'here I am, on the edge of animation, / a dream, a dance, a fantastic construction'. Moniza Alvi
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About Moniza Alvi
Moniza Alvi was born in Lahore, Pakistan, came to England when she was a few months old, and grew up in Hatfield. The experience she describes in her recording of ‘growing up… and feeling half-Pakistani… on the edge of things’ is explored extensively in her first, full-length collection, The Country at My Shoulder, which earned her a place on the New Generation Poets list in 1994. Since then she has published seven collections (and a collected earlier poems), for which she has been nominated for several prizes, including three T S Eliot prize shortlistings, and a Cholmondeley award from the Society of Authors in 2002. In 2011 she published Homesick for the Earth, her versions of the French poet Jules Supervielle, and, in 2013, At the Time of Partition, a long poem in twenty parts which, as she reveals in her introduction to her recording here, is based on her grandmother’s journey from India to the newly created Pakistan in 1947. Alvi worked as a secondary school teacher for many years (and several of her poems are widely studied in schools), and now works as a freelance writer and poetry tutor, mainly for the Poetry School.
Alvi’s is a poetry of ‘linescape[s]’, duality, difference, displacement, borders and edges; but it is also a poetry of life; of possibility, worldliness, a means of making connections, like the giant, magnanimous garment in ‘The Sari’, that ‘stretched from Lahore to Hyderabad’ and envelopes the speaker. Deryn Rees-Jones has said that ‘[m]uch of Alvi’s work engages with a surreal or fantastical world of fractured and partially recovered identity…’, and she is distinctive in her ability to boldly yet seamlessly inhabit such a world, where a mother becomes a ‘glass porthole’, where her migrant relatives, in taking up a house vacated by a Hindu or Sikh family after partition, move ‘through the rooms of orphaned furniture’.
Alvi is also distinguished by her skill in evoking a place or identity in a complex state of fluidity or compromise by way of a clear, uncomplicated conceit. The well-known ‘I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro’ starkly yet gently articulates the notion of being out-of-place, ‘not a perfect circle’, and the arbitrary tensions that underpin such a position (what she calls in introducing another poem ‘the chance, the accidents and the strangeness of having been born in a certain place or time, to a particular culture’). And yet she simultaneously retains a sense of bright-eyed, almost child-like beguilement during the process: at being perched, fluidly yet advantageously, ‘on the edge of animation […] a fantastic construction’. The implications of displacement are darker in the fabulist sequence of poems beginning ‘How the World…’: poems written directly as a response to 9/11, in a voice that has been likened to that of a ‘freshly-peeled fairytale’ by Ruth Padel. The light spareness with which Alvi alludes to a global conflict, in terms which are slant yet grounded and unalienating, is striking:
[…] 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’]
Later poems from Europa, described by Carol Rumens as a ‘beautifully integrated book about disintegration’, similarly have an immense scope in their exploration of gender, myth and violence – from rape to the divide between East and West – in language which is often powerfully crisp and unadorned. As Rumens says, ‘[h]er line breaks and pauses are governed by the vitality of event and image, rather than syntax’, a technique which acquires an even greater force when read by the poet, as in the mythic, ekphrastic ‘Mermaid’, where the events which mark the trauma of rape seem to be both painfully inevitable in their succession and to stand in sharp isolation:
‘she played dead on the rock
dead by the blue lagoon
dead to the ends of her divided tail’
Given Alvi’s previous, long career as a secondary school teacher it is, perhaps, not surprising that these poems share many attributes with that of an effective teacher: urbane and unbiased, always clear, gracious, accepting of compromise, open-ended in their inquiry – qualities which are accentuated in her recording.
Moniza Alvi’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:
‘A poem is beautiful to the precise degree in which the attention whilst it was being composed has been turned towards the inexpressible.’ – Simone Weil
‘[The creative person] must always remain unconscious, unsuspecting of his best virtues, if he would not rob them of their ingenuousness and untouchedness.’ – Rilke
‘The only energy we have is the energy of our own lives. But sometimes autobiography is not true enough.’ – Selima Hill
‘There remains one thread, the one I first started to unwind: that of literature as an existential function, the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.’ – Italo Calvino
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 26 May 2015 at The Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.
Poems by Moniza Alvi
At the Time of Partition (extract 2) - Moniza Alvi
I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miró - Moniza Alvi
Books by Moniza Alvi
The Country at My Shoulder
Oxford Paperbacks, 1993
A Bowl of Warm Air
Oxford Paperbacks, 1996
Carrying My Wife
How the Stone Found its Voice
Split World: Poems 1990-2005
Homesick for the Earth
At the Time of Partition
TS Eliot Prize (Shortlist) for The Country at My Shoulder (OUP)
Whitbread Poetry Award (Shortlist) for The Country at My Shoulder (OUP)
TS Eliot Prize (Shortlist) for Europa (Bloodaxe)
TS Eliot Prize (Shortlist) for At the Time of Partition (Bloodaxe)
East Anglian Writers’ Prize (winner: poetry category) for At the Time of Partition (Bloodaxe)