ARTEMISpoetry: Review of Child
by Dilys Wood
Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011, Mimi Khalvati, Carcanet Press, 2011. £12.95
“As if unconscious of the
intense elegiac energy with
which it is freighted, the
perfect three-masted sail-boat
of this poem glides on...”
My only gripe with this inspiring New and Selected – and it is, really, only a call for a full Collected after not too long an interval – is that it can’t do two things at once. It can’t both group the poems in the autobiographical arrangement here and illustrate our sense of significant development in the work. A Collected will show more clearly that, while so much (technical skill, lyricism, elegance, tenderness) is in place already in the early published work, Khalvati is an experimenter who drives her work through new hoops, both inveterately from poem to poem and through a few distinct phases.
The four section (plus new poems) arrangement brings work together from different collections. Opening the book with poems about childhood and working forwards offers all the appeal of a story and getting to know a person. The child is father to the man, or the woman and the poet in this case, and the sixteen poems about childhood in section 1 unlock many aspects of Khalvati’s later work.
A young child’s desolating self-discovery (dumped in a boarding school in a foreign country with a new language to learn) immediately touches on the note of loss and displacement in many later poems. These poems also fix the start of a life-long love affair with language. In 'Listening to Strawberry', a schoolmaster, Aubrey de Selincourt, reads to his class of small girls: “... poetry ... the way it ran inside me was clearer, / closer, than the way it ran in others // though they loved it too, owned it too / but owning so much else, loved it that much less ... [his voice was] a brook for the vowels to run through, / knocking consonants like little stones / to quaver in their wake.”
There are more than fragments of a sometimes painful life-story in all sections. Honest explorations of adult relationships – such as that handled with a strong dash of irony in the corona of sonnets, Love in an English August, and in later poems such as Afterword – add to the human interest. Khalvati is a lyric poet – that is, writing out of strong personal feelings in which the search for love, identity, some kind of haven (“tracing a finger from side to side / across the trough of an open book, bilingually with Hafez!” Iowa Daybook) feature largely. But we must not place her in a lyric ‘niche’.
The description (back cover) ‘ ... exquisitely nuanced, formally accomplished, Romantic in sensibility; rapturous and tenderly responsive to nature, family and love’ is true in every respect (as are George Szirtes words ‘most poignant and graceful’). However, these phrases – which seem pitched at what a woman poet ought to be – fail to encompass the driven, aggressive nature of the technical achievement. Such comments also ignore Khalvati’s sometimes bleak, sometimes angry, also unfashionably ‘moral’, stance. Questions (amongst them, ‘What is language, what is poetry?’) positively thunder through this book in poems that can be spiky and not easily accessed – the result of far-reaching experiment. A review can only hint at the rich conundrum of Khavati’s achievement to date. There are qualities of complexity and elusiveness (especially in recent work) that can’t be readily ‘pinned down’. To understand better we need, first, to connect with her explicit dedication to the exploration of language and poetic form. One ‘struggle’ – if that’s the right word – has been with the dichotomy of freedom and formality in language, exploiting both and testing the limits of both.
If we want confirmation, Khalvati’s own words tell us how far her work is ‘language-led’: “ ...materials are intractable / whereas spelling, grammar, punctuation / bend to the curve of your thought and your thought, // brighter than any needle, magnetised / to their rule, kneels to that rule ...” ('The Meanest Flower'). Note the emphatic commitment here, “needle, magnetised ... kneels to that rule”, and that it relates, inter alia, to “grammar”. Khalvati is concerned with the spine of language and also with the way that syntax builds into rhetoric – the frequent argument-based approach in her work a link with poets of the past (George Herbert, for whom argument is bedrock) and (in some ways) the contemporary intellectual school (Geoffrey Hill, David Constantine).
We hardly need to illustrate Khalvati’s well-known skill with words at the micro level. She revels in “vowels ... / knocking consonants like little stones / to quaver in their wake”, as any example shows: “What tadpole of the margins, holly-spine / of sea-horse could be nosing at its shallows, / what honeycomb of sunlight, marbled green / of malachite be cobbled in its hoop? ('The Bowl'); “I want Rodolfo to sing, flooding the gods / Ah Mimi! As if I were her and he, here, / to hold me” ('Ghazal: To Hold Me'). Her vocabulary also is delightfully extensive – note how she dovetails in five and six syllable words, ‘homogeneity’, ‘concentricity’, ‘accelerometers’ ...
‘Formally accomplished’ says the blurb, almost sounding a throw-away note – perhaps rightly so as Khalvati has not hitched her wagon to ‘formal’ or ‘free’. The inclusion of formal forms had seemed to be a hallmark of recent collections, but the new poems here include no bravura ghazal or villanelle. Instead, some longer sequences accommodate varied stanza shapes and in River Sounding a sudden lift into song, “Without my love, there is no song. / Without my love, no silence.” What is axiomatic is Khalvati’s profound concern with form – strict, free, or (increasingly) whatever ‘shape’ the material calls for. Free verse is treated as a formal challenge, with close attention to versification and layout on the page. Across this collection there are many examples of strict form – villanelle, sestina, ghazal, sonnet, corona of sonnets (fifteen sonnets, each line of the first repeated later in a strict pattern). A typical effect is the counterpoint when the ‘here and now’ – contemporary concerns, today’s speech – abuts against traditional disciplines.
Formal poetry has its own dynamic. Rhyme in particular can assist in the free association of ideas: seeking the next rhyme can introduce an unexpected idea/development in a poem. On a more macro scale, Khalvati has long been experimenting with the variety of material that may be explored within the skin of a single poem. In recent work, single topic poems are more rare than ever. She has always been attracted by inclusiveness. Now, it seems she must take it as far as it will go, with as wide as possible range of ‘register’ (little ideas, big ideas, bird notes, trumpet notes).
We can’t miss the abundance of substance throughout her work: her frames, even when built for lightness, support value judgements. Ah, ‘value judgements’! We’ve got into the habit of condemning them. But look at Khalvati’s work again: some things she approves (enthusiasm, dedication, loyalty, sensitivity, appreciation, common-sense ...); and some things she doesn’t approve (shallowness, a mean spirit, irresponsibility, lack of commitment, crass and cruel actions...). How is this moral freight carried without making us cringe away from unfashionable dialectic?
The more Khalvati has become a poet of ideas the more she has learnt to disguise this via lightness spontaneity, especially from Entries on Light onwards. A hall-mark of Khalvati’s work is surely the elaborate way she hides painful emotions and her essential gravity by obliquity, layering, variation in tone from dark to light. One method of carrying her heavier material lightly is the all-purpose longer poem relating to a particular (often foreign) location. With poet and reader ‘feet on the ground’ in an undoubtedly concrete spot on earth, sharp emotions have their hour and ideas range freely.
The twelve page 'The Mediterranean of the Mind' flags this idea in its title. Written in apparently simple and effortless but effective three-line verses, ‘description’ sounds curiously like ‘thought’ (“They are vessels for jam and properly / only eaten when the vessel’s skin / is as thin as glass and as clear”) and ‘thought’ like another fruit dropped from a local tree (“I’d place my words / behind the surface ... // into a Mediterranean of the mind / where, like the white ermita / culminating in open ground, / some white and holy destination / hoves into view ...”). As if unconscious of the intense elegiac energy with which it is freighted, the perfect three-masted sail-boat of this poem glides on.
The Poet’s House, a meditation on decay and creativity, struck me as being in the same tender but implacable vein, though differently and very ‘tightly’ written in ten line verses and near-syllabic form. Some poems of place are less easily accessed than others. 'The Streets of La Roue', with its quotations from citizen Erasmus, is a markedly austere poem, full of questions without answers, the sickness of
western civilisation somehow implicated.
Are some poems excessively inconsequential, the variation-in-unity not quite holding? Amongst the new poems, 'Iowa Dayboo' strikes me as a sequence on the cusp of losing impact through a wavering sense of direction/purpose. But these are notes from a ‘daybook’ and past experience has taught us to trust Khalvati’s inclusiveness, even when we may be somewhat behind a new game of hers.
Khalvati is not a niche poet. She has contributed largely to contemporary poetry in tackling some of our central challenges from pitching tone to determining allowable scope and content. She has cultivated a marked flexibility in the use of language and the development of argument, her new work being particularly open, receptive, suggestive. She is one of the few poets writing in English today who may well be read at a distant time. She has the honed skill, individuality, seriousness, detachment; also commitment to the future, in the way she never stops both questioning and building on her own success.
Issue 8, May 2012, ISSN 2045-4686