Review by Nina Mingya Powles
In a short essay published on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog and titled ‘On Gods, Human Rights, and the Poet’, Mona Arshi asks: ‘what can poetry offer as we veer from crisis to disaster?’ She writes of the slow degradation of language and truth, and in her work as a human rights lawyer working, bearing witness to a ‘rupture of empathy’ in recent months. Poems rarely succeed as engines of morality, but by its very nature poetry stands against simplification—against ‘the flattening of language’, as Arshi writes—towards empathy, imagination, and the deep complexities that language can hold.
Dear Big Gods, Mona Arshi’s second poetry collection, contends with grief, girlhood and memory in ways that work towards mending this rupture of empathy. The sutures are small and lightweight, almost indetectable. A memory is laid on top of another, a spider weaves a web against skin, the parts of a flower unfold against each other. As with Arshi’s previous book, the prizewinning Small Hands, reading these poems is like cupping your ear against a closed door, listening for distant voices and footsteps that occasionally burst out crystal clear as if in the same room as you for a brief moment, then fade out again.
One of my favourite opening lines of any poem belongs to Arshi: ‘My day ghost is blooming’, from the poem ‘Day Ghost’, in Small Hands. In Dear Big Gods, plants continue to bloom and unfurl. Ghosts flower and fade in these poems, too. From ‘The Lilies’:
In the dark with the kitchen lit
they must have peered in,
their occultish hurting faces
pressed against the glass.
An uncanny thread of rhymes links syllables together: lilies, kitchen, lit, occultish. The lilies are more animal than flower. They are otherworldly and sentient creatures, reminiscent of Alice Oswald’s weeds and wildflowers in the way they lie undead in their ‘altar beds’ in the garden. Plants and flowers take on the weight of grief and memory. The act of sewing seeds in the earth, of tending to plants and flowers, is for Arshi an act of empathy and tenderness. It is a small act of love.
In the poem ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’, the pear is a talisman passed between the world of the living and the dead, between dreams and waking, ‘something that can live’ in this ambiguous in-between space. Arshi understands that we are not unlike plants in the way we move helplessly through the world: ‘Mostly we are waiting for rain. / Sometimes we let / it fall gently / on our faces. / This is what a flower does’, she writes in ‘Everywhere’, an early poem in the book, which cascades gently down the page in four succinct stanzas. Like the life cycle of a flower, or a ghazal that turns back over itself again and again before it can end, grief is not a process with a clearly defined endpoint but an ongoing cycle.
Arshi’s capacity to control how her lines unfurl across the page is evident in the longest poem of the collection, ‘Five Year Update’. Its long lines unravel with a breathless energy, weaving singular memories with the present. Pieces of the past appear scattered but held together by something we can’t quite see, like raindrops caught in a spiderweb. A golden dog in the sunshine, the ‘so-green grass’, insects flying through rain. Like a dream that repeats itself, the poem ends in the exact same moment where it began—there’s that unnerving, familiar feeling of so much time (perhaps whole lifetimes) passing in a single instant, and also no time at all.
In her aforementioned essay, the poet considers the symbolic nature of the migrant; how migrants seem to represent ‘everything that a right-wing ideology despises. It celebrates the ambiguous, the hyphenated identity that is complex and subject to mutation.’ I arrive at this collection of poems with my own family history of migration, and through Arshi’s words I’ve come closer to an understanding of my relationship with poetry—since poems themselves are also complex, ambiguous, full of gaps. I spent my girlhood trying to demarcate the edges of a precarious space I occupy between two cultures and multiple languages. Arshi’s poems concerning girlhood seem to inhabit this place of in-betweenness, though the poems themselves are not pinned to any particular cultural context, autobiographical or otherwise.
In Dear Big Gods, to be a girl is to be a shapeshifter. Arshi’s poems of girlhood all conjure images of sisterhood, desire, silence, and power. A collective chorus of ‘we’ surges up in these poems:
The others came, slipped in like silent
emissaries towards the dark colossal frame;
the waiting grooms. So many trees, we sighed,
so much loneliness. In the golden hour we
parted the bark then married them.
(“’In Mexico the women are marrying trees’”)
We plant cloves, tiny armless gods into the loam
poke them deeper into the uncertainty of darkness.
My girls are distracted and starved of light,
which is normal, which is essence of girl-darkness.
In these poems that seem like fragments of myth and folklore turned upside down, we witness girls transform as they press themselves against trees and against the earth. The borders of girlhood are permeable and half-visible, but able to be touched.
In another Harriet Blog post, Bhanu Kapil writes of the ghazal: ‘A ghazal is an Indian form. An oral-aural form. An 11th Century Arabic form. I am interested in what people understand themselves to be doing when they write one. Don’t they know how dangerous it is? How much further their hearts could break?’
The risk of writing a ghazal in English, Kapil notes, is that it will end on a lyric note when ‘in reality, it should be torn from the body like a sob.’ Many ghazals I have read in English, not being able to read in any other language and not being an expert in the ghazal form, do appear to me to end on a lyric note. Often the poet’s refrain of choice is a mono-syllablic noun or something evocative, like a colour, or rain. But Patricia Smith’s well-loved ‘Hip Hop Ghazal”’ ends on a prayer, and Mona Arshi’s ‘Ghazal: Darkness’ ends with a call: ‘Shabash I call to my girls, my praise in the darkness.’
With its refrain of ‘darkness’, this ghazal circles around the unknown, the unimaginable. Images of flowers and seedlings return in parallel with collective girlhood, embodied by the speaker’s daughters and their ‘strewn hearts glowing in the darkness.’ It is this ‘essence of girl-darkness’ that prevents Arshi’s ghazal from ending on a purely lyric note. Instead, a call of praise or joy. Not the opposite of a prayer, but its counterpart; a call flung out into the unknown.
What can poetry offer us? ‘… The passing on of a prayer amidst the inferno’, is how Arshi describes it. It is fitting that Dear Big Gods then ends with the title poem, which is a small, strange prayer slipping down the page:
all you have to do
is show yourself a little
pin your dark
olive green parts
against the boulder
Arshi can shape words into the smallest of forms, from which seedlings and glowing hearts spring. Each poem in Dear Big Gods is distinct, but sometimes, a seed planted in one poem sprouts up in another.
One night my bird-blown heart awoke
the forest called me in
its bubbling call; the moaning sap
I stepped inside the hymn.
(“‘I was the slightest in the house’”)
That ruptured empathy is being stitched back together, poem by poem. A prayer opens; we step inside.
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Aotearoa New Zealand, currently living in London. Recent publications include Tiny Moons, a food memoir, and poetry pamphlets field notes on a downpour (2018) and Luminescent (2017). Her next poetry book, Magnolia, 木蘭 is forthcoming from Nine Arches Press this year. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon.