, deer-resistant California lilac I planted some springs ago.

It’s almost fall and the lilac squats stunted, nibbled to three bare sticks.

I spot a lone doe in your yard, still as a taxidermy,

sustained by sparse poisonous shrubs, this golden landscape of

dearth. The hunger in her eyes, her commanding drive to survive,

I translate in my wishful thinking into a reasonable effort,

nothing egregious I hope—Ranch dressing perhaps, not quite

poison, but the way my Persian palate accommodates, happily tolerates

the plastic squeak of julienned bell peppers, croutons in a salad.

Perhaps she rations poison akin to the measured gestures I mete out

still after all these years, to acclimate, address strangers with well-oiled

greetings in lines in coffee shops and farmers markets, beaming

under the shameless sun, in a baseball cap and cut-off shorts.

The truth is you’ll be hard pressed to find fault with me.

Even now, neighbor, as we eye each other askance from across

the road, you itching to run me out, like the pest you would down

for foraging your dry lawn. I’ve grown decorously unselective, pasture

in pure reception, neither preference, nor denial. I imagine I’d be

crowned victor by now, at the ceremony of natural selection, a survivor

peering at you through brown gazelle eyes, virtually colorblind.

Next time a cousin visits and asks where my skin comes from, you’ll find

me embalmed, preserved as a curio. You may point. I’m a precious collector’s

item. But for now, won’t you come in for a drink, neighbor? I’ve minced

the barbed leaves, for want of black wild berries this year, you know

how they’ve shriveled like dark little clenched fists. I’ve snapped the dusty

sticks too from the brier, coarsely ground them into this Blackberry Bramble.

Let us toast and feel the draught rip our throats, hit the same gnawing

spot we share in this scorching twilight; it seems no ordinary drink

will wash away our animosity, each hunching uninsured at home in the heart

of the High Fire Hazard Severity Zone where you stand and brandish your gun,

the American flag leaning across to thrash the air beyond your deck.

The truth is I’ve grown weary of giving you no reason to shoot. What shame

that I too now listen to the breeze as though it rustled through the blue oaks

to spite me. I wish you’d play along, amiable as a tabula rasa, a still-life.

I go through my Monday rituals, fasting to remember the humiliation of hunger,

I pour two drops of bleach on the lid of my fifty-gallon refuse bin to keep

the bears at bay and retreat back inside. Two hours south, Tahoe residents

share their crawl space, what’s called bearbnb. In Paradise, an hour

northeast, the homeless roam like ghosts, the ash refusing to settle.

Bahman Mohassess.



Oil on canvas.


Here I’ve memorized the profile of a daffodil,

its mouth the dented trumpet of the new day,

the verve of fescue grass too, I know well,

on this, my parcel of barely arable land overrun

with dovefoot. Three seasons ago, I buried

the hyacinth in haste, by the soggy foot

of madrone. Late for a date, squatting in my heels,

I scooped out a pasty gob of clay and pushed the bulb

a good way into the hill. The blush Walmart bloom

had faded, days past Nowruz, and I didn’t have the heart,

now that I owned a plot, to trash a flower. For years,

I’ve neglected to set the table, the hyacinth

my only memento of the seven ‘C’s of haft seen.

The cluster of fragrant stars on the dusty sill,

the dreamy head I prop up with a take-away chopstick,

leans at times into the glass as though lovesick

for a glimpse of the jewel-studded throne

of Jamshid as he tarries on his vernal traverse across

the sky to reassure a swallow. I suppose I must

expect miracles, those shy spots of color that

touched my heart, a year ago today, I looked

out and where I had buried one, stood two crinkled

blooms, one behind the other as the child keeps up

in the taffy-pink new-year dress. They’d come,

the fall leaves of madrone, winter’s debris piled

at their feet, they’d come, though I’d fed none,

nor watered any. This Nowruz, a crowd assembles

here, at the footpath to the house, the mixed spring

garden pack of thirty—daffodils and paperwhites, freesias

conference with a host of blue iris. I drop my bags,

lift, on my knees, the bowed head of a hyacinth to mine,

a chevron of geese overhead ushering in the new year.

Bahman Mohassess.





Little keeps them apart

but a shade of cyan.

Like a pair of young thighs

in skinny jeans, they press

into each other, impatient

with the lateness of the hour.

Or a pair of lips,

the lower in restless ripples,

bruised azurite.

To pry sky

from sea, you’ll need

the Egyptian funerary tool, Setep,

for Opening of the Mouth.

The sea will billow

like the blue gorget

of a hummingbird

as the sky spreads,

keeping still.


May 2nd, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Rooja Mohassessy, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Your debut poetry collection, When Your Sky Runs Into Mine, was released to great acclaim and has sold very well. The poems are political in nature, dealing with specific topics such as the Iran-Iraq War, the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, but also general topics like immigration and discrimination. Can poetry be a way of coping with these events or is your main aim to bring greater awareness to these issues?

RM: My poetry is political in the extent to which political events touch or affect my personal life. Even the poem “A Muslim” about the Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka is a very private poem. It is about the way my mother, a Muslim woman, feels when she sees atrocities committed around the world in the name of Islam. It is irrational to feel responsible for or ashamed of these actions, but many Muslims do. It is a natural response. I am glad the poems are proving to be a good example of how the personal is political.

DG: You have dedicated When Your Sky Runs Into Mine “for the women of Iran, its true warriors.” Who are some of your favorite Iranian women writers, and, in addition, what message do you have for the activists in their quest for freedom?

RM: It would be presumptuous of me to have a message for the women of Iran. They are the ones risking their lives. For forty-five years they have put up with brutality and oppression at the hands of a patriarchal regime with narrow, antiquated interpretations of Islam. The women of Iran are forward thinkers and at the forefront of the current opposition movement. I follow their plight primarily as a woman, and then as an Iranian woman living in the diaspora. I am not surprised that that they have not succumbed to the brainwashing tactics of the current regime. Whatever the shortcoming of the reign of the Pahlavi Monarchy, it was a time of tremendous progress for women’s rights in Iran.

DG: As you write, the majority of poems in When Your Sky Runs Into Mine, “were inspired by the art of my uncle Bahman Mohassess (1931-2010). Can you talk more specifically about his influence on you, why art and poetry are indeed so closely linked, and which of his paintings affected you most profoundly?

RM: My poems stand on their own as they pay homage to Mohassess and his art. A good number of the poems in the collection explore our relationship. Some are addressed to him, at least one is in persona, from his vantage point. His New Year gift to me of a pastel drawing of a fawn playing the flute (image below) is perhaps the work I cherish most. The pinks and blues in this piece are an unusual color palette for Mohassess. He used to say of me that I only saw the good in people. Perhaps the pastel hues were for my benefit, a window into how he imagined I experienced the world. And of course, we grow into the vision of those who love us. The poem I wrote in response to this piece is not included in When Your Sky Runs Into Mine. Maybe someday I will publish it.

B. Mohassess, 1990. Pastel on paper

DG: You left Iran on the eve of the war with Iraq. Can you describe some of the emotions you felt and do you see yourself ever returning to the land, which, to this day, is the heir to Hafez, Omar Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Nizami, and the countless great Persian poets of that time?

RM: I left the country four years into the Iran-Iraq war. The first two sections of the book, I would even go so far as to say the entire collection is my recount of that experience. Poetry has been my safe space for exploring these memories. As to returning to Iran, I am entirely open to living in Iran.

DG: When Your Sky Runs Into Mine begins and ends with an image of stepping out—of going from one place to another (“off the pedestal onto the grass,” and the act of applying kohl before going out). In this sense, the collection begins with the general topic of Iranian politics and ends with a very specific poem dedicated to your great-grandmother Khanoom. Two questions: Can you briefly talk about how the Iranian diaspora has been affected by recent events, as opposed to those who, in a sense, have not stepped out of the country?

RM: I cannot speak for the Iranian diaspora. However, I can say that many, not only Iranians, around the world have mobilized to support the women-led movement Zan, Zendegi, Azadi in Iran. The media coverage has been varied. I, like many, receive news of the happenings in Iran through social media and through relatives. And of course, like many, I am hopeful and watching.

DG: Often politics and sometimes art, even, fail to bring us together. What we have left is food, and even here issues are contested. Nevertheless, food is the one culture we must all partake in. If you had to recommend one Persian dish, which one would it be?

RM: I enjoy good food from all cultures. I love the Jamaican dish Ackee and Saltfish which, for me, tastes very similar to Mirza Ghasemi, a dish from the Caspian region of Iran where my uncle was from. His version did not include tomatoes. The dish is made of four simple ingredients, garlic, turmeric, eggplant, and egg. But good luck making a good one! My uncle was an excellent cook. By his standards, I never mastered the Mirza Ghasemi. I can make a good spaghetti Carbonara though, which is another dish he taught me.

DG: Do you already have a sense of how your next collection will begin, or is it still too early to think about that?

RM: I don’t have a particular project. I write about whatever I am moved by, something in the garden, on the news, a memory. Though at the moment I have been writing in response to the unrest in Iran.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

RM: I am reading “unHistory” by Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella, “The Water Between Us,” Shara McCallum’s first collection, and “Everybody’s jonesin’ for something” by Indigo Moor.

Author Bio:

Rooja Mohassessy is an Iranian-born poet and educator. She is a MacDowell Fellow and an MFA graduate of Pacific University, Oregon. Her debut collection When Your Sky Runs Into Mine (Feb 2023) was the winner of the 22nd Annual Elixir Poetry Award. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Poet Lore, RHINO Poetry, Southern Humanities Review, CALYX Journal, Ninth Letter, Cream City Review, The Adroit Journal, New Letters, The Florida Review, Poetry Northwest, The Pinch, The Rumpus, The Journal, and elsewhere.


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