Recent Poetry from Carcanet: John Wheway on Mimi Khalvati and Robyn Bolam on Moya Cannon

Mimi Khalvati’s Afterwardness  reviewed by John Wheway.

Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784107994

Mimi Khalvati’s new book is a sustained series of meditations on the theme of exile. For its eloquent use of form and the yield of its emotional excavation, I consider it poetry of the highest order.

Though autobiographical, the book never gives us personal history for its own sake, but always in the service of its theme: life in the perennial ‘afterwardness’ of exile.

The fifty-six sonnets ­­– the Italian form invokes Petrarch’s ‘Rime Sparse’, his great document of unappeasable longing ­– begin with ‘Questions’. A child, in flight on a plane, discovers itself to be ‘smaller than you were…Something has made you shrink/or else something has made the seatback grow’, travelling ‘away from all you know’ as the sky darkens. The child, with its unknown companion are ‘the only ones not gone or disappearing’, and it struggles ‘to push the feelings down, the questions/the stillborn questions never to be answered’. This literal flight from home is disorienting, hallucinatory – to be up in the air with no familiar ground, nothing to rely on but a ‘seat-belt’ of trust.

The autobiographical poems here, rich in themselves, establish a perspective from which to view other lives in exile – those of the ‘Dreamers’, under threat in Trump’s USA, in the poem of that title, who arrived as children with ‘two hundred words in their vocabulary’, their ‘first languages, half-formed, dropped at a border’; or the eleven-year old boy from Aleppo in the heartbreaking title poem, ‘Afterwardness’, ‘ whose eyes hold only things no longer there/– a citadel, a moat, safe rooms of shadow/‘afterwardness’ in his thousand yard stare’, his mother tongue, and the memories inscribed in it, ‘lost like me in air’; or the girl in ‘Hide and Seek’, ‘backed to a wall/shrinking on a dirt floor, hugging her knees’, unsure which is worst – to find, to be found, or be ‘never found at all’.

Four poems  capture the struggle to recreate the world in another language. In ‘Translation’, exiled children swap collections of words: ‘I’ll give you parandeh, you give me bird’. But what’s lost is a shaping milieu, a cultural home: ‘…what if, whistling in some foreign treetop, //parandeh has long since flown out of mind/back to its own kind, never to return?’. In ‘Handwriting’, the painstaking practice of ‘joined-up writing’ allows the self and its articulation to become more joined up. Letters are ‘the scaffolding and ark of spoken speech’. The child might encounter ‘strange idioms that make the mind grow numb/but knowing how to write them helps you hear’. Still, not quite knowing how to play a language game, in ‘Dictation’, leads the young writer into confusion ‘Like a bumblebee on a wild rampage,/stumbling against the sense that otherwise/ran as smooth as honey across my page’. ‘Elocution’ produces an adolescent crush so ecstatic that the elocution teacher, though ‘squat as a toad/in twinset and tweeds’, becomes ‘my oracle’.

In so many of these poems, the images frame and enunciate the character of an exile’s life with tremendous resonance. The recurrent, deeply traditional formal design of the Petrarchan sonnet grounds the collection and provides a containing experience of consistency and reliability that contrasts with all the disorientation, the displacement, the endless efforts to make a new home that never quite yield a secure sense of belonging.

Longing for the lost world of home is visceral. In ‘The Introvert House’ (p16), the speaker wonders if her habitual way of arranging furniture results from ‘workings in the bloodstream, some residue/in subliminal memory of windows/that look forever inward, galaxies/that spin on carpets, geometric rows// of turquoise tiles ablaze with symmetries/inherent in physics; eyvans, porticos/of gardens brought indoors; a Sufi’s verses.’

A key poem, for me is ‘Scripto Inferior’, which tells us that to know your story allows you ‘to understand not only who you are and where you come from’, but the very ‘nature/ of story, how to prime a palimpsest/for all successive stories’. I think of the whole collection as a palimpsest founded on ‘the underwriting’ of the poet’s ‘own life story’. The palimpsest image brings out the importance of storytelling in constituting the life of the self, perhaps more important in the lives of those for whom ‘some imaginary homeland/ is all you know, shall ever know of home’.

Thus, one re-working of the theme of forgotten past re-appearing in the present gives us ‘Background Music’ and a companion poem, ‘Background Music (ii)’. Here are not ‘workings in the bloodstream’ but the ‘background music’ of abandonment trauma that disrupts the peaceful act of reading in a café and you are ‘torn away…to fall as Tosca falls, defences fall’, and ‘your heart breaks open a dungeon door//and griefs like prisoners…bestir themselves’.  In ‘My Mother’s Lighter’, the poet ‘Half-sentimental, half-dispassionate/and with no true attachment to or knowledge/of my own history’ plays idly with the lighter, and sees ‘the same flame, its root invisible…that she’d have seen’.  It ‘flares in the sunlight’ until it becomes too hot to handle.

Though there are many ‘stories’ here (and so many poems I wish I had space to quote), the ‘afterwardness’ that gives the book its title remains its unifying subject. This is a collection in which I have been grateful to immerse myself.  It can be dipped into, but gains from repeated reading as a formally satisfying sequence. In the final poem, ‘Vapour Trails’, we come full circle from the dramatic opening flight of ‘Questions’. In this concluding sonnet, an observer – now ‘down on earth’, watches ‘silver bullet-nosed’ jets and their contrails ‘like spinal x-rays’ – images that suggest a magical treatment for a life-changing injury. A valedictory sestet gives us a gloss on the poet’s story, and at the same time describes her moving and brilliant series of poems:

It only takes a trigger, a single flight
in childhood, for example, early trauma,
to stretch the bare bones of the aftermath

into a lyric void beyond the finite
and knowable, a via negativa
cruising at altitude on plumes of breath.

John Wheway’s poems have appeared in New Measure, Stand, Magma, The Warwick Review, Poetry Review, the Yellow Nib, Poetry Quarterly, the Compass Magazine, South Word, Agenda, the High Window, And Other Poems His flash fiction has also been widely published. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber published his novella Poborden. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October will be be published by V Press in May 2020.

*****

Moya Cannon’s Donegal Tarantella  reviewed by Robyn Bolam

Donegal Tarantella by Moya Cannon. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 78410 787 1

The title poem of Moya Cannon’s sixth collection deftly combines several of the book’s themes: Ireland, music, history, family, sea and identity. The opening, ‘Tunes wash up, ocean-polished pebbles, /in the kitchens of south Donegal’, sweeps us into a whirl of dance tunes from all over Europe, now ‘gone native’. These tunes, like the tarantella of the title are, for the poet and those she writes about, simultaneously their inheritance and part of daily life. Through music, she evokes a whole society.

In ‘Bread’, even the oven hums as loaves are ‘tapped/ from their tins’ and nature has its own music: ‘bee-hum, the high meheh of hill-lambs/ the lifted songs of larks in warm grass’ (‘Glencolmcille Soundtrack’). The poet’s own childhood is charted through its songs in ‘A Sentimental Education’ and there are some intriguing titles, such as ‘The Boy Who Swopped a Bog for a Gramophone’. Even the river ‘opens out to the Atlantic/like possibility itself, or a very old song’ (‘Corrib’).

This is also a collection about the languages of song. In ‘Songs Last the Longest’, it is ‘scraps of songs’ that survive after all else has gone, including the words’ meaning – though, in the ‘rhythms and syllables/ love pours still…’. Here, she writes of the lost African language, Kulkhassi; elsewhere, Cannon creates a world where roses ‘whisper…in an old Esperanto’ (‘Flowers Know Nothing of Our Grief’). Yet she also revives vocabularies. I hadn’t come across ‘schist’ before (a metamorphic rock) or ‘rickle’ (a loosely piled heap).

Although Ireland is at the heart of this book, some of its most striking and, often, very moving poems are set further afield – in St Petersburg (‘Mal’ta Boy, 22,000 BC’ and ‘Exile’); in Hiroshima (‘October 1945’), at the Taj Mahal (‘All the Living’), or in Italy (‘St Patrick’s Well, Orvieto’).

Reading these poems is often akin to travelling through time – or being made aware of layers of time before our own. ‘Four Herds of Deer’ expresses the animals’ essence and grace, while its sixth and final line also captures their timelessness: ‘light, light as deer on cave walls’. Cannon is equally adept at vividly evoking more recent history as she imagines her grandparents’ younger lives in ‘The Countermanding Order, 1916’, and not without humour as she follows the flights of small bats between centuries of literature in ‘The Coimbra Librarians’.

What I love most is her narrative skill and the way she spans time and distance. It’s not just that she can make mountains I’ve never seen, seem familiar ‘in their shawls of rain’ (‘The Twelve Bens…’), but also that, in ‘One of the Most Foolish Questions’, she can make you catch your breath mid-way by quoting a young Floridian/Senegalese historian’s answer to being asked where she was from: ‘It is difficult – / you can tell a certain amount from/ auction sales records and cargo lists’. The hideous realisation that she means people, not things, is tempered by the resilience of those people, who carried a song from that time to the present. Moya Cannon is also a carrier of songs and a celebrator of significant stories.

Robyn Bolam is a freelance poet, editor and reviewer. She was born in Newcastle, grew up in Northumberland and now lives in Hampshire. She is Emeritus Professor at St Mary’s University. She has published four books of poems with Bloodaxe, The Peepshow Girl (1989), Raiding the Borders (1996), New Wings: Poems 1977-2007 (2007), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and Hyem (2017). She is the editor of the anthology, Eliza’s Babes: Four Centuries of Women’s Poetry in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), and of five seventeenth-century plays.

*****

 

 

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