Critical Survey: The Jewel in the Elephant’s Forehead
by John Haynes
Critical Survey, Vol. 15, 2003
This is a more intimate Mimi Khalvati than we've seen in earlier collections. There are fewer structuring motifs - the mirror in Mirrorwork, light in Entries on Light - and The Chine risks more explicit statement of ideas.
Every childhood has its chine, upper world
and lower. Time itself seems vertical
and its name too implies both bank and stream.
This, from the first, and title, poem describes the poets return to the setting of childhood boarding school and first exile. The sense, that many 'sent-aways' have, of never being able to make up for, and never being able to shake off recurrence upon recurrence of, that emptiness in early childhood, fills the book.
The image of the chine, a ravine, like time, both flows and goes deep (‘vertical’) evokes the absent presence of a mother who 'is always there/despite the mist'. And the weight - the burden - of this lack comes powerfully back in the plea on which the poem ends
Never, O God, to be afraid of love
inscribed on a new bench where I sit,
facing the headland with its crown in mist.
Not directly the poet’s own words but an anonymous inscription on a bench.
But of course there is a great deal of fear of love in the following poems, fear of love, attempts to overcome the fear, the love tie itself, the loss of love.
I protect myself from happiness, rooting
into the search for it, mourning its youth,
though it's the lesser courage that admits
to unhappiness, to gladness the greater.'
The balanced turn of the syntax here, links Khalvati to writers like Donne and Herbert, who see love, feel and love, in and through ideas. And this continually deepens the book. It is personal, but goes beyond the self.
Love always implies loss, and is always changing to something less rich and less strange. And the poet's responses veer and change from poem to poem, from the feelings of a wife or lover to those of a mother or friend. Sometimes it is plaintive and pleading, very vulnerable in a way we have traditionally thought of as ‘feminine’. What seems empty is inhabited; what seems changed is just the same, what seems locked is not -
I am always in
even when the place
even though the locks
and as so often in giving relationships
I wreathed them in, children, husbands.
Protect me! I demanded
and they disappeared.
In, The Inwardness of Elephants, a sequence of poems that does use a unifying motif, the everyday sitting room with different pictures and carvings of elephants. The decorative elephants for a part of everydayness, but carry into it both psychological depth and a certain exoticisms. In the first poem the wishing tree with its elephant designs is valued partly as an image of poetry itself, but as much because it carries the charge (like poetry) of being a gift. At the end it celebrates not love or children but the simple good of friends, the poet’s God is ‘my friends, their names’.
Where are the elephants? In the real world of colonial India or ivory poaching Kenya? In the ‘kept’ controlled world of tokens and pictures in a sitting room? The grossness of the unconscious, the magic of the unconscious with the jewelled mandala of consolation in its forehead? Whatever thuds and is clumsy, dream unconscious, wild, ungainly and earthy? The sequence dramatises this blatantly lumbering animal in a dance with the ‘real’ world of what Wittgenstein memorably dubbed ‘rock bottom’, that is, everyday conventions. This is the basis of Khalvati’s mix of the everyday, the philosophical level, the sense of orphanhood.
I attract them the way
I do children, a whole orphanage of elephants -
In the two poems directly about poetry the sense of Breton’s the lonely road and the finally obscure destination stand out. In another poem, Darling, in The Inwardness of Elephants sequence, she writes
Whose is the voice of poetry,
the animal’s or the keeper’s?
And throughout the book she plays variations on the tension between genre and syntax. in the Donne-like Love in August, moods change, feelings turn back on themselves as the pent-up speakers of staccato phrases push against and are hemmed in by the strictness of the corona form. Metrical pressure becomes psychological pressure.
Syntax is, of course, a kind of meaning, and Khalvati is a poet for whom connection through textual time and grammatical relations, rather than through imagistic juxtaposition and suppression of connection, is crucial.
In a poem about her university tutor, Aubrey de Selincourt she says,
in its deepest spells of orphanhood, the soul
can recall - through memories of grass
and place, a shaking hand on a pipe’s bowl
that indicates a turn of phrase - an undertow
to weather, a companionship that being human . . .
makes deprivation sweet to bear
The wider sense of deprivation comes back in the last poem of the book, which questions the very sense of orphanhood and loss which drives so pitilessly through it. Taking up the theme of loss, of fading intimacies, she begins
Don't think I haven't changed. Who said
absence makes the heart grow fonder?
Though I watch the sunset redden
every day, days don't grow longer'
And moves into what looks to be a love poem as such
I thought that every spring was you,
every blossom, every bud...
But something else has slipped in:
ripe with sores in lanes and markets,
are paying with their lives...
And the end comes in a beautifully shaped rhetoric (let me not apologise for the word) which wonderfully balances the claims of personal emotion - perhaps poetry itself if we are to link it one way another to the sense of love - and the wider scheme of things in which the luxury of such feelings are 'paid for'.
Though we'll never see the olives,
rice fields, shelter in an alcove
from the sun, in our time, our lives
have more to answer to than love.
This poem is a version of a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the very politically aware Punjabi poet who writes in Urdu and won the Lenin Prize, a poet whose work brings together love, as in a sense where all poetry homes in, and wider human, particularly ‘third world’ and ‘other’ injustice. The poem adds another dimension by prompting the question as to who the lover is in this very personal poem written by Khalvati not quite as herself but as translator and empathiser. Like the inscription on the bench the words are another’s’, then hers. There are enough allusions though the book to Yeats’s stone at the centre on the one hand, and Keats’ loss of self on the other, for us to ponder both the overt intimacy of these poems, and where the poet’s lonely road may yet lead.
© Critical Survey/John Haynes