Poetry Wales: Review of The Chine
by Moniza Alvi
According to T.S. Eliot, Tennyson was the saddest of the English poets. Mimi Khalvati’s The Chine contains, I imagine, some of the finest sad poems since that nineteenth century laureate. This prolific Iranian-born poet has published four books of poetry in ten years, and Selected Poems (2000). Khalvati was educated in England and Switzerland. Her writing draws on diverse worlds and poetic traditions, and enriches the dominant culture of British poetry. Her latest collection is clearly an advance for the poet; her explorations seem more urgent than formerly, she is fully engaged and rarely appears to be merely ‘taking an idea for a walk’. These are personal poems, shards against the cold, pulling the reader in closely, but Khalvati is tactful, hardly raising her voice, and true to her own resolve: ‘And as for larger griefs – well, they / are the dumb stones in my heart./ They will not speak nor I betray / life in art’. (‘Life in Art’). Her themes include a double exile from home undergone in an English boarding school, and she focuses on familial as well as romantic love. Khalvati proves abundantly that, if a poem is sufficiently accomplished, the boundary between the personal and the universal is blurred.
It’s hard not to take the stunning ‘Villanelle’ as the emotional and artistic centre of the book. The desolation is heartbreaking, and yet there’s a hint of bleak humour in the tone and the extremity of the position taken:
Learn, when in turn they turn to you, to sigh
and say: You're right, I know, life isn't fair.
No one is there for you. Don't call, don’t cry.
Outside your room are floors and doors and sky.
Much is said of Khalvati as a very formal poet, yet, in the vast majority of poems here, the forms are organic to the work and don’t obtrude. There’s no sense of her forcing her talents upon the reader. (Only in the sonnet sequence, perhaps, is one very aware of the stylistics.) Generally, there’s a fine tension between the poet’s self-questioning, often self-mocking voice and the skill and sureness of the poems. There’s nothing inconsequential or inept; some poems like ‘Villanelle' are marvellously spare and light in touch, while others offer continuous rich reward. Many are outstanding.
The poem ‘The Chine’, with its themes of loss and love, its deft symbolism, is a fitting prelude to the collection. The child journeys to the island by boat, to school, it is suggested, with ‘the sky in its slow revolve/ winding the Isle of Wight with a giant key’. To arrive there, is paradoxically to be cast adrift ‘always facing the same/ mother who stays ashore’. Thus the sense of aloneness in the poem is linked to that of actual and inner journeys. The Chine, a ravine, a feature of the Isle of Wight's landscape, becomes a motif for childhood and for mental and emotional life: ‘Every childhood has its chine, upper world/ and lower.’ The poem ends tremulously with the poet facing the misty headland, sitting on a bench inscribed "Never, 0 God, to be afraid of love".
There's a configuration of poems in which exile in boarding school is in the foreground or background: 'Writing Letters', 'Writing Home', 'Holiday Homes', and 'Childhood Books', for example. Evocations are poignant, recollections exact: ‘As far back as I remember, 'home' had an empty ring./ Not hollow but visual/ like a place ringed on a map, monochrome/ in a white disc.’ ('Writing Home') The six year old, already away at school, seems somewhat alienated from her deeper self: ‘I am very well and happy, I wrote,/ meaning it... Worry should keep, like shame, its head down in dreams’. The feeling of dislocation is sharp: ‘Right from the start, home was an empty space/ I sent words to.’ Khalvati projects a shadowy portrait of ‘mother’, who kept all her letters for ten years and then returned them, with the poet wondering if they ever 'touched' her. The poem conjures up a way of life, an era, in a few succinct lines: ‘Brownies, Thinking/ Day, films, a fathers' hockey match, a play/ called Fairy Slippers, picnics, fire drills, swimming./ Even the death of a king.’
It's impossible to give a flavour of such poetry by picking out this or that line. 'Writing Home' is a marvellously intricate whole, the rhyming subtle, the flow of images and thought seamless within the apparent solidity of the four ten-line stanzas. Poems such as 'Childhood Books' and 'Gooseberries' are reminiscent of the American C.K. Williams in their stream of consciousness, their visionary sweep, the movement from a small detail like ‘How you tickle a feather along your lips’ ('Childhood Books') to the concept of the draining away of a whole childhood.
When the focus departs from the poet's earlier days, the poems are equally strong. 'The Suzuki Method' concerns a sick grown-up child. It begins darkly with a quotation: ‘When I was nine they gave me/ a half-sized violin and half-sized feelings’, and it ends with the shocking vividness of calloused feet and foamy, unwiped lips, the starkness of mental illness, the mother's fear for her adult child and the child within the adult:
I cut the pills in half
but even half a pill's enough
to fell an elephant.
I listen for your breath.
Cot death. Now you are twenty-six.
And I am fifty seven.
This painful poem is followed appropriately by the regretful 'Eden', a finely wrought sonnet which plays on the idea of two contrasting landscapes or countries. They are real places 'nature is green on green' suggesting England, 'green grows out of ochre, fawn, dun' implying Iran, but they also represent inner worlds and human connections. The poet muses on the bonds formed by grass, trees and water in the two lands. She envies even the awkward relationship of dust and tree, and finally laments ‘If only we were dust and tree. My children/ grown from my poor soil. I imagined Eden.’ In 'Ghazal', Khalvati turns to this highly aural form of Persian poetry, to present a comparable sense of hopelessness, but in playful, teasing rhyming couplets (the rhyme a single chime throughout). An adult child, perhaps, is addressed:
Who'd argue over love? Who'd follow my
example? You, my love? Then who am I
Intricate, sensuous and vulnerable, these poems may adhere, in some respects, to a 'feminine aesthetic' (the title of Khalvati’s first collection is taken from Helene Cixous' observation that women write 'in white ink'). Yet this poetry is stylish, experimental and demanding, and could be said to contain some of the best of 'masculine' as well as 'feminine'. I am convinced that while we may tire of brasher voices, Mimi Khalvati’s work will endure.
Moniza Alvi's most recent collections are Currying My Wife (2000) and Souls (2002). She received a Cholmondeley Award in 2002.
© Poetry Wales/Moniza Alvi