Mona Arshi began writing poetry in 2008, after working as a human rights lawyer for Liberty, on high profile judicial review cases. She has spoken of how poetry for her is ‘the polar opposite of writing in a rule-bound legal discourse. Writing poetry involves forging space for creative accidents to emerge. Suspending intentionality means one submits to not knowing where poetry comes from, breaking free of linear causation and instead replacing that with a creative drive that allows poems to manifest themselves by surprise. That is what is so liberating for me’. Small Hands, her debut collection from Liverpool University Press, presents a world slung between open-ended imaginative possibility and the glorious, sensual, vulnerable detail of the body. The poems explore romantic relationships, family relationships, the domestic space, and Arshi’s Punjabi Sikh heritage. At the collection’s heart is a series of deeply affecting poems about the death of her brother, Deepak, to whom the book is dedicated. Small Hands won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015. Arshi grew up and lives in West London.
Arshi's journey into contemporary poetry began in 2004. She describes it in an interview with Words Unlimited:
She went on to take courses at City Lit and then received a Masters in Creative Writing in Poetry at the University of East Anglia. In 2013, she was one of 10 poets selected for The Complete Works II, a national development programme for advanced Black and Asian poets funded by Arts Council England.
Arshi recalls that initially she read more than she wrote, and her wide-ranging reading is reflected in her appetite for different forms. Small Hands abounds with ghazals, prose poems, list poems, ballads, terza rima and odes, and the Forward Judges commented on their particular admiration for 'her willingness to experiment with form' in awarding her the First Collection Prize. Arshi notes the 'imaginative obligation every poet has to consider form before they draft a poem' ( The Asian Writer), even if the poem ends up in free verse, though this 'obligation' never seems like a chore. Form always facilitates: the anaphoric list poem 'You Are Not' turns over the nature of someone close; the prose poem 'Taster' refuses to separate with line breaks any of the contradictory voices uniting in praise of sensation; the second poem titled 'Ghazal' declares the speaker's intention to hold words 'in stress positions', whilst operating within the formal tradition of the ghazal, whilst also disrupting that form to make something new; the heart-breaking 'Ballad of the Small-boned Daughter', about the so-called 'honour killing' of Shafilea Ahmed by her parents, uses a form traditionally associated with tragic, violent stories and vernacular speech:
– Interview on The Poetry School's CAMPUS.
Arshi ranges wide in her use of language, too. She delights in high diction ('Lion and I break bread', 'Exquisite wife to the shade', 'I want to commune with rain and for the rain/ to be merciful', 'rubies, brilliant rubies,/ vials of pure narcotic, secreted/ by fragments of daybreak') and simpler or colloquial diction ('The salsify is eye-balling me', 'They are very simple, wide bands', 'I gave birth to a large and imprecise baby/ which I'll admit was quite a shock'). Such range in form and language creates a sense of texture which complements and enhances Arshi's distinctive emphasis on the senses.
Many poets present sensual engagement as crucial to understanding the world, but in Arshi's poems we zoom in to the level of pores, to flakes of skin. In 'Insomniac', 'you' (reader? displaced speaker?) are directed to 'cure your skin with almond oil until it's bloated/ and the pores are brimming'. In 'Notes Towards an Elegy', 'All pores and openings have acquiesced'. The Hindu goddess Parvati implores her son to "hold melody/ in your pores" and hymns how her kisses will "leave a gold clot on your lip'. In 'Ballad of the Small-boned Daughter', the murdered child haunts her mother with 'flakes of skin / and hair filling up her bed'. The speaker in 'Lost Poem' tells how 'I'm taking in language/ through my skin' and this emphasis on the physical is sometimes a source of unease, and sometimes celebration. 'I taste it because of the lack, I taste it because of the surplus', declares the speaker (or one of many speakers) in 'Taster', where the 'it' is undefined and endlessly shifting. 'Press your curing skin to mine,/ dissolve and pronounce me', invites the voice in 'Hummingbird'. The body is evoked in minute physical detail for its own sake, but also because sensation enables image-making and meaning-making. In 'Insomniac',
in mild wind and when you speak
minute silver-fish will consort in the pit of your throat.
Arshi seems particularly interested in women's bodies and women's experiences. In 'The Lion', the first poem of the collection, woman and lion – an aging patriarchal figure – tussle for linguistic, erotic and domestic power. In 'The Gold Bangles', Arshi describes the bangles which have been handed down through the women in her family, and how she likes to think of the time before her mother was given them, when she was still in India, her wrists 'still unadorned and naked'. 'My Mother's Hair' follows immediately afterwards, a deft, tender portrait of her mother's experience as a Punjabi Sikh woman in England:
gives her away.
Her plait snakes
across her back
[ . . . ]
Can we touch it?
they ask in the icy playground.
In 'Ticking', a painfully empathetic poem in memory of Diane Pretty, Pretty is 'peachy-toed and Rimmel red-/ mouthed', but if you listen 'you can hear that her body/ is ticking, then cracking and oozing'. In several poems, Arshi examines the expectations placed upon women – by society, by history, by men, by other women – from many different angles. 'Bad Day in the Office' is a funny and wry dramatic monologue with a bleaker current running through it:
I can't smell my fingers as they've been wrapped
in those marigolds for weeks.
The mother-in-law has been. She didn't stay,
just placed a tulsi plant on the doorstep . . .
In the surreal prose poem 'Mr Beeharry's Marriage Bureau', the speaker hands herself over to the man whom she must call Doctor, in order to reach 'the other side'. Her 'parents, close family and friends' smile encouragingly as she offers him her arm – at which point the poem breaks off and we are left to imagine the mysterious process by which this single woman is to be healed. 'What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage' is by turns biting, wry, desperate and very funny:
it's not meant as a compliment.
The lighter her eyes, the further she'll travel.
Always have saffron in your kitchen cupboard
(but on no account ever use it).
Taunt the sky during the day; the stars
will be your hazard at night.
Here and in many other poems, the home or domestic space is not cosy or warmly familiar. It can be destabilising, melancholy, frustrating and even tragic.
At the physical and emotional centre of the book are a series of moving elegies to Arshi's brother Deepak, who died suddenly in 2012. Here are the 'small hands' of the title – they are her brother's, they are her own hands, they are the hands of all those left behind. In these deeply affecting poems, hands knock, comfort, hold, perform domestic routines, trace, smooth (a sheet over the floor for when mourning guests visit, her newborn brother's ear), weigh and feed. They are individually particular, they are inscribed with dates, they are useless.
[ . . . ]
She'll be tapping the glass:
only her knuckles illuminated.
– from 'Small Hands'
. . . my father weighs
his son's glasses in his hands
– from 'April'
Talking about this sequence of poems, Arshi describes how 'it's the avoidance that leads to the emotional truth and those everyday objects somehow become freighted with meaning' ( 'The Asian Writer'). As with the hands which represent so much, she looks to particular physical objects to explore her sense of loss: the white sheets which make the room "swollen with light" ('Small Hands'), her brother's rucksack, his glasses. Like hands, the image of the glasses recurs, and taken together they suggest how completely the bereavement has affected the family's sense of action and perception. In '18th of November':
home, filled with spectral figures
only the furniture was vivid, and you.
Arshi says in an interview, of these poems for her brother, that they sit at 'the quiet core of the book . . . and the other poems radiate outwards from this sequence of poems' ( 'The Asian Writer'). Looking back and forwards, we find many more instances of hands, fingers and wrists, and these instances become permeated with the grief of the central sequence. A woman's missing hand causes the narrator's companion so much distress in the poem 'Gloves' that we cannot help relate this story to the 'small hands' of the elegiac sequence. In the second poem titled 'Ghazal', God has fingers which can break. In 'Mrs M Unravels', we understand very readily how hands can shift from being a sign of stability and intimacy to instability and distance:
once, the pressure of his hands'. She's looking
at her old pair of hands, a bit of her shadow dribbles
out of her.
Small Hands. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2015
Ten: The New Wave. Ed. Karen McCarthy Woolf. Bloodaxe, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014
Arshi's own website
Small Hands on the website of Liverpool University Press
Profile at the Forward Arts Foundation
Arshi explains her writing process at Magma Poetry
Forward Prize 2015 interview with Arshi
Arshi on 'The Ballad of the Small-Boned Daughter' at CAMPUS (The Poetry School)
Video of 'The Minister of Light' for National Poetry Day 2015
Profile at The Times of India