The Sunday Poem: 3. Moniza Alvi

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The Independent Culture
Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work

Raised here, born in Pakistan, Alvi is a bold surrealist, whose poems open the world up in new, imaginatively absurd ways. (One poem begins "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Mir"). British Asian experience has been explored in prose and film but not much in poetry, so far. Alvi's two collections mine both cultures, but emphasise alienation from her Asian background. The Indian sub-continent is behind her, not inside her.

Map of India

If I stare at the country long enough

I can prise it off the paper,

lift it like a flap of skin.

Sometimes it's an advent calendar -

each city has a window

which I leave open

a little wider each time.

India is manageable - smaller than

my hand, the Mahanadi River

thinner than my lifeline.

This turns on a childish impasse: that you are part of some vast, important entity you can only relate to by diminishing. You learn the world through your own small body: skin and hand. India on the map is paper, wounded skin, an Advent (= "Coming") calendar: which implies life in Britain, not India. But its story involves "coming" daily closer to revelation, to some vital birth. The last line of the inner, longest stanza describes a physical, ritual practising for that discovery, "Manageable" (from Latin manus, "hand"), leading to an India "smaller" than the poet's "hand", is touchingly absurd: an adult sympathising with childish discovery. As in a doll's house, or British children's fantasy fiction (Alice in Wonderland, The Borrowers), the poet has got in through some fragile window, lifted some "flap of skin", to witness a miniature India, frailer than the inner fold of her own life.

c Ruth Padel

'Map of India' appears in From The Country At My Shoulder (OUP)