Sigmund Freud coined the phrase ‘afterwardness’ to describe the belated understanding that occurs with the passage of time. It is the ripening of past events by age and experience – a form of alchemy. The concept has inspired the title of a new book of poetry by Iranian born, British poet Mimi Khalvati. Her collection of sonnets, published by Carcanet Press, touches on loss, trauma and ageing but is overwhelmingly a tribute to the restorative power of language and imagination.
In ‘Afternwardness,’ an 11-year-old boy from Aleppo resurrects the bombed-out world of childhood in his ‘thousand yard stare’ marvels at the mind’s ability to conjure ‘through the long tunnel of that gaze,’ ‘a yard, a pond and pine trees that surround as in a chaharbagh…’
The humour and pathos of a child’s point of view, at a birthday party or playing hide and seek, permeates the collection. In ‘Questions’ a young child dwarfed by a huge seat morphs into older consciousness diminished by age and frailty. The result is an uncanny overlap of past and present.
You’re smaller than you think you were or so you think.
You don’t remember sinking quite so low
on other seats. Something has made you shrink
or else something has made the seat back grow.
Khalvati shows the child ever present within. ‘The Boy’ who always plays piano in his hat and coat, hears his mother’s voice, ‘Don’t you want to take your coat off darling?’, and with this tender recollection, fast forwards to adulthood: ‘Minute by minute…the boy, who was a man, sat fiercely staring’; ‘Time made no sense to him.’
The resurrection of the dead in the darkly comic ‘Mehrabad Airport’ gives new expression to the pliability of time. ’Sometimes you hear of someone dying when you thought they’d died already years ago.’
They come to life only to die again.
Bad memory can be so cruel[.]
Darting back and forth in time is a technique characterising Khalvati’s writing. Her ability to move from past to present, between languages and cultures, is perhaps due to her roots in different worlds — British and Islamic.
This nimble manoeuvring enables her sonnets to become literary conversations, interweaving other texts and time travellers, with snatches of Mrs Ramsay from Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Nabakov’s Lolita.
The device could easily be cumbersome and confusing, but Khalvati’s deft hand brings the writing alive with voices and allusions. It expresses a love of literature and joy in the sheer physicality of words and books. ‘Bush Cricket’ relishes a glimpse of an insect on a book spine:
I picked out What I loved by Siri Hustvedt
from that blue bookcase on a garden wall
under the fig tree. Having scarcely read
four pages, closing it, I see
a small bush cricket mask
What on the spine, aligning it exactly
with her lines. What? her body seems to ask,
threading it through a green transparency.
The writing delights in itself. It is Khalvati’s ninth volume of poetry and although now in her 70s, there is no sign of her energy lagging. ‘Poetry startled me awake last night,’ she exclaims in ‘Night Writing’, ‘Stray lines, excited to be up so late.’ In the same poem, Khalvati also reflects on death, ageing, failing memory and the struggle to find words-:‘I was a blind old tabby, dazed, forgetful, letting the lines, like mice race by the sofa.’
As time runs out, urgency grows. Impending loss injects poignancy and new vigour into lines. Language is stripped back, simpler, humbler, nothing-superfluous. ‘September’ describes summer ebbing painfully away. ‘Everything seems too beautiful to grasp. I don’t know what to feel, other than yearning.’
The collection ends in ‘Vapour Trails’. We are left ‘staring up at pure blue from down on earth’ marvelling the ephemeral loveliness of it all.