To Prime a Palimpsest

Mary Jean Chan on three collections that centre female responses to history and trauma

Mimi Khalvati
Afterwardness
Carcanet £9.99
Jacqueline Saphra
Dad, Remember You Are Dead
Nine Arches £9.99
Kate Noakes
The Filthy Quiet
Parthian £8.99

Afterwardness is Mimi Khalvati’s ninth poetry collection, containing a series of fifty-six Petrarchan sonnets which deftly explore intertwined preoccupations ranging from memory, culture and identity to language and loss. As an innovative formalist, Khalvati is deeply attuned to the intricacies of verse forms such as the ghazal; here, the more ‘mercurial’ Italian sonnet becomes her chosen vehicle through which the twinned losses of a ‘mother tongue’ and ‘a clear [origin] story’ are poignantly explored (according to the PBS Winter Bulletin). In the following poem, the speaker laments the loss of certain words in Persian (and the memories which such a vocabulary encodes), but goes further to question the viability of translation in healing the ruptures caused by migration and displacement:

I’ll give you parandeh, you give me bird.
But what if, whistling in some foreign treetop,

parandeh has long since flown out of mind 
back to its own kind, never to return? 
Then there are only local trees to fill

with bird, bird, bird; rows of them left behind
to chirp, chirp, chirp; sparrow, kittiwake, crossbill,
shrike and even bulbul to learn, learn, learn.

(‘Translation’)

The repetition of ‘bird’, ‘chirp’ and ‘learn’ in the final stanza quietly but firmly insists that what does translate across time and space is the musicality of words, no matter which language they derive from. In another poem, Khalvati celebrates the written word, which she positions as the sibling of ‘spoken speech’, observing that ‘there are wordings the ear alone can’t reach […] / but knowing how to write them helps you hear’ (‘Handwriting’). Here, her emphasis on the materiality of language as ‘a stylised sea / or seated monks obediently bowing’ evokes how words might act as physical (and emotional) anchors as the speaker navigates ‘a book with no plot, / story, timeline, no protagonists even’ (‘Life Writing’). In a milieu where women’s writing (and that of trans, genderqueer and/or BAME authors) is still often read as artlessly autobiographical, this poem, alongside others in Khalvati’s collection, reminds us of the need to read work by these poets with a nuance often solely afforded to (white) (cis-) male writers. Furthermore, to read Afterwardness as wholly autobiographical would be to ignore the fact that many of Khalvati’s more personal poems often double as her ars poetica. In ‘Scripto Inferior’, the speaker elucidates:

To know your story is to understand
not only who you are and where you come from

[...]

but is also to understand the nature
of story, how to prime a palimpsest
for all successive stories, how to ensure 
reference points gain valence from the first.

Other poems in this collection are more whimsical, floating between quotidian observations and multilayered musings on the social and familial. In ‘September’, the speaker declares: ‘I don’t know what to feel, other than yearning / to stay forever neutral, on the cusp / of daydream, of a summer not quite turning’; elsewhere, exchanges with other women evoke tears at the thought of ‘the loneliness / of women’s lives’ (‘Smiles’). These poems create a ‘still point’ – in the words of T S Eliot – for the reader to briefly inhabit, then lightly step out of into another scene, another moment in time. The most moving poem in the book is fondly titled ‘The Brag’, which draws a tender portrait of the speaker’s chosen family:

Some call me lady, auntie, mammie – ask me 
how I’m doing, endorse me with endearments, 
watch my footing for me, rescue my bag.

Caregivers all! Small wonder if I brag
a little, graced with such acknowledgements 
and such a large extended family.

In contrast, familial trauma suffuses Jacqueline Saphra’s second collection, Dad, Remember You Are Dead, a potent counterpart to her T S Eliot Prize-shortlisted debut, All My Mad Mothers. Here, the overriding emotion is one of regret, revulsion and defiance towards a patriarchal, leering figure whose misogyny can easily be traced verbatim to a repugnant encounter or moment (‘My Father’s Stories’). Though apparently personal, many of Saphra’s poems extend their critique to denounce ‘the Father’, which one might take to mean the traditional, monotheistic God, as well as prominent (white) male poets and artists of the Western canon: ‘Milton reminds me of my fall from grace, / Wyatt tries to bridle me and Spenser sits / too close’ (‘The Canon’).

Despite a clear desire to be rid of these alpha-male literary ancestors, the speakers in Saphra’s work repeatedly find their attempts at liberation thwarted, at times due to their uneasy complicity in their own entrapment: ‘Now the sea is as clear / as an eye. Must I fall for the Father again?’ (‘Diving’); elsewhere, she writes: ‘I long to roam free like the clambering goats / but I’m tethered to Father’ (‘Climbing’). There is a haunting quality to the patriarch who will not die (recalling Saphra’s aptly chosen book title) and will not relent in his despicable ways: ‘The Father is risen again. See him reach / for my dominant hand as I babble and stare / with a rose in my teeth and a thorn in my tongue’ (‘The Hospital’).

These poems are most successful when they convey the menace of unchecked male privilege not by directly naming it, but through coming at the subject in a more circuitous manner which evokes Emily Dickinson’s dictum: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’. The opening poem is a perfect example of this, as Saphra tells ‘all the truth’ through a series of fragmented redactions:

      no elegies for my 
who is no longer
      still the fear and the

[...]

      I was always so
               and daughterly
      where is my shy 
and my soft
      what will people 

[...]

               trust it 
      the body
and inside
      a wave breaking on
               another wave breaking –

(‘Recusatio Redacted’)

In contrast, there are moments in the book that feel slightly overwrought, such as in ‘The Power’, where the use of full rhyme in a very short poem comes across as rather heavy-handed (‘dad dictates’, ‘daughter waits’ and ‘I am great’). In ‘The Hinges are Broken’, the poem’s last lines (‘Stop looking stop groping / there aren’t any poems in Hades / if that’s what you’re hoping’) can also seem less tonally and musically accomplished when compared to the subtlety and lyrical complexity evident in the collection’s most luminous work, where anger and tenderness meet. Such poems offer something productive: a form of feminist resistance evoking these lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Integrity’:

Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius 
to spin and weave in the same action 
from her own body, anywhere –
even from a broken web.

From the brokenness of a childhood steeped in toxic masculinity, Saphra weaves an urgent and timely web as she adds to the growing chorus of female poets worldwide who are writing directly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, most pertinently Fiona Benson and her depictions of Zeus as a serial rapist in Vertigo & Ghost. In the final poem of Dad, Remember You Are Dead, Saphra similarly takes on the Greek myths in which sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape run rampant, as she confronts the aggressors of Western culture while ripping off their various guises: ‘Fuck that. Fuck Atreus, fuck Agamemnon, / fuck Zeus, motherfucker masquerading as a swan’ (‘Leda and the Swan’).

Kate Noakes’s The Filthy Quiet similarly explores themes of violence and familial trauma, though in this instance it depicts – across multiple poems – suffering endured at the hands of a former abusive partner. An early sequence of prose poems titled ‘Three Things About Mick’ lays bare the interlinked signs of toxic masculinity, ranging from aggression to emotional detachment fuelled by alcoholism: ‘Mick often woke filled with an anger for which he had no explanation […] Mick had taken to attacking the furniture […] There was a lot of effort involved in simply being, especially as he lived mainly on whiskey’. This and other prose poems in the collection covey the mundane ubiquity of domestic violence, and how a man’s daily ‘routine’ of rage will necessarily leave physical and emotional trauma in its wake:

1. I’m shallow-breathed, flat under the table and

2. aching everywhere, as a blood tear meanders into my hair and 

3. sink-holes in my ear, stopping the echo and

4. I fix on the rough planks, biroed and

5. crayoned by one of the girls, I know not which, and [...]

(‘Crime of passion domestic violence counting’)

These fragmented memories of trauma are in turn juxtaposed with moments of reprieve depicted through crystalline language which draws on the bounty of the natural world:

[...] wish for wood smoke 
and thyme to scent
my shirt in a shiver
as I cradle a mug of tea 
and look for coming night 
its charged promises
its dance of light

(‘The sun makes me’)

Elsewhere, the poems are lush and multi-layered, as in the dramatic monologues by female characters from the New Testament, as well as Roman and Greek myths. These speakers express a clear desire for revenge towards their aggressors, for example in ‘Salomé in the mirror’, which opens with the ominous lines, ‘I find myself calling for your head / on a brass platter from Bernese’. However, such bold acts of resistance often entail a lingering sense of dread at being harmed yet again by one’s persecutor(s). In ‘Penelope: identity theft’, the speaker who famously unwound the shroud she made each night to ward off her suitors in Homer’s Odyssey confesses:

In the darkest night
I cut the warp and pull 
unthread, unthread. 
My new skin
pricks with dread.

It is all the more moving, then, that the collection moves from psychological and physical hurt towards healing and even desire. In the book’s later poems, a sensual and empowered speaker emerges:

Come with me 
somewhere warm 
let’s burst their seeds 
in our greedy mouths 
gorge till our breasts 
and bellies ache [...]

(‘Everything: right place, time’)

In the final poem, the speaker dwells on ‘a happiness of small things’, and claims ‘a partial health’ mirrored by the bustle of life around her, such as that of ‘a dawn blackbird in the city’ (‘I am oddly content’).

In myriad ways, these three collections offer the reader insight into a range of female experiences which bear testament to the complexities of relationships, be they with one’s own origin story, or with one’s life story (which might be marked by trauma). Ultimately, what unites these works is an emphasis on language as a powerful means of reclaiming and rewriting one’s past, with a commendable focus on the vitality and possibilities of the present moment.

Mary Jean Chan is the author of Flèche, published by Faber (2019). Her collection won the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry. Chan currently lectures at Oxford Brookes University.