Mona Arshi – Small Hands

Full Disclosure: Had not previously read any of Arshi’s work. Review copy provided by the Forward Arts folks.

Review: Arshi’s first collection won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in an extremely strong field. As with many poets before her, Arshi’s non-academic background has been pawed over like a curiosity from another world, but her previous career has only a cursory impact on her work (one poem concerns Diane Pretty, who fought for the right to assisted suicide, another Shafilyah Ahmed, a victim of honour killing). Arshi is a poet, which is more difficult to make copy out of, but much less distracting from the poems.

Small Hands is a beautiful, minimally-designed and tiny edition – even the font is noticeably smaller than the industry norm – and Liverpool University Press have done an excellent job making the physical object match the work inside it. The collection is full of curious, shifty poems that seem intent on approaching their subjects sidelong, or from multiple angles at once. If this approach sometimes makes it difficult to get an accurate read on the poem’s message, it does make for work that seems to offer up something different with every reading.

For a taster, here’s ‘Taster’:

‘I taste it because it might taste of honey. I taste it because my brain is a hive. I taste it because I’m properly assimilated. I taste it because I was an only child and refused to share the oranges in the playground. I taste it because I never travelled. I taste it because I’ve travelled to the frozen tundra of the Northern Arctic.’

Several of the book’s poems operate in this kind of mode; there is a central theme, image or refrain around which the poem eccentrically orbits, creating some kind of understanding through irrational connections as much as logical progression. Here, the poem’s excessive ‘because’s push towards its sublimated question, and what it is exactly that’s being tasted (the world? truth? a pebble of quartz?) is left in all its multiplicity, mystery (‘I taste it because nothing is as holy as intimacy because I want it to purr and stink inside me’) and mundanity (‘I taste it because Auntie Naveen’s best friend tasted it and she never looked back’). The poem manages to have its cake and taste it, performing the very act of sensual inquiry it figures as an answer to its own question, as much an abstract sensation as an everyday habit.

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In fact, ‘small hands’ might also be a useful way of thinking about the book’s individual poems, how sensory information is often the prime source of meaning, their preoccupations with tenderness and intimacy. Small Hands seems particularly interested in the boundaries between people, the complex play between love and a less empowering kind of desire, the will to give everything to someone and the need to retain one’s agency. The strange, excellent lyric ‘The Found Thing’ encapsulates this complex dynamic:

‘It infiltrated, left a trace in my mouth
and I wanted it. Emboldened, it began
to colonise all those tight spaces.’

The unnamed ‘thing’ becomes the speaker’s ‘constant mute companion’, then:

‘One morning it was just not there.
I searched and searched, panic rising up
in my throat, and I couldn’t manage
to say what it was I had lost, and how.’

The loss of being controlled is rendered as painful as being controlled in the first instance. In ‘Hummingbird’, the speaker offers up their body, part by part, the generous, loving impulse compromised by some gruesome details that hint toward the violence necessary to enact such a totalising submission of both body and personality:

‘Slide open the bone-zip of my spine,
anoint each rigid peak. Take my limbs

And fold me over. Here’s my mouth, hummingbird,
linger there, and hold my breath.’

Acknowledged in the poem is an apparent fear of the loss of bodily autonomy, alongside the clear delight in the act’s sensuousness. As with ‘The Found Thing’, there is a complicated power dynamic in play, the fear of being ‘colonised’, of the desired body’s capacity to ‘Be God’ over the desirer. These poems are alert to the beauty of the world, but keenly mistrustful of it.

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They also, I think, throw some light back on the book’s opener, ‘The Lion’, a strange, symbolic-ish story about another creature described as being ‘like God’, whose relationship to the speaker is framed in both sexual and paternalistic terms. Again, the speaker stands somewhere between physical desire and an awareness of its incapacitating or dehumanising effects:

‘Although
you can never master the deep language

Of Lion, I am made dumb by the rough
stroke of his tongue upon mine. […] Sometimes

I think all I am is a comfort blanket for his

arthritic mouth.’

In this instance, however, the Lion does not have complete or final control. He is described in terms of decrepitude – ‘I hear the crackle of his bones’, ‘How unstable and old he is now’ – and the poem ends:

‘He starts undressing me under the sweetening stars.

Please girl, he mews; this might be the last time
I will see how the thin light enters you.’

The precise positioning of the italics is vital. ‘Please girl’ is the only direct speech in the poem; the final lines are the speaker’s, and their finality, their intonation of departure and, implicitly, the freedom that comes with it, are a subtly powerful statement.

There are a number of poems in which a domestic space is itself rendered as a kind of cruel and unusual container, a space of social surveillance and moral disapproval. ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage’ and ‘Bad Day in the Office’ are absurdist riffs on the arbitrary impositions of home life, the state of constant threat that it seems to promise:

‘Things you should have a good working knowledge
of: mitochondria, Roman roads, field glasses, making
rice (using the evaporation method only)

When your mother in law calls you smart,
it’s not meant as a compliment.’ (‘What Every Girl…’)

‘That estate agent arrived for the purposes of the valuation.
He dandled the babies on his lap and placed his index finger
on my bottom lip. There’s some paperwork somewhere.’ (‘Bad Day…’)

There’s a comic atmosphere to these poems, and their sudden tonal shifts are pretty funny. But it’s also underpinned by an awareness that the humour is working in friction with a less amusing truth, a threat of having one’s selfhood undermined by family and respectable society alike. In both poems, the speaker is in a position of powerlessness, and the poem’s wry expression of these criticisms, controls and abuses seems a kind of defence mechanism, a not-waving-but-drowning that indicates suffering through its absurdity. The last line in ‘Bad Day…’ is not the speaker’s words but an advertising blurb which has been ‘eye-balling me’: ‘We promise, you’ll never look back’.

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Between the glowing specificity of the poems’ vision and its often bleak humour are several short, painful elegies for Arshi’s younger brother. The matter is approached with a kind of euphemistic obliqueness, a heightening of poetic strategies employed elsewhere in the collection; the plainly-titled ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ begins with the flinching lines ‘The smallest human bone in the ear / weighs no more than a grain of rice’, the kind of trivia one might fixate on in the face of unfaceable grief. The book’s title poem is an act of mindful quietness, ‘passing our palms over creases’, ‘Someone will place his hand on my head’, ‘She’ll be tapping the glass: / only her knuckles illuminated’; the poem is composed of a series of attempts at providing comfort, its use of future tense hinting towards their insufficiency. The poem ends on the mother’s knuckles at the window of a room ‘swollen with light’, an ambiguous figure that trails off toward an inexpressible future.

Small Hands is an assured collection, full of neat phrases and imaginative generosity. As with many first collections, there are a few pieces that seem to reiterate ideas formed elsewhere about sensuality or intimacy more than provide a new angle (I’m thinking of ‘Ode to a Pomegranate’ or ‘The Bird’), or when the poem seems occasioned by a conceit that doesn’t quite seem to satisfyingly develop (‘Wireman’ or ‘Mrs M Unravels’). But when these explorations pay off, they do so with real style, such as in ‘Barbule’, probably my favourite single poem in the collection, a series of hypothetical definitions for a word that google tells me means ‘one of the processes that fringe the barbs of a feather’:

‘An opening or an opening of an opening. […] The first blind rooting tips of a shoot. The effect of moonlight on an oblong pond and an early word for virgin wool. […] The foul breath of an exotic bird, most commonly the peacock.’

It’s a relatively simple effect, but beautifully executed, and it’s moments like these where Arshi’s capacity to translate sensory information into language that Small Hands seems at its most powerful.

Tl;dr: Small Hands is a cracking wee book (physically speaking), and there are poems in here to really savour. Well worth picking up.

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