It is tempting to say that Momtaza Mehri’s poems mix personal experiences with world events, but of course the point is that world events are personal experiences – they happen to people. Mehri is a poet, essayist and editor, and the current Young People’s Laureate for London. Her work is broad and complex, informed by a rich range of cultures, literatures and interests. She is a fellow of The Complete Works programme and part of Octavia “a poetry collective for womxn of colour founded in response to the lack of inclusivity and representation in literature and academia”. Mehri was one of three winners of the 6th Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2018.
Mehri now lives in London but spent some years growing up in Saudi Arabia where poetry is on TV and competitions offer millions of dollars in prizes:
It's very mainstream there. And very topical as well. But here people have an aversion to identity poets or political poetry, but over there it was a must – you're supposed to say something of substance. So I have never known a world where poetry would just be a niche thing that was relegated to the margins, I've always known it to be at people's lives.
Mehri is British-Somali, but she and her poetry might better be described as transnational, devoted as they are to crossing and destroying borders of all kinds. She grew up with four different languages and came to poetry through a variety of traditions. Her poetry engages with diaspora but it is as celebratory as it is sad and also takes cues from a startling range of other sources. She trained in biomedicine and is interested in cyberspace. But while Mehri's poems contain a great deal, but they also work through elision. Take 'Portrait Of An Intimate Terrorist In His Natural Habitat' which was highly commended in the 2017 Forward Prizes for Poetry:
A lipstick smudge on your knuckles, the same colour as roadkill.
Alarm bells can be set on vibrate. For you, more than once.
We can do this both ways.
The enigmatic nature of these lines draws the reader in further. Mehri's work at once allows us intimately close while equally confounding simple biography.
Mehri uses diverse and elastic forms to preserve emotion and intentionality. In 'Wink Wink' (featured on the poetry website Queen Mobs) a string of winking emoticons appears on the right-hand side of the page, at the beginning and just before the end of the poem. In this way it recreates the experience of looking at a phone, and the incongruity of using the WhatsApp to check whether a father has been killed in a terrorist attack. The poem also uses paragraph blocks of text alongside broken lines, and Mehri revels in using such contrasts to a variety of effects.
The selection of Mehri's poems included in the anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe, 2017) demonstrates her range, incisiveness and tenderness:
Friday night communion looks like washing your hair as the water swallows your people.
Do it anyway.
('The unthought has a comb')
'Asmara Road, NW2' takes its title from a real place in London named for the capital of Eritrea and next to Somali Road and Menelik Road. But Mehri lets the reader do the work of connecting, and giving us a lyrical insight instead of an intellectual one:
They don't tell you how criminally boring exile is.
I mean, I hate to be underwhelmed,
but this evening's dying sun won't allow that.
There is a sense of guilt about this boredom, this restlessness when staying put is a relative luxury: "Here is the uneventful, all the safe, our parents came here for." The balancing of trauma and continuing to exist are at the heart of much of Mehri's work:
He tells me to change the channel. He's sick of watching bodies
that look like his own dying. Yaa rabb, it's a fucking looped record.
Puffs on a shisha pipe, apple fumes straddling the lounge,
a sweetness that takes nothing from us.
I flip to the satellite's distortion. A dubbed Bollywood picture,
Kajol's icon unibrow
stitching, then unstitching, into a bridge
big enough to take us somewhere
a little less red.
The idea of sweetness, of flavour as a form of escape or salvation, is also at the forefront of Mehri's debut chapbook. sugah. lump. prayer was published by Akashic Books in 2017. Only Mehri could call a poem 'buttercream bismillahs', and only she could then follow it with such lines as:
Some of us will make it back, the rest
descending into a breaking night, only to be mourned
by those who look like us
across the split lip of an ocean.
The sections of the chapbook are named for the Muslim times of prayer, the "one thing that stays constant in any Muslim individual's life" [Speaking of Marvels interview]. The framing means the sacred sits alongside the secular, the eternal with the everyday.
sugah. lump. prayer also demonstrates Mehri's interest in mixing and remixing language, using "Amreekans" for Americans, for instance. Language is plastic and borderless, as can be seen in 'Transatlantic (take one)':
home is where the hurt is.
There is a great deal of hurt in this chapbook. 'Choices' dispenses with punctuation to relate a horrific killing and the complications in relating it:
Our grandfather was the wrong tribe is there a right one I don't know they burst in startled the tusbax out of his hands maybe they questioned him first maybe he answered maybe it was a misunderstanding the way a bullet mistakes a frontal lobe for a homecoming the way his organs make a weeping sunrise of the walls behind him the way I use his death to lend me a lil' depth the way I can't not bear witness the way no one asked me to.
Central to Mehri's poetry is the idea of movement:
I'm obsessed with movement of peoples, borders, temporality, ideas. Movement and the possibility or impossibility of return. I'm endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all.
[Speaking of Marvels]
Migration is not an abstract concept, though:
land has always meant barbed wire and queuing and contributing and contributing
until the pillar-box red gloss of documentation
lends us a humanity our fathers never had.
('shan' from 'Clockwise')
'Answer Me This' exposes the stupidity and unfairness of a test for citizenship:
I didn't ask for any of it. No one gave me a choice.
Maybe the choice lies in the biometrics of a fingerprint,
the day I breached a mother's waters on this side of the ambit.
A life is never one side of a debate. I am unsure of everything but this.
The left side of the heart is bigger.
That doesn't make it more truthful.
But there is also much joy in this chapbook, the joy of overcoming borders:
I mean these are the humid nights that make leaving bearable and the old women click their tongues and the men dance in ill-fitting suits, plump uncles spilling out of camel shirts reminding me of how no boundary can contain us.
What we learn from Mehri is that tragedy is not a genre, it is lived experience. But while there is life there is also a whole range of other experience – hope, guilt, love, lust, excitement, boredom… In her vivid and inventive poems she uses an array of language and languages, times and places, and a dizzying array of references to express the plurality of things. But she also recognises and signals the gaps in between people, experiences and communication. Using this formidable toolkit, Mehri reflects the largeness of life and the wideness of the world.
Ten: Poets of the New Generation, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, UK, Bloodaxe Books, 2017.
sugah. lump. prayer, New York, Akashic Books, 2017.
5 Somali-British poets, including Mehri, on Buzzfeed
'Wink Wink' and more poems on Queen Mobs
Interview with Speaking of Marvels