‘Sis, you gotta let go’: on Mona Arshi’s ‘Dear Big Gods’

9781786942159In a recent launch reading for her second collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019), Mona Arshi suggested it was a book she wrote only reluctantly. Her first book, Small Hands (2015), had at its centre a number of poems in memory of her brother, Deepak, who died unexpectedly in 2012. On her own admission, these new poems continue to be imbued with this grief and – though poets surely always write the book that needs to be written – there is a sense that the development of the new work has been stalled by such powerful feelings. My 2015 review of Small Hands saw Arshi as “an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences”. The influences I had in mind then were literary rather than personal, but I find the lack of distance travelled between the earlier and this more recent work rather disappointing.

In fact, Deepak’s death is the explicit subject on only a few occasions. The poem ‘When your Brother Steps into your Piccadilly, West Bound Train Carriage’ isn’t much longer than its own title but it evokes that familiar sense of (mis-)seeing our dead in a public place. The emotions remain raw, from the accusatory “how-the-fuck-could-you?” to the final “I am sorry, I’m so sorry”. A dream or daydream meeting is also the basis for ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’ in which the brother’s affectionate tone advises, “Sis, you gotta let go / of this idea of definitive knowledge”. ‘Five Year Update’ is by far the most extended of these reflections on the brother’s passing, written in very long raking lines (rotated 45 degrees to stretch vertically on the page). “I hope it’s fine to contact you”, it opens and goes on to recall the moment the news of his death was received (see also ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ from Small Hands), remembers their childhood together and the sister’s continuing life: “I’ve gone down one lump not two, I still don’t swim and yes I still can’t / take a photograph”.

how-to-grow-arum-lilyAs the blurb suggests, these poems are indeed “lyrical and exact exploration[s] of the aftershocks of grief”. But ‘Everywhere’ adopts a little more distance and develops the kind of floating and delicate lyricism that Arshi does so well. The absent brother/uncle is still alluded to: “We tell the children, we should not / look for him. He is everywhere”. As that final phrase suggests, the rawness of the grief is being transmuted into a sense of otherness, beyond the quotidian and material. It’s when Arshi takes her brother’s advice and lets go of “definitive knowledge” that her poems promise so much. ‘Little Prayer’ might be spoken by the dead or the living, left abandoned, but either way it argues a stoical resistance: “I am still here // hunkered down”. In a more conventional mode, ‘The Lilies’ develops the objective correlative of the flowers suffering from blight as an image of a spoliation that hurts and reminds, yet is allowed to persist: “I let them live on / beauty-drained / in their altar beds”.

Like so many first books, Small Hands experimented with various poetical forms. This book also – a bit wilfully – tries out tanka, poems in two columns, right justification, centre justification, ghazals, inter-cut texts, prose poems, a sestina, an Emily Dickinson parody and responses to Lorca and The Mahabharata. They don’t all work equally well and Arshi perhaps senses this in lines like these:

 

My little bastard verses

tiny polyglot faces

how light you are

how virtually weightless

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The irony may be that this sort of form and reach actually does show Arshi at her best. The sequence of tiny poems modelled on Lorca’s ‘Mirror Suite’ (1921-1923) is fascinating. Jerome Rothenburg, discussing Lorca’s poems, describes them as possessing “a coolness & (sometimes) quirkiness, a playfulness of mind & music that I found instantly attractive”. These same qualities – as with Lorca, a version of surrealism, a firm but gentle turning aside from “definitive knowledge” – I enjoy in Arshi’s work as she explores states of the heart and realms of knowledge not ordinarily encountered or encompassed. Dear Big Gods contains other such Lorca-esque sequences such as ‘Autumn Epistles’, ‘Grief Holds a Cup of Tea’ and ‘Let the Parts of the Flower Speak’ and these are far more interesting than the poems drawn from The Mahabharata or the experiments in prose.

31BzXZVhekL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Arshi’s continuing love affair with ghazals also seems to me to be an aspect of this same search for a form that holds both the connected and the stand-alone in a creative tension. ‘Ghazal: Darkness’ is very successful with the second line of each couplet returning to the refrain word, “darkness”, while the connective tissue of the poem allows a roaming through woods, soil, mushrooms and a mother’s praise of her daughters. Poems based on – or at least with the qualities of – dreams also stand out. The doctor in ‘Delivery Room’ asks the mother in the midst of her contractions, “Do you prefer the geometric or lyrical approach?” In ‘The Sisters’ the narrator dreams of “all the sisters I never had” and within 10 lines Arshi has expressed complex yearnings about loneliness and protectiveness in relation to siblings and self.

Given the traumatic disruption of her own, it’s no surprise that Arshi’s most frequently visited subject area is family relationships. I’ve referred to several of these poems already and ‘Gloaming’ floats freely through the fears of losing a child, the care of an ageing father, a mother “entering/leaving through a narrow lintel” and the recall of the “thick soup of our childhood”. The soup works well both as literal food stuff and as metaphor for the nourishing, warming milieu of an up-bringing, though the girl who looks up at the end of the poem is already exploring questions of identity. She asks, “where are you from, what country are we in?” Given Arshi’s own background – born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London – such questions have obvious autobiographical and political relevance, though I sense Arshi herself is also asking questions of a more spiritual nature.

220px-Shiva_Musée_Guimet_22971So, in ‘My Third Eye’, the narrator is “more perplexed than annoyed” that her own third eye – the mystical and esoteric belief in a speculative, spiritual perception – has not yet “opened”. The poem’s mode and tone is comic for the most part; there is a childish impatience in the voice, asking “Am I not as worthy as the buffalo, the ferryman, / the cook and the Dalit?”. But in the final lines, the holy man she visits is given more gravitas. He touches the narrator’s head “and with that my eyes suddenly watered, widened and / he sent me on my way as I was forever open open open”. The book also closes with the title poem, ‘Dear Big Gods’, which takes the form of a prayer: “all you have to do / is show yourself”, it pleads. The delicate probing of Arshi’s best poems, their stretching of perception and openness to unusual states of emotion are driven by this sort of spiritual quest. Personal tragedy has no doubt fed this creative drive but – as the poet seems to be aware – such grief is only an aspect of her vision and not the whole of it.
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#WADOD – Day 28: March 28th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Thursday 28.03.2019

‘you are not looking’

‘There has to be / A sort of killing’ – Tom Rawling

 

you are not looking for a golden meadow

though here’s a place you might hope to find it

yet the locals point you to Silver Bay

 

to a curving shingled beach where once

I crouched as if breathless as if I’d followed

a trail of scuffs and disappointments

 

and the wind swept in as it usually does

and the lake water brimmed and I felt a sense

of its mongrel plenitude as colours

 

of thousands of pebbles like bright cobblestones

slid uneasily beneath my feet—

imagine it’s here I want you to leave me

 

these millions of us aspiring to the condition

of ubiquitous dust on the fiery water

one moment—then dust in the water the next

 

then there’s barely a handful of dust

compounding with the brightness of the water

then near-as-dammit gone—

 

you might say this aloud—by way of ritual—

there goes one who would consider life

who found joy in return for gratitude

 

before its frugal bowls of iron and bronze

set out—then gone—then however you try

to look me up—whatever device you click

 

or tap or swipe—I’m neither here nor there

though you might imagine one particle

in some hidden stiff hybrid blade of grass

 

or some vigorous weed arched to the sun

though here is as good a place as any

you look for me in vain—the bridges all down—

 

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#WADOD – Day 27: March 27th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Wednesday 27.03.2019

‘on well-marked ways’

 

on well-marked ways like little religious stations

you bring me through gates and over rocks

 

skirting the insignificant gravel beaches

(though these are good places to picnic)

 

and I lay odds you are stumbling on tree roots

worn to a shine by the boots of others

 

worn perhaps by the passage of my walking

last year—or that was forty years ago—

 

and for once I don’t mind the bright-dressed people

(perhaps it’s their way of not getting lost

 

their way of signalling a companionship)

though today they are oblivious of me

 

so for me no more of that awkward nodding

or worse the awkward anticipation of a nod

 

that does not take place—do you remember

how the likelihood of acknowledgement

 

depends on altitude—the higher you climb

the more likely it is—this path is low and busy

 

as a city park—and so many bridges are down

still you go on—you imagine a sure way round

 

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#WADOD – Day 24: March 24th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Sunday 24.03.2019

‘and the power of kinship’

 

and the power of kinship in crossing differences

I mean the power of likeness

 

means if I ask you to imagine late March you will—

or late April’s sunshine and showers

 

then you will lay down difference

and take it up to imagine your way towards it

 

to imagine taking me down to the water’s edge

down to Ullswater’s southern shore

 

finding—to begin with—the rickety wooden dock

where it strikes out into the lake

 

where the passenger steam boats still pull in

just a matter of days after the great storm

 

that swept away all the perimeter bridges

just a matter of hours before the next storm

 

what I’m saying is storm is our only certainty

 

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#WADOD – Day 23: March 23rd 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Saturday 23.03.2019 

‘a pile of boulders railings’

 

a pile of boulders railings and paving slabs

a path into nowhere

it will appear

that water runs between us one to the other

 

only in a moment when water sucks up cobblestones

under the soles of your feet

when it runs and surges

(though the street perhaps remains dusty and dry)

 

only in the face of its magnitude as the flood brims

to fill each gully and alleyway

with water at my feet

at my ankles do I find the risk of understanding

 

water to my knees it rises to the level of my hips

only when bridges

and stepping stones

the bankside path and the boardwalk have gone

 

water floods my chest brims to the level of my armpits

my neck my ears your ears your neck

to the level of your armpits to your chest understanding

 

that water floods your hips your knees it unleashes

releasing your ankles your feet are moved for you

you understand

 

as sudden

the drenching waters retreat from the street

the heat’s shimmering itself an echo of the rippling of water

 

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#WADOD – Day 21: March 21st 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Thursday 21.03.2019

‘when’

 

when

like a falling flower-print cotton dress

has dropped its round spoor

in the silence onto the bedroom floor

 

when

like the moment one who has been reading

instructions on propagation

understands and the room blooms with light

 

when

like an ascending sun-lit valley mist

has eaten its way through all appearances

to substitute its own luminous idea

 

when

like the salt-wetness breaking bounds in my eyes

in an original participation

I lean over and touch what is there

my hand passing through what I thought was there all along

 

when

in an instant it is clear all the bridges are down

how can I speak to anybody about that

 

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#WADOD – Day 20: March 20th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.1960s Graham and Elsie Hale - Winsley Rd

Wednesday 20.03.2019

‘now my bones take on the white of alyssum’

 

now my bones take on the white of alyssum

my bones

those mossy cushions in a grandfather’s front garden

 

my bones

though he’s long been in his grave

his daughter revives him without knowing how

 

his bones

time and again his bones where she sits in the morning sun

in the sun room

where the giant Scrabble board is stowed

 

his bones beside the giant ivory-coloured letter tiles

she will score twelve with the name of a flower

 

his bones a white perfume

her bones

 

my bones

trying to become an unobtrusive white bedding annual

an accident in the stonework of a bridge

 

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