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The Guardian: The language of flowers
by Charles Bainbridge

Saturday August 25, 2007

Mimi Khalvati's The Meanest Flower celebrates the small and the near at hand, says Charles Bainbridge

The Meanest Flower
by Mimi Khalvati
77pp, Carcanet, £9.95

Mimi Khalvati's latest collection opens with a gracefully crafted sonnet sequence that explores with great subtlety and tact the idea of family, and of childhood in particular. Family has always been the wellspring of Khalvati's writing. We see this freshly conjured in the startling and mysterious flower imagery of "sonnet v": "As if they were family, flowers surround you / As if they were a story-book, they speak. / They speak through eyes and strange configurations / on their faces, markings on petals, whiskers, // mouth-holes and pointed teeth."

The phrase "the meanest flower" is taken from the final lines of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood". Khalvati's book as a whole, and "sonnet v" in particular, can be seen as an ongoing conversation with this brilliant meditation on childhood and loss. In fact the "you" of the sonnet could very easily be Wordsworth himself, with his disrupted connection to flowers, to nature.

Throughout the sequence there is a supple use of the word "you" - the addressee is frequently evasive and elusive, constantly on the move. At different times the poems evoke Khalvati's mother, her daughter, her grandchild and herself. The book relishes and draws strength from these shifting roles, this complex interweaving of textures.

But there is another side to Khalvati's emphasis on a child's perspective. The opening sonnet defiantly sets up childhood in opposition to "facts" and "worldliness". The impressive lyric "Scorpion-grass" makes this concern more explicit. "Facts are a bind and biography / a woodsman wielding an axe. // Don't give me a plot or a family tree . . ." Here is a warning to the reader, an eagerness to evade the definitions of biography and even the grander scales of nationality and ethnicity.

Khalvati was born in Tehran in 1944 but left at the age of six and spent much of her childhood on the Isle of Wight, returning to Iran briefly in her late teens and early 20s. But in this collection, much more so than in earlier books, she is wary of defining herself in these terms. The final sonnet of the sequence agonises over the role of poetry in relation to these bigger structures and narratives: "Poetry's on the run. / From exhaustion, the inability // to imagine a larger world and one / too sick to be hurt into words", and the sequence ends on a note of desperation, the humour and defiance of the opening now becoming a plea for leniency.

One of the great strengths of this book is its sense of craft. Khalvati has become increasingly fascinated with stricter metrical forms, and what we have on show here is a remarkable and finely judged sense of patterning, especially in her use of repetition and internal rhyme.

This last technique in particular seems to have been adapted from the other metrical form that dominates the collection, the ghazal, a structure that originated in 10th-century Persia. The word "ghazal", of Arabic origin, means "talking to women". They consist of a series of couplets, the final one usually employing the poet's name as a kind of signature. In these opening lines from "Ghazal (after Hafez)" we see their distinctive combination of rhyme and refrain: "However large earth's garden, mine's enough. / One rose and the shade of a vine's enough. // I don't want more wealth, I don't need more dross. / The grape has its bloom and it shines enough."

Again we have a celebration of the small scale, the near at hand, of poetry as healing. In the final poem, a tribute to Arvo Pärt, this focus on quietism is no longer portrayed as an "inability to imagine a larger world", but as a means of enduring the violence and vertigo of the larger structures, and the collection quite literally and poignantly ends at grassroots level: "blades moving like bells, harebells say, / though there are no flowers but stems alone / and a breath of wind to give the grass direction."

© The Guardian/Charles Bainbridge

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