Eleonora Chiavetta
Mimi Khalvati has a dual cultural heritage as she lives in Britain, but she was born in Teheran in 1944, a country she left when she was a six-year-old child to come to England to be educated. She then went back to Iran when she was 17, returning to England at 25. Her native language is Farsi, but she admits to having forgotten her mother tongue during her childhood and adolescent years spent in Britain. She decided to learn Farsi again when she was working in Iran with Iranian actors and only recently has she begun to read Persian. Her poems are written in English, even if Farsi words appear now and then in her lines, as a memento of her cultural background. Her latest publication is Selected Poems (2000)2, where we find poems from her previous collections, In White Ink (1991), Mirrorwork (1995) and Entries on Light (1997).
Mimi Khalvati's first collection of poems In White Ink takes its title from a sentence in The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous, "A woman is never far from 'mother' (...).There is always within her at least a little of that good mother's milk. She writes in white ink." (Khalvati : 1991). Both the quotation and the title of the collection hint at the central position of the relationship between the poet and the figure of her mother. It is a relationship that the poet has no wish to sever; on the contrary, she wants to maintain it, considering it fundamental to her poetic vision. The link between mother and daughter is not simply a biological one or the expression of a sentimental, affective dependence. The mother figure plays, in fact, an important part as a character in the poems themselves and her role is always to preserve the connection between her daughter, who has been living in England since her childhood, and her roots, the habits, the customs and the language used in Iran. She becomes a reservoir of memories from which her daughter can draw. The image of a nursing mother is central in the poem "The Woman in the Wall", where a woman is walled up and dying, reduced to dust, almost a ghost, but still manages to feed her child - a girl - who suckles the milk flowing from the wall until she is weaned and ready to grow up. As this story is set centuries ago, the image of the imprisoned mother becomes mythical and a metaphor for the ceaseless, nurturing bond between past and present.
The role of the mother is to create a chain of memories which are handed down not only to her daughter, but to her daughter's children. The chain involves three generations and regards a past in Iran - still alive in the memory of the woman - a present in England - mainly represented by the poet - and a future, which has vague connotations about the place where it will be lived. The connecting link between past and future is therefore the poet, who lives in between two realms, one which is physically present - her house, her garden, her streets, London - and one which is mainly imagined, not only through the stories and lives of other women, but also through the poet's personal memories, which derive from the time she spent in Iran as a young woman, and through objects, which may inspire the poet's visions.
Khalvati's memories as they arise in her verses are often linked to places, both British and Iranian, which are sometimes described, but more often evoked through the sensations they provoked and left behind. Perceptions usually derive from lights, smells, and sounds. Khalvati's poems have a special lyrical quality when light and colours are involved. She is attentive to nuances, shades, the play of light and darkness, the range from brightness - usually associated with her birthplace - to dimness - often associated with Britain. It has been noted that "light and being alive" in Khalvati's poems are nearly synonymous (Costantine: 2000, 22) and we can certainly say that light in her poems has a vivifying effect while exalting objects and landscapes, and motivating feelings, suggestions and memories. Her poems proceed, then, "by means of the accumulation of a series of articulated perceptions, to explore what one might call 'feeling-fields'" (Killick:1995, 12).
In light and shadow, places, then, play an important part in creating the necessary conditions for the memory to work. They are both the subject of memories and the tool of memory. The poet is often portrayed inside a place - a house, a taxi - while her mind's eye leads her outside, to an open country landscape. Indoor places are generally the ones where recollection is possible, while the outdoor places become the subject of her meditations. The limit between indoors and outdoors is often a window, out of which the poet can observe the immediately visible surroundings that in due time, through sensory associations, will bring her to the distant places of her imagination, which always coincide with the land of her ancestors. The window is then a metaphor for the threshold between inside and outside, reality and dreams, present and past, English and Persian culture. A threshold the poet is always willing to trespass. In this way "the suburban, the domestic become a border zone between this life and some other possible world" (Greening : 2000, 24). The ease she shows in moving from one space to another, and from one time zone to another, and the flexibility she shows in her free roaming through spaces, indicate a spiritual journey from which the poet returns with a deeper knowledge of herself, her place in society and her role as an artist.
The Persian past is often depicted as countryside and memory indulges in the images of a warm sun, of plants, fruits - "ladies' fingers, cucumbers curled in the sun" (Khalvati :1991, 16). When portraying herself as a child, in the memory of her childhood, when "pathways of desire" rose "like lost balloons ever / higher, higher" and "on an ottoman of cloud/ were no Gods, Kings, Olympians, but old men" (Khalvati : 1995, 17), she places herself among the surrounding trees and she finds her own space within nature. The wide countryside seems to express feelings of freedom, of a land without barriers, of courage and patience, of old knowledge and of skills the world of today may judge irrelevant. The work of memory consists in translating one reality into another, in connecting the world of the past with the world she lives in, as in the poem "Rubaiyat", where the contrast between past and present is in the memory of the grandmother - whose tools the poet has inherited. The grandmother's skill in chipping sugar blocks is useless today, when sugar can easily be found in every supermarket beside the till in neat sugar boxes. The tools and the recollection of the gestures, of the rituals of the woman of the past, her patience in the work she carried out, her gentleness, seem out of place in a world that does not care "to tend what fades so soon" (Khalvati: 1991, 51). The loss of domestic rituals may coincide with a loss of values which the poet tries to regain. It is not surprising then, that memories bring out the mother tongue, as the presence of words in Farsi reinforces the need to connect one's present to one's past.
The house is represented as the place of family ties. This is true for the house in England, where three generations live together and are joined and for the house portrayed in the series of verses "Interiors", dedicated to childhood memories connected with the figures of her mother and grandmother. With an explicit reference to a visual artist, Eduard Vuillard, and to the art of painting, "Interiors" describes the rooms where Khalvati's mother and grandmother worked as dressmakers and is explicitly meant as a tribute to the 'art' of these women. Their work is part of the inheritance the poet has received from her family and it has a religious quality as we notice in lines such as
(...) And now,
when prayers we never knew were prayers
in the guise of silver bobbins,
machines we never mastered,
are once again in currency
in the hands of daughters making light
of the partnering, unpartnering of threads;
(Khalvati: 1995, 37).
or in lines such as "What sacrament can we find but these/ poor leavings of a memory/ of a home, a time, a place?" (Khalvati : 1995, 37). The four "Interiors" are designed as paintings, and carry us through the various rooms of a house which is felt as a home - the parlour, the workroom, the studio, the bedroom. Together with these poems, we also find preparatory, untitled sketches, as happens to painters when they prepare their canvases. Each room cannot be constrained to a single poem; as there are too many memories connected with each of them, they overflow, filling other verses. The verses, though, convey an equal feeling of safety, solidity and saintliness in the virtues they exalt - the virtues of work, family union, company, as opposed to loneliness, disgregation. It is a small intimate world which protects the poet and at the same time makes her future possible.
It seems, however, that the poet's appreciation of the 'rooms' of her past, with what they contain, is an outcome of adulthood. A poem such as "Writing Home", for example, stresses the distance between the little child in the new world of the girls' school in England, where she studies, and the far-away home which at this stage is only "an empty place/ I sent words to" (Khalvati: 2000, 30). The child's need is to identify herself with the host reality, and its culture (represented by brownies, hockey matches, films, picnics) more than to cling to the dream reality of the world she has left behind. To admit a sort of betrayal towards her past life is only possible today, when the poet has finally found a balance between her two heritages.
The poet's long search for a place to call her own is hinted at in lines such as
(...) like the bric-à-brac of homes
that took me in but were not mine
though I knew as well as they where biscuits,
string or dog-lead lived and could be
seen by strangers walking past at a
dresser, drawer, brutally at home in
the world as any back view in a window
or frontal view of cherry, dogged as a
greeting card with yet another Eden,
yet another plot of fruit, cat, bird
(Khalvati: 2000, 30).
which indicate the poet's process of becoming acquainted with the host country, of finding her own space within it and her efforts to mediate her life between the two cultures. The house is seen as a home, the reassuring space of family bonds, the place one belongs to and it appears in many poems with such a cosy connotation. It is the safest place to start one's spiritual and imaginative journey. From the house the poet may go out towards the surrounding world - London - or may become engaged in a more distant journey, an imaginary one, towards Iran, or old Persia. Sometimes there is little need for her to move physically as the landscape, the country with its geographical and natural features, its customs, its story, is so vividly recalled that it enters her home in London and occupies a space within the English house. In such a way, still within the reassuring reality of her own sphere and still a citizen of our time, the poet can create visions of a place far off in time and space, which become protagonists of her imagination and verses.
This process is quite evident in the long poem "The Bowl". Khalvati's memory is often triggered by everyday objects, such as the blue bowl in the eponymous poem. She stresses the ancient quality and value of the blue bowl "where clay has long since crusted, /under the dust and loam" and where "leaf forms lie/ fossilized" (Khalvati: 2000, 17) and describes the appearance of the object, which becomes alive as if a "womb of air revolves" inside it (Khalvati: 2000, 17). The poet is mesmerized by the bowl which brings to the house its own value as a witness of a lost age, of the Persian heritage. The initial description of the bowl stresses the poet's curiosity about it and its story. The poet's imagination leads her to ask questions about its origin and to form hypotheses about the history it represents. The image of the camels in the desert in the final lines of Part I leads to Part II where the poet's imagination is finally kindled and starts visualizing people and events of the past. Memories spring out of the bowl, memories of a past the poet has never known - tribal women, Ali's horse. As the bowl has broken the boundaries of place and time, we notice how the poet is transformed by her encounter with the domestic object. This becomes the threshold between her life in London, today, and the life of her ancestors in another country. Imagination is like a trap and she allows herself to be pulled towards the land of her past, mixing her own recollections of the countryside with descriptions she may have taken from other sources, perhaps literary, perhaps oral. Her relationship with the world she is evoking is physical as the figurative language she uses seems to stress:
My bowl has cauled my memories. My bowl
has buried me. Hoofprints where Ali's horse
baulked at the glint of cutlasses have thummed
against my eyelids. Caves where tribal women
stooped to place tin sconces, their tapers lit,
have scaffolded my skin.(...) (Khalvati: 2000, 17).
Natural elements are named, trees and plants delineate and fill the space of the lost country - harebell, hawthorn, jasmine, catkin, chenar (that is, plane tree), dwarf-oak, hazel, pine, quince, pomegranates, hollyhocks, campanulas, wheatfields, to underline the richness and fruitfulness of her place of origin. Sounds join the image: the scene stops being voiceless and becomes resonant with the echoes of the past. We hear the hawkers' cries, the bleating of goats, the sound of a cascade.
The language is strongly metaphorical, to underline the poet's total immersion in the places whose memory the bowl has evoked - she becomes the geographic place, as ageless as the bowl itself and the landscape she is describing. The bowl is what evokes the past and the space of the past, but there is a transfer from the bowl, a simple representation of place and history, to the poet herself, whose body becomes the place memory recalls: "My backbone is an alley, / a one-way runnelled alley, cobblestoned / with hawkers' cries, a saddlebag of ribs" (Khalvati: 2000, 18). Her imagination evokes a country inhabited by her ancestors, more than by the people of today: the quilt man, velvet-weavers, hamman-keepers represent trades which date back centuries and underline a pride in the traditions of her cultural roots. The past she evokes is also shown with the marks of desolation and ruin: "the white rooms of the house we glimpsed through pine, / quince and pomegranate are derelict" (Khalvati: 2000, 18) and the aim of her recollections seems to be that of giving life to what would be considered already dead. Therefore, the reference to her ancestors connects her with her forefathers, showing that the past history and the geography of her country is a tie she does not want to renounce or dismiss. She recognizes her own position within the history of her ancestors and accepts it, even if she is a descendant who no longer lives on those plains or on those mountains. The impact with the past and the memory of her forebears lead her to an identification with them and an awareness of the role she plays in the chain of history:
I too will leave my bowl and leave these wheatfields
speckled with hollyhocks, campanulas,
the threshing-floors on roofs of sundried clay
(Khalvati: 2000, 19).
No longer squatted in front of the bowl which gave origin to her fantasies, the poet starts her own journey to the land of her ancestors completely alone, except for the company of the memory of her nearest female relatives embodied by her grandmother. The landscape is filled with strong colours, red, gold, grey, rose, peacock-blue, peacock-green : England is completely forgotten and the beauty of the rediscovered country illuminates the verses and the poet's life. It is also significant that at this point Farsi joins the use of English and the names of places such as Mt White Breast are given in the mother tongue, together with other expressions the author sometimes translates, sometimes leaves untranslated.
Evoking the past, recreating it and describing it in verses has the double aim of keeping the past alive, and at the same time of giving meaning to the present. Memories are not a form of escapism; rather, they help the poet to face and understand her own life. The only way to preserve balance is to find connections between one's roots and the land where one has been transplanted. Like a plant, the poet needs time, silence and light. Playing with memory needs solitude, being detached from the surrounding world, concentrating only on the object or sight which starts the process of transformation.
Any object, any sight may kindle her memory, because of a nostalgic wish to find what seemed lost, but is not, as long as it is stored in the mind's eye and in verses. Khalvati's poems celebrate not only the importance of memory, but the need and wish for memories, as the only elements that can oppose destruction, oblivion, death. Her role is, therefore, to be open to all the sights, smells and sounds surrounding her, which might convey a sense of other sights, other smells, other sounds. The images she is so ready to capture of her present life in England have a value as the counterpart of other images of a lost life in Iran - one is the shadow of the other, but it only depends on the perspective, as the shadow may become the real thing. In the end, as in the poem "Vine-leaves", the combination of the two parts - the real one and its shadow, the object and what it evokes - creates a different object, a different reality altogether, richer and more beautiful for its being born out of two components, even if they do not fit perfectly. The double identity, the two sides of the poet might also be seen in the image of the vine-leaves, the real leaf/ self, (the English one?) and its shadow (the Iranian one?) seem like two leaves, and each may look like the real one, depending on the play of light on it. What matters is that the added layer, the extra layer coming from another culture adds meaning and depth to a human being, a woman, an artist.
When an English landscape is portrayed it is recorded as rainy, grey, silent, but "The harder grey falls/ the brighter grows the dream of/ light(...)" (Khalvati: 1995, 24). Poems which take place in London have mostly an urban background, but even here, in an urban setting, places are connected with natural elements. Plants and trees belonging to the local landscape are named, like the willow-tree of England or the cherry-tree of Highgate. The latter is in contrast with the mirror-tree artificially created in the mural that celebrates the Silver Jubilee of 1977, and is an evident reference to British culture and more precisely to the Monarchy. The mirror-tree has the same action as the bowl, as it leads the poet to personal meditations involving herself, her family, her present life in England, her childhood dreams. Mirrorwork belongs to an old artistic tradition in Persia as mirrors are used there to adorn houses and shops. The sight of English mirrorwork fills the poet with surprise, but at the same time leads her to wonder about the possibility of transplanting something typically Iranian into an alien, British environment. What this poem shows, which was not present in the previous poem is, above all, the possibility the poet acknowledges of approaching British culture, through and with the help of her own culture: "The area is still new to me but, as the mirror-/ tree seemed to suggest, somewhere to/ come home on my own terms"(Khalvati: 2000, 29). The scene of the poem is the street where the poet is walking, but continuous references to the cherry-tree as seen from the house, shift our attention from an outdoor setting to an indoor scenario, which parallels the shifting between the poet's private, intimate thoughts and people's lives as they spin around her. Moreover, the parts of the poem written in italics are cues the poet addresses to an invisible interlocutor, once again underlining the contrast between her inner feelings and her public voice. Nothing as ancient as the desert land evoked in "The Bowl" is presented here; on the contrary, details of an everyday, metropolitan life are given, such as the newsagent's she passes by or the drycleaner waving his hand.
In this poem Khalvati also tells us about the creative process of her poetry: "The real become imaginal and vice versa" (Khalvati: 2000, 29), she says, stressing the role played by the transfiguration of objects, which is connected to the play of memory. The metaphor of the mirrorwork explains the poet's vision of herself and people, as it symbolises the fragmented self of all human beings: "each fragment whole, each unit split" (Khalvati : 2000, 33). We are mosaics, puzzles, created out of many fragments, each complete in itself, but still a part of a whole. This long poem affirms the fragmentation of the human condition : it is lamented, but accepted as inevitable. In this condition, past and present mingle so much that each fragment of the present is aligned next to fragments of a past we cannot and should not renounce. As the mosaic is created out of "crock from Turkey, blue on white,/ shop-surround in Ankara, Stoke Newington" (Khalvati: 2000, 34), the presence of various cultural elements enriches the mosaic of our lives. Cultural differences are still noted and acknowledged, as is stressed in the lines
The English are good at this. Iranians
Coming up mirrorwork in Hackney, my father,
for example, might shake his head (denoting
in Iran admiration), note differences between
theirs and ours - mirrorsmiths, community -
and feel, without expressing it, a severance,
a loss of context (Khalvati: 2000, 35).
However, the only solution is to feed the desire to see things as they are and "to accomodate differences" (Khalvati: 2000, 35). Expressing the wish to meet, to find a point of communication, of exchange, transforms the indifference towards what the locals do with mirrorwork, an ancient Persian tradition, in an "incipient sense of the customary"(Khalvati : 2000, 35). The dismay which makes us asymmetrical has to be cured, the initial bitterness towards England which the poet acknowledges, melts away.
Fellow countrymen or countrywomen are often associated with movement and means of transportation if they do not belong to the family (the father figure is portrayed too, strongly and vividly). Like the taxi driver in the poem "Rice" they underline the continuous flow, not only between two countries, but two cultures, two ways of living. Other countries are named as well - the U.S.A., for example - and other languages (the German spoken by Baba Mostafa, for example). These poems deal with people who have travelled, who are aliens in a foreign country, but who have brought their own Iranian world with them wherever they have gone. In the poem "Earls Court" we are in the tube, a place where displacement becomes more tangible. The scene depicted is very far from the natural landscapes that usually fill Khalvati's poems and is also far from the cosy atmosphere of her home. The underground - which appears in other poems as well - immediately recalls the image of a continuous movement, of shifting from one place to another, underlining oscillation, rootlessness, migration. The faces of the commuters are anonymous, foreign, ignored and ignoring. However, the face of a 'brother' emerges from the unknown crowd, a man whose marks the poet recognizes as familiar - the Islamic stubble, his speaking Farsi, the rings on his fingers. Habits and language are what the poet recognizes in him and what create a bond, even if the two do not speak to each other. The identification with such a character is easily made, so strong is the need for dialogue, for an exchange between two people who share the condition of being exiles. The man becomes the mirror in which the poet can see her own face. Once again, the poet's imagination enriches the life of the man with her own projections and with a language she herself does not use in her poems:
Like a drunk I want to neighbour him, sit beside
his stubble's scratch, turn his talking into chatting.
I want to tell him I have a ring like his,
only smaller, I want to see him use his key.
I want to hear the child who runs to call
Baba! I want to hear him answer, turning
from his hanging coat: Beeya, Babjune, Beeya!
Ah! Vieni, vieni!... (Khalvati: 2000, 21-22).
The nostalgic curiosity we may find in the poem "Earls Court" is not in contrast, however, with other poems where Khalvati shows that her roots are deeply planted in a mixed soil. Nothing is one-sided. An exchange of glances, of dreams and inventions passes between past and present in "Needlework" where the woman of today looks at the woman from the past, or is it the other way round, the woman of the past is looking at the woman from a distant future:
On an upper landing where my work
is hung, in another century,
some strange and foreign woman
may try to picture me
and fail. Or is it that I fail
to picture her? I cannot think
what she would want with me.
With hollyhocks and bonnets (Khalvati: 1995, 67).
This exchange of glances takes its origin from an object belonging to the sphere of women, to needlework, embroidery. It does not really matter who starts the game, who starts looking, seeing, considering: flexibility is necessary to fight divisions. The poet's goal is not to divide, but to combine - two countries, two heritages, two parts of herself. In the final poem in Mirrorwork, the poet is revising her Persian and translates a few words of her native language into English, combining their meanings, placing words from the Gur'an and the Bible one next to the other - provided they are 'good words'. Her wish is now to "learn how to set the future / newly bathed upon my lap, / bring sky down to wrap us in, / feel myself as human as I am" (Khalvati: 1995, 92). Human, using both Farsi and English.
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