Mona Arshi’s debut collection Small Hands won the Forward Prize for best first collection, and her relatively short poetic CV is a comet-tail of successes: Magma Competition prize 2012, joint winner of the Manchester Poetry prize 2014, an award in the Troubadour – she has traced a brilliant trajectory in a short time. Having heard her read but only more closely reading her debut collection for this review, I am brought to mind how she uses words like a watercolourist.From the middle of the ‘gallery’ she invites us to enter, she makes large canvases, unafraid of the ‘big themes’ – death, love, identity, belonging, family, marriage, childhood – often bleeding out to the edges of these, as in a watercolour, into whimsy or the surreal.
Arshi generally eschews the didactic, with the exception of the final poem, ‘Ballad of the Small-boned Daughter’, a cri de coeur about a much-publicised honour-killing, which can hardly fail to draw our sympathy. Yet somehow it feels out of kilter with the tenor of the rest of this debut, and placed at the end, seems to give the collection a clarion-call sign-off that is unrepresentative of the rest of the book.
This is because, more typically, after creating her broad canvas, Arshi takes us ‘close-up’, in-laying the big, broad ‘washes’ of her themes with a particularity and precision that is personal and delicate. The overall effect, in combination, is of an elliptical, gentle, yet serious persuasiveness. What may seem slight at first sight, builds momentum as you progress through the collection, until that final, worthy but for me, ‘missed’ beat. Arshi usually draws you in, slowly, but insistently. The final poem seems to want to collar us more directly and seek to propel us out into the world, as if her polished interiors are suddenly not enough for her; that her work must claim some more externally verifiable ‘meaning’ or rationale.
Words such as ‘gentle’ and ‘whimsy’ can, of course, suggest fey or lightweight. Arshi, however, reminds us gentle need not mean ‘soft’. She can be at her most satisfying to read when being sardonic or using tongue-in-cheek mockery, as in ‘Bad Day at the Office’, where the demands of motherhood (‘Everywhere there is a stink of baby’) and domestic drudgery, (‘I can’t smell my fingers as they’ve been wrapped/in those marigolds for weeks’) seem to be driving the suburban narrator (reading her glossy magazine article about winter veg.) slowly mad, till she imagines the ‘salsify is eye-balling me’ and the pet ‘sodding bunny blames me.’ One can almost hear househusbands and housewives everywhere cheering at the end of Arshi reading this. It satisfyingly sustains comedy, or satire, and tragedy, to the end, reminding us, ‘that when it rains/it is not catastrophic it is just raining,’ even when the voice on the radio appears – in our solipsistic silliness – to be addressing us.
The poet’s, ‘What Every Girl Should Know About Marriage,’ gives us a similarly jaundiced view of marital union, in the mock-tone of what might purport to be a Victorian self-help manual for ‘Young Ladies.’ The opening line tells you: ‘Eliminating thought verbs is the key to successful marriage.’ Instead, you should practise ‘curbing your interest in the interior of things,’ to the droll/sinister end-lines of ‘Your husband may not know you cheated with shop-/bought garam masala but God will know.’
These funny and satirical lines, her imaginative flights into the surreal, her ‘list’ poems such as ‘On Ellington Road’, and the heart-felt candour of her bereavement poems for her brother (‘In the Coroner’s Office’ and ‘18th. Of November’), and the occasional more didactic tone addressing contemporary issues, illustrate that above all, Arshi is a versatile stylist, able to throw her voice into many moods and guises.
As a child of immigrant parents, she shares a second-generation, slightly, ‘semi-detached,’ outsider’s interest – almost a scientific, forensic one – in the technicalities of the language and there is clear evidence of a love of playing with the possibilities of its poetic forms. This correspond to some extent with Daljit Nagra’s experimentations in hybridising and ‘borrowing’ both the heritage and the ‘second-language’, in Nagra’s case to write a unique kind of ‘Pun-glish’ or ‘Eng-jabi’.
In Arshi’s case, it is as if the English language is the ‘mother-ship’ from which she can – no, it’s more than this – which freely permits her, to space-walk out to and back from, her own heritage, its geographical, cultural, linguistic and religious complexities – as well as the poetic, something clearly marked in the two poems titled ‘Ghazal’, after the Urdu form originating in North India and Pakistan.
In the second of these ghazals, hybridization, assimilation and synthesis seems completely achieved: the ghazal is not required to be metrically rigid in English, but is translated for the second language’s purposes, and also has a Spanish epigraph from Lorca (aagain, in English translation.) Arshi writes in the second stanza:
‘I want to sequester words, hold them in stress positions,
foreignate them, string them up to ripen on vines’
Small Hands seems to offer an early ripening of what promises to be a vintage trip into ‘foreignation.’