‘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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Two mindfulness narratives for Tim Parks

A fascinating and honest account of taking up mindfulness or meditation exercises by novelist Tim Parks.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/aug/30/meditation-mindfulness-tim-parks-more-than-medicine

He says: Being simultaneously immobile, wakeful and wordless is an experience that runs contrary to all our habits, and for which there is no model in our culture, nothing we can visualise, no narrative we can follow.. . 

I’m reminded of a couple of specific chapters from the Daodejing I have been working on for the last year or so . . .

Resistance

chapter 10

Can you stop your mind from straying?

Can you hold to the one? Never let it slip?

Can you make your breath soft as a child’s?

Can you listen to its long-drawn out and in?

Can you renew the glass through which you gaze

so the world is sharp and vivid?

Can you feel love of others? And persuade them?

Yet resist the desire to dictate?

Can you latch and unlatch the doors of perception—

yet be content to play the female part?

Can your insight range, penetrate far and near,

then back away—not interfere?

Then raise them, every one—nourish them all.

Raise them, but make no claim.

Influence them, but do not dictate.

Govern them, but do not legislate.

Only this, says Berenice, can be called power.

Focus

chapter 12

The spectrum of colours

dazzles the eye.

A plethora of sounds

dulls the ear.

The palate is coarsened

by explosions of taste.

Excess of pursuit,

too much of the hunt,

leads to nothing but

the mind’s disturbance.

The much-coveted rarity,

the limited issue,

serves only to cramp

its owner’s liberty.

The teacher’s focus

is steadily within—

not on what catches

the common eye.

The truth is: she shuns

that, prefers this.

George Herbert’s ‘Prayer 1’

Herbert, Brodsky, Rilke, Weil . . . Having read John Drury’s excellent biography of George Herbert, ‘Music at Midnight’, a while back, I was re-reading the poem Prayer (I). The poem is really a list of images of prayer, multiple perspectives, full of vigorous relish and un-churchy energy.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

The whole poem is one sentence, rushing across line breaks and quatrains to herald prayer as a feast, an inversion of inspiration, a precis of our spiritual self, holy journey, a measuring or plumbing not of depth but height –

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

The scale roughly switches to the power of prayer here – Herbert’s religion is bracing and unsentimental – militaristic images and thunder (again reversed in direction – all things come from God but prayer is our chance to respond), even a wounding of Christ. The ambiguity of ‘transposing’ (transfiguring, translating, transcending) leads Herbert to the quieter image of prayer as a cosmic music.

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

The third line of Q3, balanced around the caesura, captures the role of prayer as go-between, conduit, glue between the height of heaven and the fallen state of man – the former leaning sympathetically down towards the ordinary, the latter aspiring to our best. The four phrases of the concluding couplet are marked by speed, a testing of the elasticity of the reader’s imagination (the ‘land of spices’ perhaps the least successful of the poem’s images), and the extraordinary understatement of the two last words.

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

What the poem has done is prepare the ground for what ought to strike as inadequate vagueness, but what here reads as fullness, a plenitude which encompasses all that has gone before and gestures towards more, far more, the entire creation. ‘Understood’ has also been broken free of its moorings to suggest far more than an intellectual grasp – perhaps a literal under-standing or underpinning of our place in creation. Brodsky says poetry accelerates our minds; here, the reader does not need to share Herbert’s religious views to experience the graceful jemmying open of our mind by the poem. Prayer in a secular age is Rilke’s praising; it is as Simone Weil thought, “absolutely unmixed attention”, a rich mindfulness.