Three leaves of Moniza Alvi

traced by Michael Peverett

The Opinion column in Guardian Education, a few weeks ago, had Philip Beadle singing the praises of the AQA's selection of "poems from different cultures". (He was speaking of course as a teacher of English, not just as someone who likes poetry.)

"Their place on the curriculum allows students the chance to form emotional responses to slavery and apartheid; to displacement, drought, disparity; to the complex inter-relationship between evil and love; and to the idea that religion might be groundless superstition. They examine cultural and linguistic heritage and the conscious homogenising of acceptable modes of discourse by an elite white male orthodoxy."

And in response to the suggestion that the curriculum should now dispense with the services of Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy – apparently it comes from Andrew Motion, but I think Beadle must be having fun – he points out in dismay that these are

"poets whose work is both accessible and complex and, as such, sublimely relevant. I have lost count of the number of students who have cried at the climax of Armitage's November, or girls who have begun to form a new version of femininity in their heads as a result of reading Duffy."

Litterateurs, Hands Off! he wants to say. And more seriously, "but the point is, I don't think senior examiners drew the poets' names on the back of a beer mat during a particularly boozy lunch."

That, I'm sure, is quite right. School has its own agendas and they are complex ones. If poetry finds a place in the prime-time curriculum, it is only to a small degree, and for a small number of pupils, about learning to like or read or write poetry. Even less is it anything to do with introducing key works; this is about kids, not canons. An English lesson needs to support the maximum degree of differentiation, that is, it aspires to send every pupil in the room away with something that they can connect with, no matter what their interests or skills.

It might seem surprising and a little sentimental that the curriculum compels schoolchildren to savour this ancient, elitist, deeply unpopular art-form at all. But in fact the school poem is very good at its job – better, in some ways, than any form of prose. School poems are short and attractively full of space; not intimidating for those who are appalled by long back-and-forth periods that blacken the page with a confusion of detail; they encourage close comprehension skills; they allow a creative participation, they are puzzles and games and inspirations; they have the wonderful trick of permitting a divergent range of responses that can plug straight into the pupils' own preoccupations; and of course, they bristle with important issues that a teacher wishes to report having aired in class. The differentiating lesson and the poem are just made for each other.

[In principle, anyway. Students who have struggled for years with the hateful effort of penetrating what written sentences mean are, more often than not, very ill-disposed towards writing that does not mean one thing in particular. Just as those of us who can't do maths might possibly be prepared to attempt a sum if we think it has a definite answer, but regard all flim-flam about multiple roots and deviations and probabilities as placing the matter beyond further discussion.]

It needs to be a particular kind of poem. We sometimes imagine the hapless schools being forced to dine off husks by a malign conspiracy of poetry publishers who inexplicably want to sell Poetry Lite, but the social relationship between school and poetry establishment is of course more complex than that. In fact for some explanatory power it's better to look at where and why the poetry is consumed. Even poetry publishing has its commercial forces, and a nationwide system of authorizing certain writers in the classroom is something so gigantically disproportioned to the feeble sales of poetry through any other channel that a commercial poetry publisher wouldn't be doing their job not to be thinking about it. Not that pupils are issued with copies of top collections by Armitage or Agard; GCSE material circulates in a different way. But its indirect spin-offs go a long way towards sustaining the modest demands of a poetic career; the sort of career that has a real commodity value for the trade.


    They sent me a salwar kameez
                    and another
            glistening like an orange split open...
    ....I tried each satin-silken top –
            was alien in the sitting-room.
    I could never be as lovely
                    as those clothes
            I longed
    for denim and corduroy.
            My costume clung to me
                    and I was aflame,
    I couldn’t rise up out of its fire,
                    unlike Aunt Jamila...

"Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan" is almost a perfect classroom poem. It comes from Moniza Alvi's first full-length collection, The Country At My Shoulder, which was published in 1993 – the collection was nominated for various prizes and was a New Generation promotion. Alvi's situation as a westerner conscious of a non-western heritage that she can only partially connect with, feels like it epitomizes a situation that schools want to talk about. Alvi, at the time a teacher herself, retained an oddly childlike enthusiasm for talking about a characteristic preoccupation of the secondary school: Who am I? The word "my" is one of the potent ones in her poetry: it notates the theme, the issue, the connection, the disarming certainty, the lightness. Hovering behind it is the phrase "little me", and the rebuke that lies in wait if you dare to pick up on it.

Influence in the classroom is two-way and Alvi, like many another teacher, has something of the attractive directness of her charges. It's hard to think of a less dilatory title, for example; there's no issue here with knowing what we're talking about! And obviously the poem is located so firmly in a child's preoccupations that it is, as one fan nails it, what you "can totally relate to". For this, it's not necessary to drop exactly onto the paradigmatic issue of half-answering to a second country.

"I love the poem, although I found it hard to 'get into' at first, because I was unused to poetry, now I really love and understand it. The more you read it, the more you notice, Its amazing all of the different meanings you find.
How amazing is Moniza????
She conveys typical teenage behaviour of wanting to fit in – anywhere! and the way we all feel out of place sometimes."

"Sitting in a store dressing-room, even in one's own country, can make you feel like these clothes don't belong to me, or I wish they could belong to me but I don't fit with them. It's a beautiful color, but makes me look washed out and feel inferior. I somehow always go back to the same styles and colors. That's where I feel secure!"

That's a reading that's shifted quite a long way even from the second country of parents that every teenager has to contend with. But naturally identifying with some element of the poem's cultural pressures adds force:

"i fink this poem shows how a girl is trn between her help myself to portray the image in which she is tryin to create how her own culture is hurting her and they they another is trying to control her life."

"and I was there – of no fixed nationality, this poem encapsulates the struggle that the children of the east face in the western countries they have adopted as their own, the struggle between two such different cultures each claiming them as its own... that the children feel in a land that their parents view as alien but they view as their own."

These remarks are from that treasure-house of spontaneous reader-responses, the internet. In the classroom, alas, differentiation is one thing and a top exam grade is another; for that, as I see from the advice for teachers, you have to develop the ideas fully, carefully describe contrasted emotions, and connect to broader issues of identity. Exam advice:

"Make it clear what the poet is writing about.
Refer to anything you know about the context of the poem which helps you understand the poems.
Remember to comment in detail about how the poem is written, referring to particular words and phrases."

Considered as a teaching aid, Alvi's poem is useful in so many ways, of which the least is its basic poetic toolkit (which includes vibrant colours, similes, alliteration, and things that, the teacher modestly queries, could be symbolic). "Presents from My Aunts" permits some straightforward facts about Pakistan (what is a salwar kameez, formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the famous Shalimar Gardens, etc) and is a good comprehension exercise.

Though a measure of guidance may be needed:

"The teacher reminded the class that many pupils had something in common with her by having backgrounds influenced by two cultures. In Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, the poet Moniza Alvi talks about the confusion she felt as a child towards her dual heritage. The teacher stressed that the poem was written in [about] the 1960s and that many people today have successfully fused the two cultures they inherited."

[The lesson continued well: there was focus and comment on "some of the key messages in Moniza Alvi's poem", and pupils "were able to discuss openly and calmly issues such as racism in society, cultural difference, their pride in their own cultural heritage and their conviction that they had successfully fused two (or more) cultures."]

Those earlier comments obviously weren't burdened with scholastic labour. Nevertheless, they make highly nuanced responses to Alvi's luminous poem. (The point of the English lesson is not what you know, you already know almost everything, but what you can be made to understand that you know.) The topic is multiculturalism, which puts the word "my" to the question, but the determining framework of the discourse is inevitably western individualism. At the same time, since it's "my" struggle with the kameez, and "my" haunted exclusion from the Shalimar Gardens, no-one else can take this away from me: it's "my" history. But all lessons are after all coercive by dint of being communal: denying the assimilative momentum of the classroom towards a Hertfordshire norm isn't within the range of moves allowed; you would have to not speak. By temporarily foregrounding our varieties of cultural inheritance, and at the same time relegating them to an impractical mode, that is, to something "within us", in fact a background and not a foreground at all, we make some play for ourselves in the dominant culture. We recognize and enjoy our differences. We don't impose them. The dominant culture becomes more comfortable and more resilient. The past and the remote are enshrined.

For the politically correct poem is a political poem, like everything else once you let it into a school. For a supplemental Alvi poem, you might choose the inclusive welcome of "Indian Cooking":

    paprika, cayenne, dhania
    haldi, heaped like powder-paints.

a poem "bursting with colours, scents and flavours....." (says Ideas for the Classroom) ".... ask each of them to write a poem about one of their own meals. Look closely at 'Indian Cooking' and borrow ideas from Moniza Alvi: the way she lists names of ingredients, for example; her use of simile and metaphor (spices "heaped like powder paints" and "Melted ghee made lakes, golden rivers"); and most importantly of all, the celebratory feel of the poem – you can tell by reading it how much she loves this food! The aim is to write with relish (apologies for the pun) and make your reader's mouth water... There are real cross-curricular opportunities here – imaginative colleagues in Food Technology or Geography might well be keen to" etc. Alvi herself is quoted in a chatty interview and makes the appropriate noises:

The names of the foodstuffs are beautiful words too: paprika, cayenne, dhania, haldi, keema, khir. They must have an exotic sound to many people in Britain, even though curry is now one of our national dishes!
I was fascinated by the Indian names of spices and found it satisfying to use these words from the "other" culture in a poem, particularly as I'd grown up with them.
What's your favourite food?
Unsurprisingly, I still have a particular affection for Indian food, but I love food generally and hate to hear the food of any culture dismissed.

I hope it doesn't seem over-biographical to suggest that the classroom and its adult sequel, the workshop (in which we willingly re-assume our innocence) are the basic matrix for Alvi's art. She is surrounded by young people and draws wholesomely from a range of children's literature, nursery rhymes, and the vibrant joys of lovely poems. Her 2005 Guardian workshop "Close to the Skin", for example, draws inspiration from the liquefaction of Herrick's Julia in silk, takes in a line or two from Simic, Redgrove and Sexton, and nudges:

"You might find yourself invoking a whole world, or a remembered scene. You may find you want to 'take off' from the description of the clothes into another area... you may wish to include elements of the magical... Perhaps you already have within your notes the first draft of a poem. Look for a good beginning.... Do you sense any emerging rhythms in what you've written? ... Experiment with different arrangements of the poem on the page... Choose a title..."

It's idle to deny the attractions of chalkdust and getting together. I should love to be miraculously transmuted into a bright pupil who gets to enjoy "GCSE Poetry Live!" and to see Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy in the flesh ("We guarantee there will be at least five poets at each venue.."). I should also have loved to be at the British Council Poetry evening in Poland last November, where Alvi and George Szirtes’ poems were read in Polish translations, and they diplomatically answered questions thus (Are you representatives?):

GS: I don’t consciously represent anything. We've been talking about this with Moniza in the aeroplane, because we're sometimes in a very similar situation because we both have different backgrounds. ...

MA: There are so many poets writing poetry of great value and they are representing themselves. I feel that it is difficult enough to represent yourself in your poetry, let alone a country. ...


I might have spent too long with Moniza Alvi's poems. Behind their popular tales, childlike appeals, helium fantasies, I hear a different sound-world, forced and awkward, characteristically a sound of toil, altogether more sombre. You can't call it a ground-bass for it comes and goes: the awkwardness is the way it juts. I suppose I think of it as a subterranean structure that we eventually understand that the poem requires in order to truly make sense.

    My Aunt Luckbir had full red lips,
    sari borders broad like silver cities,
    gold flock wallpaper in her sitting-room.
    Purple curtains opened


The pattern of clogged assonance-pairs, stretching the shape of your mouth, is established in that second line, enforced in the fourth. Thence we'll trace it through "overseas degree" and the desolate affluence of "Picking at rice on pyrex" until we arrive at the marriage of assonance-pairs thus:

    After she died young
    Uncle tried everything –

Without these noises, the poem chatters along emptily enough. With them, it's shadowed by stretches of time that in themselves Alvi's anecdotal memories can't get at.

    You are so concerned with the barrels of gunpowder

Take "Never Too Late" (from Carrying My Wife, 2000) as an example. Characteristically, it seems to be a harmlessly surreal fantasy on Guy Fawkes – as usually, a child's fantasy, popular material. Carry on reading it like that and it seems a bit glib and tasteless when she suddenly kicks out:

    Surely you knew you'd be tortured and hanged.

These bare ideas of unguarded violence, never "felt", always followed by a swift change of tack – as if they haven't been said – are more common in Alvi's child-pictures than the reader easily remembers. She flies directly against the aesthetic dictum (still a potent residue of Leavisite days) that the high-profile topic needs to be "earned".

Or she appears to. It needs a still moment to hear the paradigmatic pattern of the lines in "Never Too Late": from a first half that is chattily confiding to a second half that labours to get itself completed, normally by some word that's choked with sound. In these line-ends the story stalls, appalled by the recalcitrance of its material. Compare these:

    For years you believed you were an alchemist.
    In time you became a firework-maker.
    You toyed with firecrackers, rockets, starbursts,

or later:

    You'd had a lifetime of detonation.
    They invited you to the firework-makers' last supper.
    There was always a sparkle in your stomach,
    A star in your brain – the opportunity
    to give vivid displays to a captive audience.

Alvi's terrorism poem thinks aurally, engaged by the long effort in the sound of "firework" while its deadly triviality patters around.

In the title poem of The Country at my Shoulder, you can hear once more that Alvian sound of too-prolonged assonance:

    dancing garlanded through parks.

(this is Bollywood). That the true story behind the anecdotes is a sound-story, as in "Luckbir", begins to be apparent from the poem's second line:

    There's a country at my shoulder,
    growing larger – soon it will burst,
    rivers will spill out, run down my chest.

The semi-rhyme of "larger" with "shoulder" should alert us: it's the sound that a writer of standard prose would sheer away from. There's another warning in the next stanza:

    My cousin Azam wants visitors to play
    ludo with him all the time.
    He learns English in a class of seventy.

That second line is too short of syllables, the mock-refreshment of "ludo" ludicrously prolonged, "all the time" developing into an exasperation that drifts out beyond young Azam.

    And I must stand to attention
    with the country at my shoulder.
    There's an execution in the square –

    The women's dupattas are wet with tears.
    The offices have closed
    for the white-hot afternoon.

    But the women stone-breakers chip away
    at boulders, dirt on their bright hems.
    They await the men and the trucks.

We seem to be drifting away from that opening image into profitless anecdote, but the word "boulders" is there to remind us. In fact this is Alvi at her most intuitive. The sound of "execution" is so sensuously unlike those weak, clumsy stone-breakers: so fine and final.

Here comes another of Alvi's intoxications with those yawing diphthongs:

    When the country bursts, we'll meet.
    Uncle Kamil shot a tiger,
    it hung over the wardrobe, its jaws

    fixed in a roar – I wanted to hide
    its head in a towel.
    The country has become my body –

    I can't break bits off.

The real function of the tiger's heavy noises is to instantly displace the little olive branch, the little trickle of lyric, in "we'll meet". The payload of "meet" is postponed until the final line of the poem:

    Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.

It's a question for the reader whether the sound-tension in the poem is something Alvi developed or something she failed to exclude. It may not be all that important: for example, the hyper-real "country" is there to be shot down anyway. My choice of expression, of course, is uncomfortable.

Alvi has now published five full-length collections; I don't know the last two so well. She seems to have put a block on those too-plentiful similes, as we all have. But a narrative of artistic crises is not to be looked for here. "The Suits" (published in the Guardian along with that workshop) is a poem whose subterranean activity is perhaps more concentrated than ever:

    My father's forties suit, bought when he first came to England,
    pin-striped with broad lapels, comfortingly chocolate, but crisp.

    He and his Pakistani friends and their we-have-arrived-suits.
    In a black-and-white snap, Dad sits on the grass at a rural crossroads,

    head in his hands, signs pointing in all directions: Digswell, Welwyn,
    Tewin Wood... Even here, deep in the countryside, he's wearing

    his suit. He's handsome as a doctor, our neighbour said.
    My father and his friends, marvelled at wherever they went, ordering

    a sandwich at the Comet Hotel, or shopping on the Barnet by-pass.
    This was before Go back home! Their suits of armour

    could have stood up without them. Walked on and on.

This has a holiday insouciance (chocolates, crisps and sandwiches) but the sounds of prolonged toil are still there to be heard in the lines that could be filler-lines but really aren't (1 and 8). (And there in line 10 is the ugly violence whose evocation the poem doesn't allow us to admire.) In lines 5-6, the Ws make English sounds, in particular the silent or near-silent Ws in Welwyn and Tewin. These are gradations of misty distance: the country, like the suits, is both put on and stands up without you; habited, inhabitant... Lost among those silent Ws, "wearing / his suit" is, near enough, "airing his suit".

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