Poetry London: Broken Boundaries
Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011
Mimi Khalvati, who founded and still teaches at the Poetry School, is a highly regarded figure in poetry education. She is, however, perhaps undervalued as a poet, despite a Cholmondely Award and a recent shortlisting for the T S Eliot Prize. Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011 is a quiet reminder of her worth. It evokes the tone of contemporary England, its grey streets and cosy narrowness, as sharply as a naturalized Briton can: 'beads, apple pips, tiny things / only we are small enough to count on'. Khalvati arrived in an English boarding school from Tehran aged eight and made her home here as an adult. Ghosts from other worlds haunt her scenes:
.................................................................. Can you hear me,
Mr Khalvati? Larger than life he was
and the death he dies large as the hands that once
drowned mine and the salt of his laugh in the wave.
These poems are arranged as lyric autobiography to show Khalvati's life through the children in it, including her young self, her children and her current grandmotherhood. The selection of older poems is very different from that in her previous Selected (2000). Comparing the two confirms the power of ordering poems in a collection rather than just picking your best poems and letting sequence take care of itself, as some poets claim to do. Ordering changes theme and distinguishes the reader's experience of individual poems. 'The Woman in the Wall', for instance, is placed after 'Needlework' and before 'Stone of Patience' in Child, humanizing the woman buried alive and allowing a reading of a 1970s British experience of motherhood. But as the first poem in Selected Poems, it was rendered all shock, a less affecting gothic horror story:
Why they walled her up seems academic.
They have their reasons. She was a woman
with a nursing child. Walled she was
and dying. But even when they surmised
there was nothing of her left but dust and ghost,
at dawn, at dusk, at intervals
the breast recalled, wilful as the awe
that would govern village lives, her milk flowed.
And her child suckled at the wall, drew
the sweetness from the stone and grew
till the cracks knew only wind and weeds
and she was weaned. Centuries ago.
The first section of Child is a superb set of memories offered metaphorically as 'home', fully unpacked in 'The Bowl', one of Khalvati's finest early poems. This is a study in how to use that most loved of English traditional forms, iambic pentameter, as carrier for multiculturalism:
My bowl has smashed my boundaries: harebell
and hawthorn mingling in my thickened waist
of jasmine; catkin and chenar, dwarf oak
and hazel hanging over torrents, deltas,
my seasons' arteries... Lahaf-Doozee!...
My retina is scarred with shadow-dances
and echoes run like hessian blinds across
my sleep; my ears are niches, prayer-rug arches.
Khalvati creates some of her most moving effects by working metre against meaning. 'Soapstone Creek' turns and twists its phrasing against a backdrop of iambic pentameter, showing the unavoidable development of children in one direction while the parent watches for problems in another:
The creek sings all night long and all night long
we listen in our sleep, waking from dreams
we recognise as our own undersong
to grief, a gabble of diverted streams
under the paths our lives took, our children's lives
we listened to so avidly but missed
the earliest signs where the ground first gives,
tracks to the water in our own tracks twist.
Apart from metre, Khalvati excels in form and makes skilled use of sestina, villanelle and, especially that most loved Arabic and Persian form, the ghazal. This collection foregrounds emotion and ghazals manipulate supply the flow of emotion between writer and reader. In this one, 'Ghazal: To Hold Me', fear and need are controlled by the refrain:
I want to be held. I want somebody near
to hold me
when the axe falls, time is called, strangers appear
to hold me.
Throughout the collection, various sorts of refrains, parallellisms and echoes of sound structure the syntax. Countless poems feature the classical devices of ploce, epizeuxis and polyptoton - all variations on doubling words. In 'Plant Care', Khalvati elevates this word-doubling to a metaphor for the raising of spirits:
and the voices are lost... lost...
and the word that is said
said twice, said twice
since we, the infant opening eyes
at the left breast, right breast,
heard once, then twice, the gobbledy-gook
of her twin-drum sighs: Bokhor! Bokhor!
and drank and drank as we rose and sank
on the housecoat, houseboat, as the clock ticked
Mimi Khalvati's final voice, in her brief 'New and Uncollected' section, is the voice of the disclosing poet, vulnerable and dominated by elegy, the material detail that vivified earlier poems turning to detritus. But her lyric skills are still steely. She can still perfume the iron in an old traveller's soul as she does in the long poem 'River Sounding':
What is inside, inside the rust-stained walls,
trapped, enormous, are the unfathomable
languages of water. Nothing to do here
Today sympathy is our watchword. Sympathy
and symmetry, a line of sun and shadow cutting us
into perfect halves at 5 pm the clock confirms.
Like The Present Tense of the World, Child is a work of reference for a world in the process of cultural exchange.
© Poetry London/Claire Crowther