Mona Arshi presents her debut collection Small Hands, described as “the slow detonation of grief after her brother’s death.” However, it soon becomes clear that death (and its aftermath) is only one of several themes to emerge from the book.
At first, she offers such gems as “My Mother’s Hair” and “The Daughters”. Here she speaks frankly about her closest kin, tinged with lament that her daughters are growing up so quickly. The poet herself was born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London, and Small Hands, focusing initially on her female relatives, offers an exploration of this background in such poems as “The Gold Bangles” and “Cousin Migrant”.
The poet’s brother appears just before the halfway point. Arshi offers rich reward for the wait in “Phone Call on a Train Journey”. On successive pages, she encourages us to follow her through the wake and the autopsy – endured while still in a state of shock – and then the slow process of acceptance. Her juxtaposition of “April” and “18th of November” is particularly deft, allowing the reader to imagine her state of mind during the summer and the autumn following his death.
Despite the personal subject matter, Arshi handles it with care, with no discussion or conjecture about his manner of death. Yet raw emotion is channelled into these few pages with the simplest and most poignant descriptions, such as, “… my father weighs his son’s glasses in his hands,” from “April”, and, “I traced a stitch raised by your absence,” in “The Rain That Began Elsewhere”. These pieces form the strongest sequence of Small Hands.
There seems to be no overarching theme to the last 20 pages however. Some poems are descriptive, such as “Ode to a Pomegranate”, and some are funny, like “Wireman”. The one uniting factor is that none of them capture the affective power evident up to this point. Perhaps given the strength of feeling conveyed in relation to her brother’s death, away from its focus on family matters, the collection seems to lose a little direction. This change of direction also results in a few confusing pieces. A reader might struggle to decipher which person or object is described in “Lost Poem”, as the opening quotation from a newspaper article appears to provide no clues. Had she continued along the same vein, Small Hands might have been more consistent overall.
Arshi employs extensive imagery to do with nature throughout the collection and adds a fresh twist. For example, “This Morning” offers the idea, “… forgotten beside the impossible flowers,” while the setting of “Woman at Window” is, “Decemberish and raining.” There is also effective use of spacing and typography and Arshi makes judicious use of indents, stanzas of equal length, and occasionally contrasting walls of densely-blocked prose poetry.
In the last two pages, in “Ballad of the Small-boned Daughter”, she delivers a genuine shock as what it details is neither expected nor foreshadowed; consider the phrase, “The mother had rehearsed sadness,” which so concisely reveals its horrific subject matter. Yet the gap between the power of poems relating to her brother’s death and other more ordinary pieces is perhaps too dramatic. Additionally, the quatrain stanzas of this ballad, arguably, sound slightly forced here, and perhaps doubly so when placed at the end of a series of free verse poems.
Small Hands offers more than poems about grief; Mona Arshi proves she has the tools to move and startle her audience with precisely-crafted work. Yes, the collection might have shortcomings, but this is a poet to watch.
Read “What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage” from Small Hands.