Waterloo Press

Moniza Alvi
by Dave Russell courtesy of Survivor's Poetry

Europa (Bloodaxe Books 2008); ISBN 978-1-85224-803-1; £7.95
Split World: Poems 1990-2005 (Bloodaxe Books 2008); ISBN 978-1-85224-802-4; £10.95

To describe the range of these two works as 'universal' would be no exaggeration. Moniza Alvi explores the full complexities of cultural interaction, observing Western culture, and her roots in Pakistan, from a dual perspective. This perspective is further multiplied by the cross-referencing of inner and outer worlds. Her poems are works of scholarship, displaying, among many other things, a deep knowledge of surrealist painting and literature, a strong sense of comparative linguistics, and a first-hand understanding of poverty, of medical and psychiatric extremities: a true Survivor indeed! They are also uninhibitedly speculative.

Europa consists of three sections. The first could be called 'The Poetry of Medicine (as per the anthology Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine, for which the opener, 'Post Traumatic' was commissioned. This poem explores states of stress disorder, and the tension between mind and brain, reinforced by the symbol of a snake (very prominent in Alvi's work) and violent physical impulses. In ‘Her Symptoms’, the serpent theme is reiterated: reptilian tormentors have filled her precious jewel box. The box is freed, but found to be empty; it holds no jewels. Convalescence, both from physical and from mental illness, must be full of feelings of emptiness for the patient. ‘Memory, Memory’ is double-edged; memory can be both a blessing and a curse; it is also independent and elusive. 'Key Words' is one example of Moniza's preoccupation with linguistics: it highlights the gulf between medical/psychiatric terminology and real experience: the real extremes of experience go beyond words – "dread words have abdicated". 'The Sleeping Wound' explores the long-term effects (including after-effects) of stress disorder. ‘Mermaid’ is an extraordinary synthesis of the mythical, the erotic, the medical and clinical. The influence of painter Tabitha Vevers was crucial for this poem. In Vevers’ words: “My recent Cape paintings feature human and sea life in a metaphorical embrace where land meets sea.” Vevers’ painting ’Trouble in Eden also seems inspirational for Alvi’s preoccupation with snake symbolism. The legendary creature is sliced, as if on a fishmonger's slab; she feigns unconsciousness while being raped; the assailant flees in terror. The slicing of the mermaid's tail is both aesthetic and sadistic, and raises the question of sadism underlying aesthetics; the powerful cover picture reinforces this impression.

‘Europa and the Bull’ is primordially tactile. It explores the dynamics of fascination, and being in thrall to the elements. Europa transcends herself through her involvement. Jupiter steps out of his guise as a bull, as an elemental power.

I am Jupiter, lord of all bulls,
King of the gods,
and you, Europa, a continent
full of undiscovered countries.

Jupiter (the bull) is a creature of enormous strength but extreme tenderness. If the reflective conclusion to this sequence, Europa has an alter ego, ‘her ravaged twin’. She finally observes her earlier self. With 'King Agenor', she adopts the persona of an aggrieved father – a male alter ego, a theme fully developed in the 'Carrying My Wife' sequence in 'Split World'. In this poem, as in the previous, 'Not Exactly', she switches from the third person to the second person. She rejects the stance of a single, omniscient observer and speaker to reflect the true diversity of experience. Tactile sensation lies at the core of her expression; there is a common denominator of sensation which highlights the affinities between all aspects of the physical and emotional spectrum, from the monocellular to the astral.

'Night', 'The Trees Outside my Window', 'War and Peace on Earth', Fish Swimming’*, 'In the Forest'* and 'To My Posthumous Self' are credited 'after Jules Supervielle'. The references are as follows: ‘Night’ – ‘Nuit en moi’; ‘The trees outside my window’ – ‘S'il n'était pas d'arbres a ma fenêtre’; ‘War and Peace on Earth’ – ‘Guerre et paix sur la terre’; ‘Fish Swimming’ – ‘Les poissons’; ‘In the forest’ – ‘Dans la forêt sans heures’; ‘To my posthumous self’ – A moi-même quand je serais posthume. *These two poems are featured in The Penguin Book of French Verse.

"Supervielle rejected the automatic writing (that the surrealist ones well quickly gave up themselves) and dictatorship of the unconscious, without disavowing the assets of modern poetry since Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Apollinaire, like certain fundamental innovations of surrealism. Attentive with the universe which surrounded it as with the phantoms of its interior world, it was one of the first to recommend this vigilance, this control that the following generations, moving away from the surrealist movement, put at the honor." (Wikipedia)

This influence has indeed enabled Moniza to embrace, and fuse, the psychic and the political. Far from submitting herself to 'the dictatorship of the unconscious, Alvi has grappled with it, to make it a criterion of comparison, a basis of dialogue with the conscious. ‘War and Peace on Earth’ embraces the essence of total war, where the beautiful and the fascinating can melt into the horrific: “a bunch of roses suddenly went mad, exploded, bit you to death.” “Under all the layers of suffering, the word ‘victory’ had disappeared from the language. The animate becomes inanimate, and vice versa; the boundaries between them are blurred and melted. Churches can be considered as having an epileptic fit. ‘I Hold My Breath in this Country with Its Sad Past’ reaches all immigrants and refugees – the distinctions between whom are blurred, as in real life. ‘The Crossing’ evokes the theme of the Exodus. ‘My Posthumous Self’ is a salient example of Alvi’s preoccupation with self-projection beyond mortality. ‘Island’ highlights her sense of affinity between an individual personality and the physical (geological?) world: she would ‘turn herself’ into an island ‘and from this vantage point I’d dream of what it might be like to be human. One must project oneself into a larger mass, and thereby expand perspective, in order to observe oneself fully. ‘Upholding the I’ explores the mathematics, architecture and symbolism of alphabetical signs.

*   *   *

Split World is a comprehensive cross-section of her work, from 1993 until 2005, in chronological – and subtly thematic – sequence. As stated in the preface "This book includes all the poems which Moniza Alvi wishes to keep in print from her previous Bloodaxe titles”. (reinforced by its highly evocative cover – complete with stigmata) emphasises Moniza Alvi's dualism, radiating from the obvious mode of the interactions inherent in her Anglo-Pakistani background to all areas of experience. The title has some resonance of the Partition of India, as referred to in 'Half and Half'; she felt as if she had been surgically cut in two by the Partition. There is also a metaphor of global fission in 'How the world Split in Two'. The sequence opens with reflections on childhood. In 'Pilgrimage', a child's shock at unexpectedly seeing a pile of excrement conveys a sense of awe at possible deeper significances.

'The Country at my shoulder' portrays the experience of someone who was subjected to migration and cultural transference in her formative years. Such experience must be intrinsically bi-focal. One is removed from one's childhood roots as one grows, one is distanced from roots in locality as one grows; when one arrives at one's new location, one sees the parallels and contrasts with one's old world. Particularly moving is the poem 'Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan'. She reflects on the exotic Eastern clothes which have been sent to her, "I could never be as lovely/as those clothes/I longed/for denim and corduroy. Her former home became 'a fractured land/throbbing through newsprint'. The opening poems of this section are overall childhood foci. 'I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro' is the first introduction, in this collection, to her passion for the visual arts. She verbalises like a painter; she would like to get inside paintings, be paintings, take on the identity and tactile attributes of phenomena represented and abstracted in paintings. In ‘Oh Maharani’ she was in a painting, and ‘stepped out of a frame’. The world of the painting had been a sheltered environment: it was “difficult to know how to cope/away from the painting”. ‘Hill’ and ‘Dream of Uncle’ show both directions of her transference between personal-universal and organic-inorganic. In the first, a hill becomes like a person, gaining meaning and vitality; in the second, a person becomes like a hill – as if, presumably, to represent some solid, reliable personal qualities? ‘The country has become my body; soon it will burst’ (‘Pakistan’). In 'England, I am gazing at your body', the poet has a tactile relationship with her new, adopted land. Parts of the body can also be incorporated into this process, as in ‘My Prehistoric Name’: “I’m pulling myself out of one of my lives/as if I were an old tooth.” In 'Burial', the body is transmuted into earth (soil).

Man’s destructive potential can emerge at birth, as in ‘How the Children were Born’: “There, embedded in each infant palm/was the barrel of a tiny gun”. In her vision, the Eastern and Western worlds can even melt into each other, as in ‘The Double City’, where two worlds melt into each other, this impression being reinforced by the image of ‘fluid Streets and solid streets. She does not flinch from the background of terrorism and persecution. Interesting to compare this with 'Sunday' in 'Europa: "The peace treaty is hiding in the darkness/like a grown-up/not wishing to be found'. 'Flight' faces the issues of terrorism and suicide bombing with total courage; one of the most outspoken efforts ever in this direction. The stowaway froze to death in the aircraft; he body seemed to be summarily ditched. He acted in that way because of sheer, grinding poverty: “his family’s debts,/were as high as Mount Mankial”. It was a tragic, futile death – more so when put in the context of religion:

“Allah gives and Allah takes away
said his father.
He was meant to die
at this time.

But the son who had fallen
to earth groaned
It was the wrong time,
The wrong way.”

Women’s issues are to the fore here. 'Blood' touches on the theme of menstruation. ‘The Wedding' highlights the oppressiveness of an orthodox Muslim marriage, and of the marital institution generally: “I wanted to marry a country/take up a river for a veil”. ‘The Colours of the World portray the thoughts and reveries of a woman confined by the strictures of Islamic domesticity. She thinks of women in the red light area, she wants to be “conspicuous, like a Western woman and radiate her soul through purdah, “when the colours of the world/rush out to meet her.” In ‘Women of this World’ she shows she would like to influence and to liberate, leave her fingerprints on them. 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' should be read in conjunction with viewing Dorothea Tanning's famous painting. In some ways Moniza is opposing, challenging the mythology of the painting, limiting the power of the chaperone/sorceress: "There's no way of keeping your daughters in at night . . . if you follow them down the path – you turn to stone".

The medical and the gynaecological are also leitmotifs. In ‘The Sari’, she can even envisage herself as a foetus. ‘Colposcopy’ is outstanding in her poetry of medicine. With the figure of ‘patients in the sky’ physical pain and medical extremes are related to eternity. The theme of childbirth is explored in 'Enormous'. It both portrays the pains of labour and describes the birth of a monster. She explores the many dimensions of pain. The body can be personified as a bully.

The fairy tale themes of Little Red Riding Hood and ‘Daddy Goes Hunting’ are reworked here – there is a twist to the former, with the mother taking her own heart, and television being the wolf. In the latter, the dark implications are explored to the full: the rabbit skin is "dangerously soft, troubling fur". Hundreds of rabbits are killed to make the blanket; their flesh is stored in the fridge; the blanket can be almost suffocating. 'Incident at the Zoo' handles the folk-tale theme of a baby being seized and destroyed by a ferocious animal. Alvi does not in any way idealise childhood; she treats it as a phase of life. In 'The Child Goddess', she celebrates the 'perfect child' becoming a real human being through routine wear and tear: "One day, inevitably/she'll graze her knee, prick a finger,/lose a tooth – her goddess status/disappearing with her first drop of blood."

The ‘Carrying my Wife’ section involves radical experimentation with gender inter-reaction. Moniza assumes a male persona to observe his wife (herself). She objectifies (reifies) herself to reach a deeper level of self-knowledge. Grammatically, the First Person becomes the Third Person, and become more self-aware through the distancing perspective of an exterior observer. She makes this construct in order to be able to see the wood for the trees. The device of an outside observer/annotator is common in fiction, particularly in that which approaches autobiography. It remains rare in poetry, but doing gender-swapping with it is rarer still. This approach certainly adds savour to the expression of the author's themes. A woman's sash can become a snake. The surreal rules; houses can swell and contract; a job can expand into an astral body. The perspectives of prose fiction are present in her verse. Her feelings about this are highlighted in 'You Are Turning Me into a Novel'; she feels she is the subject of a novel, and is terrified at the prospect. Throughout her work, there is a sense of overall fear of being a passive object of observation, and a consequent compulsion to take over the positive aspects of observation in multiple guises.

'So Much Goes on' is credited 'after Jean Rhys – a novelist, whose famous work 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is considered as a 'prequel' to 'Jane Eyre'.

The power of language exerts an extremely powerful influence; she can feel the need to throw out her father's dictionary, and feel fear of inscribing her name. In ‘Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal’ she reflects on her own multiple linguistic roots. She is conscious of language as a tool, a means of expression to be constantly honed, not something to be passively worshipped: “my senses stir with words/that must be reinvented.” 'Lovers' explores the relationship between language and sensation: "fortunate souls have countless lovers . . . The alphabet loves them, even the rarer letters/and the vacancies between words, the heroic titles of books love them."

Alvi explores the nature of perception. An outstanding example of this is 'Of Chairs and Shadows'. This poem is dedicated to painter Professor Eileen Hogan, whose observations on her own work show why she was so inspiring to the poet: ". . . it is a memory or recollection of a scene, which is also a whole event, that concerns me. A painting is made from many such events, rather than one; and in fact its sources are many layered and can be quite distant in time, and are rarely if ever direct.’ In the poem, chairs and shadows come alive, and challenge each other's reality. Remember that our routine perception of a shadow is largely inference, which is ultimately questionable!

With the penultimate section, 'The Further Adventures of the Souls', Moniza makes brave attempts to write from a spiritual standpoint, embracing eternity. In 'Without Them' there is the hypothesis of souls functioning as detached observers, and of conscious, sentient being without souls still functioning, vitalised by a substitute. 'Lost Souls', humorously but also profoundly, touches on the idea of a mismatch/disharmony between souls and the bodies they inhabit . . . "as if our faces were portraits in galleries." 'Who Can Blame Them?' is thought-provoking indeed. Given the relentless growth of the world population, each body will need a soul, and so, in a sense, souls will have to be bred ". . . as fast as possible – let's call them chicken souls" – all the gruesome horrors of battery farming transferred to the spiritual realm! 'Immortals' raises the question of whether all souls are intrinsically 'lost'. 'In Space' validly compares souls to astronauts ". . . they . . .make for deeper space . . . They mock us gentle –/our brief space flights,/the music we try to clothe/with flesh and bone." Souls are depicted as fallible living entities, capable of "forgetting how to fly" ('The Worst Thing'). They can be a physical swarm, the can "marry the crowds' ('The Marriage')

As an expansive soul, Moniza Alvi longs to break out of the straitjacket of individuality, of one mortal life-span. In ‘My Father’s Father’s Father’ she longs for her life to span several generations: “I have aged thousands of years./I am older than the oldest tree in the world.” Challenging, complex, disturbing, Monia Alvi's work deserves all the acclaim it has so far received – and much more. It requires patience and tenacity on the part of the reader to attune to its depths and complexities.

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