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Review of The Chine

This is taken from the Boston Review - to visit the website click here

Mimi Khalvati, an Iranian-born citizen of the United Kingdom, presents us with perhaps the most compelling recent example of world-naming, which is perhaps the central project of any significant poet. The world that she names in her new collection The Chine is, of course, a complicated one, inflected by the tensions between her native and adopted cultures and languages, which is why it so deeply interests us; she confronts us with a problem we all share, that of seeming alien to ourselves in our own familiar surroundings. Her title, an uncommon geographical term for a ridge or rocky prominence, immediately sets the stage for our potential estrangement, the non-native speaker forcing us to go to the OED, hinting at the difficulty of the terrain ahead. The nature of such inchoate, inherently wordless obstacles, and the humane impulse to bridge them, is illustrated in one of the book's finest poems, "Writing Home," which begins:

    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. Around it were the usual
    laurel hedges, the chine, the hockey pitch,
    the bridge. On one side, the crab-apple tree
    with its round seat, whose name puzzled me, which
    wasn't surprising since everyone but me
    seemed to understand such things, take for granted
    apples can't be eaten, crabs can be planted.

The speaker in this auspicious first stanza immediately and effectively articulates the gripping plight of her dislocation, which is only heightened by her mastery of her second language's rhythms and rhymes. Even if she does not understand it perfectly, as in her literal misapprehension of the crab-apple tree, she must rely on this foreign tongue to help her to locate herself. Thus, we feel in the (also literally) ringing iambs and seamless rhymes her act of self-orientation as she recites the geography of what we soon learn is the Isle of Wight, the chilly, inhospitable setting of the proper English boarding school to which her parents have sent her from Tehran.

Her empowering relationship to language only grows more complex, and more utterly apparent, as she moves inwardly from mapping herself to the exterior landscape toward the more arduous internal journey of the imaginative return to her true home. "Writing home meant writing in that ring, mostly / to Mummy," who is a distant, bodiless figure, a face framed by white fur in a photograph. In the litany of details she puts forth in her letters, the young castaway's routines come alive: "Not for me, but to trace / highlights someone could follow: Brownies, Thinking / Day, films, a father's hockey match, a play / called Fairy Slippers, fire drills, swimming. / Even the death of a King. When my birthday? / I wrote at the same time, dropping the 'is,' / too proud of my new question mark to notice." We are witness here to the birth of a wonderfully mongrel imagination, a new world taking shape, which is at once fluidly luminous (all those deliciously lilting "l" sounds) and yet has its jagged, risky edges (the abrupt enjambment of "Thinking / Day," as if thinking every day might pose a certain danger).

The poet's true mettle shows best in the final stanza, in which the speaker of the poem realizes her gift is an ironic metaphor for thwarted communication. It takes all the formidable resources of her art to speak in both directions across her exile, to prove to her roots that she can still love them across injury, and to her foster homeland that she merits a place in its beautiful chorus of distinctive voices:

    My mother kept all my letters for ten years,
    then gave them back to me. Perhaps they never
    touched her, were intended only for my ears
    for I never knew her then or asked whether
    she made sense of them, if my references
    to the small world of a girls' school in England
    had any meaning. It was the fifties. Suez,
    Mossadegh, white cardies, Clarks sandals. And,
    under the crab-apple tree, taking root,
    words in a mouth puckered from wild, sour fruit.

So the poet arrives at her understanding of her own identity. The formerly incomprehensible crab-apple tree now provides a kind of nourishment. More than the pretty staple of the lyric we might encounter in stale formalist writing--as if the whole purpose of poetry were simply to record some privileged impression of the world's natural beauty--this brilliant poet's crab-apple tree imparts the same kind of gorgeous and devastating self-knowledge granted Eve by the biblical Tree of Life. Her letters, though they are returned to her, an act that is an echo of primal rejection, cannot and will not be unwritten. Instead, we have this thrilling, strong-spirited, and utterly original poem, one not coincidentally rendered in sonnets, ripe with the wise and loving recognition that with our quest for self-fulfillment, even when it seems imposed on us from without, comes the terribly liberating prospect of lost innocence.

Any number of other poems could be cited from Khalvati's superb volume that would further attest to her genius for translating in this way what might superficially seem old or recycled idioms into something novel and almost entirely her own (the collection includes villanelles, terze rime, and even a heroic crown of sonnets), but I feel compelled to conclude with her stunning "Ghazal." Here is an example of an experiment with language perhaps only possible through this kind of refreshing interrogation of form that is as anti-elitist and intellectually provocative as anything claiming to be "alternative": the refugee importing a little-known form (the ghazal) into our consciousness, akin to sneaking the contraband of a strange foodstuff past the customs agents at Heathrow:

    If I said every tear, each sob, each sigh
    quietens, stops and all our tears soon dry,
                                  who'd argue?

    If I said every voice stung to the cry
    'What is the point?' doesn't want a reply,
                                  who'd argue?

    If I said time will tell, heal, steal, fly--
    take it, give it, do with it as you're done by,
                                  who'd argue?

    But if hopelessness did, who would deny
    its right to be heard, if hope were to try,
                                  who'd argue?

    Who'd argue over love? Who'd follow my
    example? You, my love? Then who am I
                                  to argue?

The paradox of something so novel arising out of something so ancient (the ghazal is a few millennia old, originating in pre-Christian Persia) is in itself satisfying, a reminder of the tremendous wealth awaiting rediscovery, overlooked in our haste to stake out the latest and farthest boundary.

Sadly, we live in a time when such resources are often neglected, such gifts refused outright because they are not self-consciously marked as broken, because they are too lovely in light of all the irremediable harm we know very well we have inflicted on one another. Yet even in the face of our world's cruelest acts, we remain burdened by our obsession with naming, for trying to make sense of the senseless. Such is the genesis of Marilyn Hacker's newest book Desesperanto, in which the possibility of healing amidst despair seems so profoundly elusive it demands the creation of an entirely new language--which becomes the neologism that titles her collection. Rather than resorting to either extreme--to conventional deployments of received forms or to radical deconstruction of those comforting structures--Hacker spectacularly redefines the old rules while managing to resist bleakly chic atonality, to serve the great and ultimately undeniable human need to bear witness.
Previous review of 'The Chine'... To the Mimi Khalvati page... To the 'The Chine' page...
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