Nevit O. Ergin, translator,
The Forbidden Rumi
(Inner Traditions, 2006)

When I first came across Nevit O. Ergin's Forbidden Rumi, I was a bit skeptical. The thought passed through my mind: Oh, another Rumi book off the new age shelf, another book by the most popular poet to fill all the new age boutiques, blah blah blah. I was also skeptical because the cover mentions translations and commentary, and I wasn't looking forward much to the commentary, for Rumi has always done a fine job of speaking for himself quite loudly.

These fears were quickly dispelled by Will Johnson's daring and poetic introduction. I was also happy to see that this "commentary" was merely a brief introduction at the beginning of each of the book's three chapters, as opposed to each poem being accompanied by an essay six times its length.

I was encouraged that these words would be a proper harbinger of the translations themselves. But I couldn't help to also note the somewhat bland titles of these chapters: "Songs to Shams, Songs to God," "Songs of Advice, Songs of Admonition" and "Songs of Heresy" (though who isn't excited by a little heresy now and again?).

It is unclear whether these sub-chapters were in the original manuscript or compiled for this edition. If the latter is the case, it does seem as if certain poems were situated arbitrarily into one of the three. If the former is the case, who am I to criticize Rumi or his students who took down his ecstatic and drunken outbursts of song? As might not be completely unexpected with Rumi, the translations in this collection (especially the poems in "Songs to Shams, Songs to God") are tinged with more than a strand of homoeroticism. They are not so overt as, say, some of Chuck Palahniuk's novels or some of Shakespeare's work, but they are certainly more noticeable than any other Rumi translations that I've encountered (such as some by Robert Bly or Coleman Barks). All of which, I suppose, is why these chapters of Rumi's Divan-i Kebir (the Rumi oeuvre) were suppressed as long as they were by the Turkish government.

Many of the translations offer very plain language, and poetic devices seem to be minimal throughout, save a bit of "Songs of Advice, Songs of Admonition." Ironically though, many of these seemingly simple and straightforward versions come across as stiff and inaccessible. For those familiar with the Rumi that has always dealt with that which lies at least four layers into the heart, Ergin's translations may seem to be a bit too cold. Much time must be taken with these translations and no single one can be seen or completely understood on its own. Because of this, Forbidden Rumi comes across more as a book for scholars than for the casual reader.

Furthermore, many of the poems lack footnotes of any sort, which leaves the reader feeling a little excluded at times. Which means this may be a collection that hardcore Rumi scholars will delight in (some such folk out of Pico Ayer's Abandon, for example).

Forbidden Rumi is not a collection of poetry that one can easily quote to one's own beloved. As I said, it takes some work. For more effortless romance, I suggest Coleman Barks' The Essential Rumi (see page 266 of this collection for my favorite). If you've made the mistake of ordering this book already on, hoping to woo your significant other with its words, and you are still waiting for it to arrive, have no fear. May I simply suggest reading the poems to one another aloud. When all else fails and the meanings are falling short, take this portion of the work as a reminder: "Listen to the rest of the poem / from the sultan of sultans. / Just listen. / Don't bother with the words."

review by
Kevin Shlosberg

10 November 2007

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