Books · Gender

Not one word wasted

EuropaEuropa by Moniza Alvi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I often dislike poetry because I can’t understand it, or when I can understand it, I think saying the same thing in plain prose would be more powerful and communicate better. In the poetry I do like, the musicality of language or focus on form serves to allow some transference or inspiration that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. In Alvi’s case, poetry allows her to share reflections on trauma and PTSD that would be unspeakable without symbolism and images that make them possible to digest. The word that comes to my mind is compost, because the poisonous, disease-spreading rotting refuse, dead matter and excrement can eventually be turned into minerals and compounds, clean ions that nourish the descendents of the dead.

Maybe that image is unwelcome; I don’t want to encourage the interpretation that trauma has some final benefit. In many of these poems, Alvi plots some stage of a fragile remission, and the work put into fighting for air and safety would have been spent otherwise in sunlight. There is not one shred of romance about suffering here. But, in the poems about Europa, the transformation that happens to her is wondrous and leaves me very uncomfortable, especially when her now many-selved body asks finally ‘Can we forgive him?’ It’s perhaps instructive that a man, her father, has the last word, but only to admit his helplessness, confusion and awe before her changed state.

Alvi’s poems are spare, generally short; she wastes absolutely nothing and none of her images fails to provoke an answering emotion. The one-page poem ‘Mermaid’ is at once polemical and extremely subtle and multilayered, full enough of questions to spark long essays. ‘The Ride’, is similarly epic, distilling a marriage (I think) into 23 knife-sharp lines

‘We’ll take the ring road,
he said. Give me your bag.’

The poem about honour killing is utterly simple, because there is nothing to add to the starkness of the action; Alvi refuses to intellectualise or embellish the horror, and manages to maintain the realism of the girl’s voice in a single, poignant simile when she compares the living room where it happens to

‘a forest clearing,
the animals scurrying away.’

Alvi also draws on Jules Supervielle’s war poems, working through horror of violence, unwanted memories and suicidal impulses. This might sound very grim and dark, but Alvi’s touch is so light and caring, that the effect is to make everything human, to include pain and misery in the realms of permissible feeling, and thus bring their sufferers in from the isolation of being beyond empathy, being othered as mental health patients. Her poems challenge assumptions about therapy and recovery from trauma, and about contentment. She also addresses cultural divisions and failures of communication and understanding, lamented in ‘The Veil’, a symbolic boundary obscuring ‘the receding east, the receding west’. At the moment, this is my favourite poetry book.


Halfway down the stairs
I hugged it to my chest.

It was the size of a small
collection of laundry,

the shape of the bundle
Dick Whittington carried

on a stick on his back,
or the tiny parcel of spices

(the woody ones)
my mother would lower

for the duration
into a pot of steaming pullao rice.

For the duration.
That would be a fine thing.

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