Saturday, 31 January 2009

Europa by Moniza Alvi was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize this year, but was beaten by Nigh-No-Place. In some ways it is a more substantial collection than Nigh-No-Place but less consistently successful. However, despite its limitations and inconsistencies, a case could be made out that it ought to have won.

It is divided into 3 sections. The outer sections contain individual poems, often strongly linked by subject matter or theme; the middle section - Europa and the Bull - is an extended narrative re-telling of the Greek myth. At best, the poems are both direct and mysterious, presenting complex ideas in vivid imagistic language, which leave some element unresolved. For instance, Alvi's poem about the veil describes this focus of political and cultural conflict in ambivalent and ambiguous terms, which refuse to take sides:

The veil with its hidden waist and hips,
its energies, its limitations.
The capacious veiled veil.

The less convincing poems are about male violence. Essentially, men are bad, women are graphically violated. It's an important issue (after all, 3 million women experience domestic violence every year in the UK) but having been limited to the traumatising act of abuse, the poems somehow fail to bring home the terrible truth that by and large the perpetrators are 'normal' men more often than not in longterm relationships. No doubt the Europa poem also offers some sort of exploration of European identity but the sensationalist approach deters close examination. Having said that, the poem does presents a number of very immediate but surprising and memorable images e.g.
............................................ the sea
rushed up to [the sand], telling
a bit of the story
and snatched it back.

Throughout the collection, there are a number of poems about hurt and wounds. In fact, it begins with a poem called Post-traumatic. I confess to having an insider's understanding of this mental health problem so I can attest to its remarkable - if limited - emotional accuracy. Unfortunately, like so many attempts by non-disabled poets to represent disability, it focuses on the impairment rather than the discrimination one faces, which is, in fact, an inseparable aspect of the experience of the condition. Thus, the social phenomena of the experience of PTSD is medicalised, notwithstanding the humane intentions which clearly lie behind the poem and the precise but powerful way the condition is represented.

Myth and fairy tale obviously play an important role in the collection - and not just in the title poem. Pandora's box featues in one of the poems, a sleeping princess in another and a mermeid in another (violated as in the somewhat Prog Rock cover illustration).

The best wound poem in my opinion is I Hold my Breath in This Country with its Sad Past, which, to me anyway, recalls the collective trauma experienced in the former Yugoslavia from the perspective of the poet/ narrator, an outsider to whom the enormity of the hurt felt by the country is becoming apparent. It is an astonishing poem. Read it.

Also astonishing is the poem, Upholding the 'I'. The simplicty of approach belies the images, which bear more than a passing resemblance to metaphysical conceits e.g.

the 'I' that's bee-like, drawn to purple

the 'I' with its walk-on part

its cool green stem

Alvi continues to create marvellous colourful poems made out of splintered images which can satisfy intellectually as well as viscerally. This collection is certainly worth reading, and reading again.

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