Mimi Khalvati, Afterwardness – review

Under her light touch, each of Mimi Khalvati’s 56 sonnets evolves in a spontaneous-seeming way, like something between intimate speech and thinking aloud. Within her favoured form – two quatrains rhyming on alternate lines followed by two triplets which rhyme in various ways across the triplet division – she makes skilful use of different kinds of half rhyme, so full rhyme comes and goes as if naturally, rather than being a formal given.

The arc of the book reflects the course of the poet’s own life, starting with her exile from Iran and family at six, the loss of her mother tongue and her consequent need to learn English and find her place in a new culture. Its core is a deeply personal exploration of how one can adjust to such losses. However, what I find remarkable is how little ego there is in this exploration, how sensitively and empathetically Khalvati looks out to the experience of other people, mixing hers with theirs so that the two often become indistinguishable.

We see this in ‘Afterwardness’, perhaps the most powerful of many fine poems, with its haunting pull between beauty and desolation. The octave presents exile as experienced by ‘An eleven-year-old boy from Aleppo / whose eyes hold only things no longer there’. The pine trees and pathways of the sestet refer back to the boy’s imagined future memory of a traditional Middle Eastern garden constructed in the image of paradise, with four crossing paths, but the boy himself has disappeared. No doubt on one level what’s replaced him is the poet herself, meditating on how she can live with her own parallel loss and on how it’s one of the springs of her art, but because no particular speaker is identified the words can seem to speak for all artists and perhaps for all people living with a sense of indefinable losses of self to the past:

Where do memories hide? the pine trees sing.
In language, of course, the four pathways reply.
What if the words be lost? the pine trees sigh.

Lost, the echo comes, lost like me in air.
Then sing, the pathways answer, sigh and sing
for the echo, for nothing, no one, nowhere.[1]

With the ‘turn’ between octave and sestet, speech dissolves into the patterned movement of song, a song moving like a dance with its repetitions and its hypnotic swaying between question and answer. A concrete situation dissolves into magic and myth, creating a shimmering interplay of feelings and thoughts that themselves move in and out of focus and are deepened by faint echoes that suggest inexhaustible reflections on both identity and art. The feeling balances between hope and despair because the last line’s suggestion that the singing may be pointless (‘for nothing, no one, no where’) is contradicted by the sheer beauty of movement and sound.


[1] The beauty of art depends on graces of the author’s unconscious mind and of sheer accident as well as on conscious intention. Whether it’s a deliberate allusion on Khalvati’s part or a reflection of two people thinking independently along the same lines, I’m delighted that this poem about the attempt to recapture an imitation of paradise ends in the word ‘nowhere’, which is what ‘utopia’ means. When Sir Thomas More invented the word, he did it by combining the Greek negative prefix ‘ou’ with a variant of ‘topos’ or place, but his ‘ou’ puns on ‘eu’ (good, happy, fortunate, etc). So Utopia – both ‘Nowhere’ and ‘the Good Place’ exists only in the imagination.

Mimi Khalvati, Afterwardness, 72pp, £9.99, Carcanet, Alliance House, 30 Cross St, Manchester M2 7AQ

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Katrina Porteous, Mimi Khalvati, Mary Jean Chan and Hugo Williams in issue 64 of The North.

One Response to “Mimi Khalvati, Afterwardness – review”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Hugo Williams, Lines Off – review said:

    Sep 08, 20 at 3:47 pm

    […] different ways, Edge, Afterwardness and Flèche are all written in overtly poetic forms and styles. Williams, too, writes with polished […]

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