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March 23, 2010
The Currents of Myth
A writer’s fidelity to reality can make for good art but only because our own reality is partly an art. The art of memory makes stories and myths of us all. Rereading Moniza Alvi’s first five collections of poems in Split World was a numinous experience. They make for a strong book, made more sinewy by the fact that the poems are skilfully chosen by the author. She does not elaborate any flaws by repeating them; the author scalpels them out. By doing so, Moniza Alvi makes her readers more aware of talismanic variations in her handling of language and subject, especially their binding of myth and fairytale. As I read her selection alongside the old published versions, I grew more appreciative of what I consider the most interesting aspects of Moniza Alvi’s project. The real (and unreal) country at Alvi’s shoulder is her imagination, an other-world of myth, power and strangeness all of which are considerably demonstrated by this selection and by her excellent new collection Europa.
K.K. Ruthven once tried to define myth as partaking ‘of that quality acribed to poetry in Wallace Stevens’ meticulously evasive aphorism: they appear to resist the intelligence almost successfully’. In Split World it is Moniza Alvi’s fidelity to what she does not know that gives her work power; that throws her poems open to possibility; and this aspect is most illuminating about reality and identity when Alvi engages with, and creates for herself, the currents of myth. Myth and fairytale work for Alvi as ways of knowing herself through the enticing genre that Marina Warner describes in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers as ‘promiscuous and omnivorous and anarchically heterogeneous, absorbing high and low elements, tragic and comic tones into its often simple, rondo-like structure of narrative’. These qualities came to the fore in collections such as Carrying My Wife and How the Stone Found its Voice, the latter reminiscent of fairytale strategies in the ‘Games’ and ‘Quartz Pebble’ poems of Vasco Popa:
Was it widthways or lengthways,
a quarrel with the equator?
Did the rawness of the inside sparkle?
Only this is true:
there was an arm on one side
and a hand on the other,
a thought on one side
and a hush on the other.
And a luminous tear
carried on the back of a beetle
went backwards and forwards
from one side to the other.
‘How the World Split in Two’
The personal can also be mythic, as Alvi’s earlier collections showed in her writings on her Pakistani heritage: ‘Azam passes the sweetshop, / names the sugar monuments Taj Mahal. // I water the country with English rain, / cover it with English words. / Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.’ (‘The Country at My Shoulder’).
Where myth and tale coursed through Moniza Alvi’s previous books, it waterfalls into the ocean in her new volume Europa. The whelming language and whirlpool patterns of the central sequence ‘Europa and the Bull’ are remarkable for their apparent solidity. A curved wave of narrative carries the pattern. Simple, candescent images crest the fluid dynamics of its language (I admire that the ‘lie’ here is white without being named so):
She was softening, melting,
collapsing onto the sand.
And a beast was stepping towards her
dragging the sea behind him –
light in step as a dancer,
white as a boulder,
a snowy mountain,
a ship’s sail,
not white at all.
A bull blessed with the costliest
golden horns, each gleaming
to outshine the other.
‘V: Europa and the Bull’
Writing this piece must have required a sea-surge of imaginative concentration, and there is a sense of the poem overflowing its pages’ shores. The poem floods across the whole book, leaving pools and traces of images in other poems; at times making whole poems that address the subject of abduction and rape from other points of view: ‘King Agenor’; ‘Europa’s Dream’; a mermaid ‘slit / down the muscular length / exposing the bone in its red canal’; or a rape victim trapped in a Volkswagen Golf in ‘The Ride’ - ‘Nothing else for company. / Just the bolting forwards - // and a neighing / heard through water.’
Writers are often told (or so they tell themselves) to write what they know, but the problem is we do not usually know enough about what we know because we do not know ourselves. Cynthia Ozick once said, ‘The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive…When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination’. This statement describes clearly what makes Moniza Alvi a fine poet and why her poetry eludes and finally escapes some of the more exploitative definitions that have been foisted upon it.
Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.
Split World: Poems 1990-2005, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 304 pp., £10.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-802-4
Europa, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 64 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-803-1