Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011
180 pp., Carcanet Press, £11.65
Mimi Khalvati has published six previous collections with Carcanet – these include In White Ink (1991), Entries on Light (1997), The Chine (2002) and The Meanest Flower (2007). The only one of these collections that I’d read previously was The Meanest Flower, so I’d been looking forward to getting my hands on the New and Selected. My sense of fatigue concerning childhood poems meant that I was less excited by the title and concept of the book, namely the figure of the child standing at the heart of the work: ‘the poet as a schoolgirl on the Isle of Wight, or in half-remembered later years living with her grandmother in Tehran; her two children, now grown up; children in art; and an enduring sense of oneself as a child that is never left behind’ (from the cover). I decided to plough on regardless, setting my initial misgivings to one side, and found myself, after all, impressed by Khalvati’s use of form.
The book is ordered into four distinct sections, and the poems progress autobiographically. The first section contains poems dealing directly with the poet’s childhood, growing up on the Isle of Wight. The second section offers poems concerning motherhood; the third consists of meditations on more ethereal subjects – light, love and art – and the fourth circles back to childhood.
The word ‘chine’ comes up again and again throughout the book. It’s a local term for a stream cutting back into a soft cliff, but I prefer Khalvati’s description: in ‘The Chine’, she says, ‘A chine / is a form of urgency to reach the sea’. The first poem in the book, ‘Shanklin Chine’ refers to the stream of the same name on the Isle of Wight, and the mysterious figure of a ‘little crooked child’. The feeling of loneliness, hinted at in this poem, is confirmed by its successor, ‘Writing Home’. Khalvati writes: ‘As far back as I remember, ‘home’ / had an empty ring’. In the first example of Khalvati’s excellent formal style, ‘Villanelle’, we find the heartbreaking lines:
No one is there for you. Don’t call, don’t cry.
Outside your room are floors and doors and sky.
The preoccupation with water continues throughout the book, and the sense of loneliness is a recurrent theme throughout many of the poems.
It would be hard to argue that Khalvati was an overtly feminist poet, in the traditional sense, yet I found her way of exploring femininity – or what it means to be a women – very compelling. Many of her poems meditate on domestic interiors, and the second section of the book starts with a fascinating poem called ‘Needlework’, with a compelling voice which asserts at the beginning:
Within the lamplight’s circle,
in the embroidery hoop the flowers,
my name within my lifetime
handed on to no one dies with me.
The speaker is a woman working an embroidery hoop, trying to imagine a woman from the future looking at her needlework and, in turn, picturing its creator. The sewing woman knows that her needlework may be considered art in the future – ‘On an upper landing where my work / is hung, in another century’ – but it will still only achieve a place on that equivocal upper landing. The voice of the poem finishes by saying: ‘I cannot think / what she would want with me. / With hollyhocks and bonnets.’ I found the poem very moving, and this sense of futility bound up with femininity is explored again in the next piece, a strange tale called ‘The Woman in the Wall’, its title summarizing its narrative. The poem finishes:
And her child suckled at the wall, drew
the sweetness from the stone and grew
till the cracks knew only wind and weeds
and she was weaned. Centuries ago.
I enjoyed Khalvati’s poems on motherhood, not usually one of my favourite subjects. ‘Motherhood’ explores what would happen if her life were cleared of its maternal aspects, so that all that remained would be books, the piano, files and photographs. She says: ‘Motherhood / must go as quietly as prisoners go / and all her things go with her’.
The third section of Child, taken from her earlier book, Entries on Light, contains poem that are much like diary entries. I found it disjointed to read, but its direct address held my attention:
This book is a seagull whose wings
you hold, reading journeys between
its feathers. It flutters, dazzles.
The more formal poetry seems to take hold in the latter half of the book, which is one reason I would like to see a Collected of Khalvati’s poetry. It would be interesting to see how she circles back to these formal concerns throughout her poetic career, and how they develop. I enjoyed the ghazals in particular, my favourite being the ‘Ghazal: To Hold Me’, both for its inherent longing, and for the way it seems to tie together the preoccupations of loneliness and water:
I want to die being held, hearing my name
thrown, thrown like a rope from a very old pier
to hold me
I want to catch the last echoes, reel them in
like a curing-song in the creel of my ear
to hold me
Khalvati is a master of formal poetry, but this concern is balanced with more journal-like passages within the book. Throughout Child, , Khalvati is a constant observer of human behavior, and of how we interact with the landscape. There are some wonderful elegies in the book – to E.A. Markham and Michael Donaghy in particular – but she is in constant dialogue with other writers and artists. I look forward to the Collected and hope it is not too long an interval before this is published.
Kim Moore won an Eric Gregory Award and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2011, and in 2012 her pamphlet, If We Could Speak Like Wolves, was a winner in The Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, and is available from www.poetrybusiness.co.uk. She has been recently published in Poetry London and The Rialto, and blogs at www.kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com.