‘Re-visioning Exile’, Review of ‘Afterwardness’ by Mimi Khalvati

My review of ‘Afterwardness’ by Mimi Khalvati reproduced here, was published in The High Window in January, 2020.

Mimi Khalvati’s new book is a sustained series of meditations on the theme of exile. For its eloquent deployment of form and the depth of its emotional excavation, I consider it poetry of the highest order.

Though autobiographical, the book never gives us personal history for its own sake, but always in the service of its theme: life in the perennial ‘afterwardness’ of exile.

The fifty-six sonnets – the Italian form invokes Petrarch’s ‘Rime Sparse’, his great document of unappeasable longing – begin with ‘Questions’. A child, in flight on a plane, discovers itself to be ‘smaller than you were…Something has made you shrink/or else something has made the seatback grow’, travelling ‘away from all you know’ as the sky darkens. The child, with its unknown companion are ‘the only ones not gone or disappearing’, and it struggles ‘to push the feelings down, the questions/the stillborn questions never to be answered’. This literal flight from home is disorienting, hallucinatory – to be up in the air with no familiar ground, nothing to rely on but a ‘seat-belt’ of trust.

The autobiographical poems here, rich in themselves, establish a perspective from which to view other lives in exile – those of the ‘Dreamers’, under threat in Trump’s USA, in the poem of that title, who arrived as children with ‘two hundred words in their vocabulary’, their ‘first languages, half-formed, dropped at a border’; or the eleven-year old boy from Aleppo in the heartbreaking title poem, ‘Afterwardness’, ‘ whose eyes hold only things no longer there/– a citadel, a moat, safe rooms of shadow/‘afterwardness’ in his thousand yard stare’, his mother tongue, and the memories inscribed in it, ‘lost like me in air’; or the girl in ‘Hide and Seek’, ‘backed to a wall/shrinking on a dirt floor, hugging her knees’, unsure which is worst – to find, to be found, or be ‘never found at all’.

Four poems capture the struggle to recreate the world in another language. In ‘Translation’, exiled children swap collections of words: ‘I’ll give you parandeh, you give me bird’. But what’s lost is a shaping milieu, a cultural home: ‘…what if, whistling in some foreign treetop, //parandeh has long since flown out of mind/back to its own kind, never to return?’. In ‘Handwriting’, the painstaking practice of ‘joined-up writing’ allows the self and its articulation to become more joined up. Letters are ‘the scaffolding and ark of spoken speech’. The child might encounter ‘strange idioms that make the mind grow numb/but knowing how to write them helps you hear’. Still, not quite knowing how to play a language game, in ‘Dictation’, leads the young writer into confusion ‘Like a bumblebee on a wild rampage,/stumbling against the sense that otherwise/ran as smooth as honey across my page’. ‘Elocution’ produces an adolescent crush so ecstatic that the elocution teacher, though ‘squat as a toad/in twinset and tweeds’, becomes ‘my oracle’.

In so many of these poems, the images frame and enunciate the character of an exile’s life with tremendous resonance. The recurrent, deeply traditional formal design of the Petrarchan sonnet grounds the collection and provides a containing experience of consistency and reliability that contrasts with all the disorientation, the displacement, the endless efforts to make a new home that never quite yield a secure sense of belonging.

Longing for the lost world of home is visceral. In ‘The Introvert House’ (p16), the speaker wonders if her habitual way of arranging furniture results from ‘workings in the bloodstream, some residue/in subliminal memory of windows/that look forever inward, galaxies/that spin on carpets, geometric rows// of turquoise tiles ablaze with symmetries/inherent in physics; eyvans, porticos/of gardens brought indoors; a Sufi’s verses.’

A key poem, for me is ‘Scripto Inferior’, which tells us that to know your story allows you ‘to understand not only who you are and where you come from’, but the very ‘nature/ of story, how to prime a palimpsest/for all successive stories’. I think of the whole collection as a palimpsest founded on ‘the underwriting’ of the poet’s ‘own life story’. The palimpsest image brings out the importance of storytelling in constituting the life of the self, perhaps more important in the lives of those for whom ‘some imaginary homeland/ is all you know, shall ever know of home’.

Thus, one re-working of the theme of forgotten past re-appearing in the present gives us ‘Background Music’ and a companion poem, ‘Background Music (ii)’. Here are not ‘workings in the bloodstream’ but the ‘background music’ of abandonment trauma that disrupts the peaceful act of reading in a café and you are ‘torn away…to fall as Tosca falls, defences fall’, and ‘your heart breaks open a dungeon door//and griefs like prisoners…bestir themselves’. In ‘My Mother’s Lighter’, the poet ‘Half-sentimental, half-dispassionate/and with no true attachment to or knowledge/of my own history’ plays idly with the lighter, and sees ‘the same flame, its root invisible…that she’d have seen’. It ‘flares in the sunlight’ until it becomes too hot to handle.

Though there are many ‘stories’ here (and so many poems I wish I had space to quote), the ‘afterwardness’ that gives the book its title remains its unifying subject. This is a collection in which I have been grateful to immerse myself. It can be dipped into, but gains from repeated reading as a formally satisfying sequence. In the final poem, ‘Vapour Trails’, we come full circle from the dramatic opening flight of ‘Questions’. In this concluding sonnet, an observer – now ‘down on earth’, watches ‘silver bullet-nosed’ jets and their contrails ‘like spinal x-rays’ – images that suggest a magical treatment for a life-changing injury. A valedictory sestet gives us a gloss on the poet’s story, and at the same time describes her moving and brilliant series of poems:

It only takes a trigger, a single flight
in childhood, for example, early trauma,
to stretch the bare bones of the aftermath

into a lyric void beyond the finite
and knowable, a via negativa
cruising at altitude on plumes of breath.

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