Dear Big Gods by Mona Arshi – review

Clifton’s poems [in Herod’s Dispensations] draw strength from their grounding in fact and from the directness with which he offers his voice or the voice of apparently real characters (like whoever speaks at the start of ‘Zhoukoudian’). Arshi writes with equal power but in a wholly different way. She creates micro-worlds of dream-like intensity, surreal distortion, fantasy and myth. This applies even to poems apparently based on real events, like the account of hoe a boy (her brother?) was attacked by wasps. Other poems in which she seems to speak to or about her brother after his death combine intensity with elusiveness because of their reticence with fact and circumstance. In this group, you follow a thread by picking up hints in various poems, like ‘When Your Brother Steps into your Piccadilly, West Bound Train Carriage’.

The reticence is crucial to the effect. So is a kind of impersonality. These poems are the more moving because they don’t seem to be trying to move us. In them, the emotional essentials of the situation are presented in a distilled and purified way, without either the ego of the poet or circumstantial details separating us from the speaker. You need to read the whole of ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’ to feel the power of its main symbol but the first few lines will illustrate my meaning:

Our faces in the window float
. . . like balloons in the glass.
. . . . . . In his deathness

he never looked more alive.
. . . . . . Sis, you gotta let go

Arshi has spoken about the extent to which she conceals herself in her poetry. Throughout the collection, occasions when she apparently speaks in her own voice are outnumbered by those in indeterminate voices or voices specifically other than her own. This includes the voices of plants. A dreamlike feature of some of the poems is the way everything in them seems alive. We see this in ‘ ‘In Mexico the women are marrying trees.’ ’ The title is a quotation from the account of a demonstration against illegal logging. Out of it, Arshi creates a fantasy world in which the speaker is one of the brides. Though the poem reminds me in different ways of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Riverman’ and the Hindu story of Radha and Krishna, it’s highly original. It combines a touch of comedy (in line 1) with a sense of inexpressible yearning:

Last night I went all the way with a tree.
I headed to the forest, past the lake the
thicket of wild junipers , blossom still
young and mute, the insensible fungi
on the floor of the vast forest of leaves.

In this fantasy, all nature is touched into life by the giving of life to the trees, so that everything around the speaker seems brimming with significances we can’t hold down or define, sending out ripples of association that will vary from reader to reader and can tap into deep-seated feelings of loneliness and yearnings for communion of different kinds, from ordinary human desires for companionship to yearnings to unity with nature or (as in the Radha and Krishna myth) with the divine. An advantage of poetry that frees itself from literal circumstance is the ease with which it can mean different things to different people.

Arshi’s rhythms are varied and finely honed, in a way that only extensive quotation could illustrate. Her sense of timing makes her prose poems seem as carefully shaped as formal verse, as well as strong in content (I wondered whether there was an influence from the Belgian Henri Michaux). Moreover, she seems to be expanding her range in ways that reflect her combination of emotional force and evocativeness with personal reticence. Among other experiments, ‘Now I know the Truth about Octopuses (and the lies we tell our children)’ works by alternating examples of warning or soothing lies told to children, and (in italics) what appear to be found phrases from a natural history book about octopuses. The two strands interact in wonderfully various ways, seeding multiple responses in the reader’s mind, without the poet’s ever needing to show her hand.

Different as they are, both these collections gave me great pleasure, each working powerfully and originally in its own way.

Dear Big Gods by Mona Arshi. Liverpool University Press, 4 Cambridge St, Liverpool L69 7ZU. 68pp.; £9.99

This is the second half of a review printed in Acumen 95 pairing Dear Big Gods with Herod’s Dispensations. I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for letting me post it here.


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