Imtiaz Dharker, Over the Moon – review

Over the Moon by Imtiaz Dharker. Bloodaxe Books, Eastburn, South Park, Hexam, Northumberland NE46 1BS. 160 pp. £12 paperback.

Dharker was recently awarded the Queen’s gold medal for poetry so it seems almost redundant to say how much I recommend this generous and accessible book.

The first poem, “Like That Only”, is one I’ve heard Dharker read twice, to great applause. It epitomizes her easy multiculturalism, her warmth, and a lightness of touch that makes it seem almost indelicate to point out how moving and profound her poetry can be. The setting is the entrance to a Ganesh temple where entrants must take off their shoes. One such, addressed as “you” and clearly not one of the temple community, discovers a hole in his sock. His response is described in terms of paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ, seeming to put Christianity and Hinduism on a par. When he points at the toe and laughs, the poet says, “You / make a kind of offering / of frailty, an opening for the world / to show its grace”. She goes on, “the watchers / children, street-dogs, bottom-scratchers / become your family. You / are a foreigner nowhere” (my italics). There’s something deeply moving about the way in which the big concepts ending each quotation soar out of their mundane starting points and return to embrace them. In the first we feel the sudden irradiation of the idea of grace. The second reinforces how much this grace is the grace of the world, with all its imperfections.

A light touch depends on technical skill. Dharker has this in such abundance that it’s easy to read the poems without noticing how deftly they’re wrought. On the whole her vocabulary is simple, though leavened by touches of the exotic. Such simplicity suits oral performance. On reflection, however, the words often have complex reverberations. When Dharker writes “a sock inside a shoe is deemed / immaculate”, the legalism “is deemed” comically heightens the sartorial cliché “immaculate”. This isn’t a mere isolated stroke of wit. In a context where the Annunciation has been referred to, “immaculate” calls to mind the Immaculate Conception, creating little ripples of humorous and perhaps also serious reflection on how we think of the divine. Formally, too, much artistry goes into hiding art. In this and many poems, Dharker uses strong end-rhymes but wrong-foots expectation of a predictable pattern by playing them against equally strong internal rhymes and randomly interspersing non-rhyming and half-rhyming lines. She moves in and out of a regular beat, and creates momentum with strong enjambements. In these ways she uses the devices of verse to heighten and brace her language without losing its air of spontaneity and direct address.

I hope I’ve said enough to show how this poem shimmers with subtleties when you reread it. There’s more to it than that though. When I came back to it after reading the book as a whole, a completely new dimension of meaning seemed to open up. I’d taken it as being about religion and humanity in general, with “you” essentially addressing the reader. In the wider context, it becomes clear that this is a love poem to Dharker’s husband, Simon Powell, to whom the whole book is dedicated. It’s particularly a celebration of his humour, his openness to life and experience, and is lent a special poignancy by what we later learn of his death.

Various poems in the book’s first half are more or less explicitly about him, including fine poems of mature love. The second half is dominated by his dying. Some poems wrestle with the anguish of bereavement. More are about coming to terms with loss. They show a recovered sense of the beauty and joy of life that’s the more moving and convincing for being set against death. Laughter, of course, is a natural force for resilience and the book brims with it. It’s obviously something Powell shared with Dharker. “Bombil, Bumla, Bummalo” remembers him and the poet Arun Kolatkar eating Bombay duck together: “You will always be there in the mirrors / of Britannia Café where you swallow life / whole, put your heads back and laugh”. “I swear”, recalling how Powell taught Dharker “Language”, poignantly combines grief with laughter. Of course there are emotional states incompatible with humour or with attention to contradictory perspectives. Such states appear in poems of sheer anguish and also in the lyrical rapture of “Undone”, an extraordinary fusion of delicacy and violence, clarity and mystery, sensuousness and spirituality. More characteristic of Dharker’s style, though, is the poetry which responds in a vivid, immediate way to a thought or sight or experience and at the same time implicitly sets it in relation to other perceptions and experiences that suggest different ways of seeing it. “At Smithfield, waiting to get in”, for example, one of my favourites, impresses by the vividness and quick sympathy with which it presents two scenes the poet happens to see – meat porters working at Smithfield, girls lining up to get into a nightclub. It impresses equally for the unjudging, open-ended way it lets these scenes play against each other and against other perspectives in which she sets them. The various vistas of suggestion that the poem carries within itself are deepened and enriched as it links hands with other poems – “1977”, say, in which the speaker remembers dancing under a glitterball in her own youth, or “Waiting for Crossrail”, in which an image of tunnel excavators discovering a medieval cemetery becomes a meditation on mortality and on the layering of lives in a city.

All the Bloodaxe books I’ve seen recently have impressed me by their design. This one is no exception, making excellent use of Dharker’s own rich and delicate drawings. Her skill as a visual artist must be linked to a gift for brilliantly unexpected visual metaphor that is one of the recurring pleasures of her book.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley and the editors of Acumen for permission to post this review here.

 

 

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