Poet of Honour: Mona Arshi

Poet of Honour, an accolade by Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation, celebrates our best contemporary poets we should have read by now. They are iconic and a major inspiration.

As defined by the Forward Prize winner poet Mona Arshi, a ‘rupture of empathy’ is amplified around us. As a human rights lawyer, she often observes it at a touching distance; yet keeps nurturing life, but in the end, the lilies have to be sadly left to be ‘beauty-drained’. In our chameleon world, the disintegrating expressions have also left the language to undergo its fragmentation; sometimes, when we speak, it wants no responsibility. The darkness envelops us. But a poet in Arshi is still an optimist. She is here to remind us this darkness also allows us to notice light! Such light breaks through in her last collection of poems, Dear Big Gods. She names this compartmentalized light as ‘fridge-light’. The uncertainties are not the only obstacles. We are, as she says, scared, and therefore are ‘invoking gods’. The darkness also shadows the tone in the Ghazal below. To confirm her well-deserved but rightfully earned Regal status in the poetry nation, Mona Arshi keeps the best distance possible from what she does not enjoy, ‘the flattening of language’. To fight this ‘flatness’, as a poet, she puts creases in the velvet of poetry for us to feel the rhythmic folds of lyricism. After all, it is not a business of poetry to offer a flattening of a language! Not even of any memorable prose. Just explore the etymology of the word prosody applied to even poetry. Arshi’s poems also pace with grace and rhythm we have seen in the best poets featured in this series of honour for extraordinary poets of our generation. She takes a seat here with poets whose poetic diction brings us utter joy. So, here is one of the rare British roses of poetry…

-Yogesh Patel MBE

Poems by Mona Arshi

The Lilies

arm love woman art
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The lilies were sick.
I was new and wifely,
a first tiny garden and
my favourite flower right
by the back door.
They had been planted
in raised beds, all
self-conscious in
their outsized whiteness.
For weeks they seemed 
fine, but then I noticed
a kind of injury, perforations
on the petals and a black
sticky gob-
        the fly’s excrement.
I cleaned them up as best I could
but the blight returned.
In the dark with the kitchen lit
they must have peered in,
their occultish and hurting faces
pressed against the glass.
They were hard to love back,
         these flowers.
I gave them nothing else,
spared them my gaze.
Those poor dazed heads.
I suppose I could have
pulled up their sick stems
or poisoned them from the bottle.
But I let them live on
in their altar beds.

Ghazal: Darkness  

anonymous person with burning candle
Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Around the base of the trees amongst the broad oaks,
     I leave my daughters to ripen in the darkness.

Beneath the cunning soil’s breath, sweet white snowdrops-
     their strewn hearts are glowing in the darkness.

The soil thanks us; we roll up our cuffs,
      fill our pocket mouths defenceless in the darkness.

A gentle murmured refrain like old rain,
       snowflakes again we answer to the darkness.

I’ve seen those girls foraging for wild mushrooms,
       the rim around their retinas turning in the darkness.

We plant cloves-tiny armless gods into the loam,
         poke them deeper into the uncertainty of darkness.

My girls are distracted and starved of light,
        which is normal, which is essence of girl-darkness.

I slip outside and light a candle, cauterize a bud,
       Shabash I call to my girls, my praise in the darkness.

Delivery Room

dental check up
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Having you nearly killed me. The problem
with active veins is that I bruise like a peach.
My womb is shaking. I croak out some intensifiers
very   absolutely   utterly   totally   like
I am ready to push now. The doctor asks:
‘Do you prefer the geometric or lyrical approach-
I am open to ideas?’ ‘Neither’ I say. His paisley tie
swings like a pendulum over my belly- something
floats into my memory. When pain strikes it is lilac
against the colour of the walls, which are the colour
of Nice biscuits. In the milk of my mind I draw
a diagonal line and a perfect horizon –
‘Have you ever ridden a penny farthing?’
‘Is that important? Will I still get the morphine?’
‘You are presenting very very posterior,’ I hear the rest
of his team concur. One of them doses out the syringe,
the other one is crushing sugared almonds in her teeth.

<strong>Mona Arshi</strong>
Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi was born in West London to Punjabi parents. She worked as a Human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. Her debut collection Small Hands won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015. Her second collection Dear Big Gods was published in April 2019 (both books published by  Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion Poetry list). Her poems and interviews have been published in The Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Times of India as well as on the London Underground. She has judged both the Forward Prize and The TS Eliot prizes for poetry. She has recently been appointed Honorary Professor at the University of Liverpool. Mona is currently poet in resident at the RSPB in Cley Marshes, Norfolk. Her debut novel ‘Somebody Loves You’  is due to be published in 2021 by And Other Stories.

To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Cyril Dabydeen

Tishani Doshi

Martina Evans

Sinéad Morrissey

Moniza Alvi

Ian Duhig

Raymond Antrobus

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