Nationality: Iranian. Born: Tehran, 28 April 1944. Education: University of Neuchatel and Drama Centre, London. Family: Married 1970 (divorced 1985); two children. Career: Actress and director, Theatre Workshop, Tehran; co-founder, Theatre in Exile. Coordinator, the Poetry School, London. Address: 2 North Hill Avenue, London N6 4RJ, England.
I Know a Place (for children). London, Dent, 1985.
Persian Miniatures/A Belfast Kiss. Huddersfield, England, 1990.
In White Ink. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.
Mirror work. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.
Entries on Light. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 2000.*
Critical Study: By John Killick, in Poetry Review, 85(2), summer 1995.* * *
Mimi Khalvati's poetry takes as its material a life spent between two countries: Iran and England. She is one of a growing number of poets writing in English for whom the English language is more than a poetic medium; it is also an adopted mother tongue. Educated in England, Khalvati did not speak Farsi as a young woman. Yet in her poems she attempts to infuse English with the inflections and richness of the other language, just as she infuses her experiences in England with her memories of another place.
Khalvati is a poet whose work follows the multiple strands of identity. "Woman, Stone, Book," the first poem in In White Ink, focuses on a woman's attempt to define and comprehend herself and is based on a serious of symbols that appear in dreams. The symbols, the stone in particular, reappear in the course of the book, and the poem itself seems to state its project: to "pick up / threads going every which way knowing / it can't matter much which thread / I choose to follow." In this poem the midrhythm line breaks create a sense of breathlessness, evoking the confusion inherent in such a complex search for identity.
Khalvati can also create a sense of coherence and calm in her poems. While fragmentation remains her subject, her form puts the pieces together in poems such as "Amanuensis." Here smartly rhyming quatrains frame the poet's address to "Mirza" (Farsi for "scribe"). In the course of the poem the speaking scribe (Khalvati herself) and the scribe she addresses seem to become one and the same. The poet commands,
So leave your sacks of grain
my Mirza, your ledgers and your abacus. Turn back
to brighter skills than these:
your mirrors and mosaics. From each trapezium,
polygon, each small isosceles
face, extract me, entwine me. Be my double
helix! My polestar! My asterisks!
Khalvati plays on the concept of "Mirza" as both poet and astrologer. The lovely rhyme between "these" and "isosceles" suggests that the speaker is attracted to the neatness of geometry, and the line break after the word "double" establishes the mirror relationship between the speaker and the person spoken to. Of course, Khalvati has prepared us for this firm, formal gesture with the command that precedes it. Her insistence that the scribe "turn back" reflects both aesthetic and cultural longing. Just as the speaker longs for a bright, reflective art (poetry, we might assume), she also seems to be recalling and reimagining her homeland of Iran.
These subjects—art and national identity—while broad on the face of things, occupy Khalvati's poems in an intensely personal way. Some of the longer poems in In White Ink traverse the past with greater depth, taking "Amanuensis" up on its challenge. In "Plant Care: A Poem for the Change" Khalvati juxtaposes individual aging (menopause) with shifts in the speaker's perception of home. The poem unfolds in fourteen vignettes in which memory proceeds from multiple versions of Proust's madeleines: a wasp, a cactus. These triggers lead to lyrical meditations on maternal love—and the loss of it—and memories of childhood, until it seems at last that what has been lost is the mother country. What is this homeland? "It is a dispossession," we are finally told; "I hear no footfall, see no change."
Mirror work, Khalvati's second collection, continues to explore personal, familial, and cultural dispossession as its central themes. The book consists of three long sequences—at the beginning, middle, and end—with brief lyrics interspersed. Mirrorwork's title poem, the first of the long sequences, is perhaps most representative of the book's themes and structures. Here the art of mirror mosaics, that same "brighter skill" alluded to in "Amanuensis," returns as a metaphor for cultural difference and internal fractures. Wholeness and singularity escape the viewer (and the reader) when she faces, even becomes, "the mirrorwork in which not even Kings / can see themselves." Everything in the poem has a double, a reflection, yet no two things are exactly the same. One of the predominant pairs of opposites is nature and artifice. As she seeks to understand the difference between English and Persian mirrorwork, the speaker is pressed to determine what is real and what is reflection. Focusing on the image of a cherry tree, the poem's complex figure for childhood, Khalvati curtails our modern attachment to "the thing itself":
I've curtained off the tree today,
pretending that her half of the sky is
greyer, wetter, more opaque. The
half I see through, where no tree is,
is lighter actual.
Here Khalvati finds the "actual" in what is not there, emphasizing again that dispossession is the most real thing. Yet Khalvati's poems do not despair regarding "severance, / a loss of context." Rather, the poet seems to perceive a special beauty in this fragmentation, as when "willow branches bifurcate into angels' wings, epaulettes amassing, dripping silver," even when she sees "voices thrown, disowned."
Khalvati maintains a cohesive and powerful voice even as she allows that same voice to splinter before our eyes. Through her careful command of language and line she creates a poetic landscape in which memory of the actual and imagination of the possible peacefully, if not calmly, coexist.
—Sonya B. Posmentier