"I digress. Let’s live in digression. We have no other choices.", from the poem Haematology #1
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About Momtaza Mehri
Momtaza Mehri is a Somali-British poet and essayist. She grew up in the Middle East and is currently based in London. She began writing poetry for publication in 2014. Her work has appeared in the likes of Granta, Artforum, The Guardian, BOMB Magazine, and The Poetry Review. She is the former Young People’s Laureate for London and columnist-in-residence at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space, as well as a Frontier-Antioch Fellow at Antioch University. In 2018 she was the co-winner of the Brunel International African Poetry prize, and in 2019 she won the Manchester Writing Prize. Her latest pamphlet, Doing the Most with the Least, was published by Goldsmiths Press.
Mehri’s poetry is characterised by an acute social and historical consciousness. A poem such as ‘A Comparative History of Fire’ illustrates how Mehri writes out of moments of crisis, such as strikes and riots, and registers how such events offer opportunities for social change to be realised, for life to be ‘cleansed with new meaning (if only for this moment)’. She renders these experiences in vivid, almost hallucinatory detail (‘a lit match licks / the lip of a field / by its light / we undress all / pretensions’) while remaining alert to the ways in which protest is mediated through ‘crackling screens / in peeling alleyways’, offering in the process a glancing critique of how activism can at any moment become commodified and defanged (‘they pose with the fresh carcass of a police car / Wish You Were Here! / riot as postcard’). Nevertheless, the poem conveys the elation of ruptures in the experience of everyday life (‘unfreedom is so boring’), primarily through the restless vitality and sonic richness of its language. The following passage gives a sense of Mehri’s extraordinary ear:
This ‘liquid-limbed’ passage finds correspondences between distinct linguistic registers and areas of experience through puns and homonyms, giving a sense of how the poem’s speaker operates between different markers of identity, without ever settling into a stable form (‘between digital / mo(u)rnings & bookmarked recipes / neither meme nor mammy’). The constantly shape-shifting language gives a sense that meaning itself — in both linguistic and social terms — remains open, contestable, subject to change.
hope-snatching & dutty
boukman’s prayer at bois (a girl can dream)
we are liquid-limbed sparking ground under feet
bathing in bathos between digital mo(u)rnings
& bookmarked recipes
neither meme nor mammy
our sisters are slick-braided &
erzulies of the ends of the
endless summer’s tart taste swells their
This elusiveness finds further expression in Mehri’s prose poem ‘Fluke By Any Other Name Is a Flight Number’. This poem wavers between accounts of individual experience of migration (‘the ache of a wrist held in anticipation for the conveyer belt to return their luggage if not their country’) and a range of historical references, including Stalin and Lenin’s first meeting, and a speech by Malcom X. The poem is unpunctuated, a formal choice which intensifies the collisions between individual and historical experience, and between the present and the past, making them difficult to distinguish from each other. The absence of punctuation in the following passage, for example, gives a sense of how skilfully Mehdi bleeds such experiences together: ‘a speech later sampled by public enemy then recycled as part of the soundtrack to the video game sonic rush a cobalt blue & white hedgehog the same colour of the finnish flag a force unable to catch up with itself’. Here we have political oratory, music, video games, and national identity seamlessly connected through the poet’s associative facility; while the ‘force unable to catch up with itself’ might be thought of as memory, or history, or modernity, or identity, or the very act of association itself, which all of Mehri’s poems perform so fluently. Mehri’s readings of the poems here are careful and deliberate, drawing out both their deadpan humour and their wonderful sonic patterns and structures.
These recordings were made on 27th January, 2022 at Spiritland Studio, North London. Photographer credit: Ndrika Anyika