Nationality: British. Born: Lahore, Pakistan, 2 February 1954. Education: University of York, 1973–76, B.A. in English (honors) 1976; Whitelands College, London, 1976–77, postgraduate certificate in education 1977; London University Institute of Education, 1982–85, M.A. in education 1985. Family: Married Robert Coe in 1995. Career: Teacher, Scott Lidgett School, London, 1978–80. Since 1980 teacher, and since 1989, head of English department, Aylwin School, London. Awards: The Poetry Business prize (cowinner with Peter Daniels), 1992. Address: c/o Oxford University Press, Walton St., Oxford OX2 6DP, England.
Peacock Luggage, with Peter Daniels. London, Smith Doorstop Books, 1992.
The Country at My Shoulder. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993.
A Bowl of Warm Air. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.*
Critical Study: By Linda France, in Poetry Review, 84(1), spring 1994.
Moniza Alvi comments:
With The Country at My Shoulder I found myself recreating a past, as if to introduce the possibility of returning in my actual life to my birthplace, Pakistan, which I left when a few months old. Now having made the return visit, I am working on a group of poems centered in my impressions of family and country. The points where East and West converge are crucial. The poems that do not concern my Asian background are equally important to me. I am attracted to the strange seeming and to fantasy and find there some essence of experience. I have written about Pakistan partly because it was, in the first instance, a fantasy. It is difficult to say who has influenced me. Edward Thomas, Jacques Prèvert, and Stevie Smith are amongst those poets who have made a strong impression. When I started writing seriously, I was reading Angela Carter's work and V.G. Ballard's science fiction. I have probably been as much influenced by prose writers as by poets.* * *
Moniza Alvi writes in a beautifully controlled conversational style lit by flashes of fantasy. The titles of some of her poems—"I Was Raised in a Glove Compartment," "I Would Like to Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro," "The Great Pudding"—indicate this. In "A Map of India" she tells us that, when she looks at a map,
If I stare at the country long enough
I can prise it off the paper,
lift it like a flap of skin.
Alvi's idiosyncratic vision can be seen as a way of coming to terms with worlds not only distant geographically but also disparate in cultures and ethos. Her poetry is an exploration toward the reconciliation of these worlds and the discovery of her place in them. Her worlds are also those of inner landscapes, as in the poem "Houdini":
It is not clear how he entered me
or why he always has to escape.
More importantly, they are worlds to which the only joint key is the imagination, as in "Afternoon at the Cinema":
The film—you've seen it before—
it was a mystery then, and now you've missed
the sheet with the interpretations on it.
For years Pakistan, where Alvi was born, was an imaginary world to her, for she left it for England when she was only a few months old. It was not until much later that she returned to Pakistan to visit and meet relatives there. Before that time the exploration of the world of her cultural origins had to be via the images in her mind. It is no wonder that she writes,
There's a country at my shoulder,
growing larger—soon it will burst,
rivers will spill out, run down my chest.
These are the first lines of the title poem of her collection The Country at My Shoulder, and they set the theme for much of the book.
The poem "Presents from My Aunt in Pakistan" touches on the feeding of the vision of Alvi's imagined world and the sense of contrast and ironies the presents conveyed. While the aunt sent gifts of exotic garments—a salwar kameez in peacock blue, embossed slippers, saris, and candy-striped glass bangles, "alien in the sitting room"—these were accompanied by requests for cardigans from Marks and Spencers. These were the clues to the Pakistan that Alvi had to embrace via her imagination and language in "The Country at My Shoulder":
I water the country with English rain,
cover it with English words.
Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.
Alvi is aware of the complexity of her intentions, as expressed in these lines from "Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal":
I introduce myself to two languages,
but there are so many—of costume,
of conduct and courtesy.
Her intentions are to discover where her twin cultures converge. It is an exploration that is clearly related to the discovery of her own identity vis-à-vis the two cultures. In "You Are Turning Me into a Novel" she says,
In the great silent hour
you are giving me a title
fashioning me, coaxing me.
It is Alvi's ability to explore and come to terms with her world imaginatively that is the special quality of the poetry. The clarity of her direct and transparently honest approach is what illuminates it.