Michael Tolkien



Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011 (Carcanet)

Publ. in Ambit 208, spring 2012


Most of this ‘selected’ is like a series of autobiographical sequences, interrelated by the constant presence of ‘child’ within and as experienced through girlhood, young adulthood, being a mother and in retrospect as age advances. Many fine poems stand alone, but ideally one should read with these slants in mind, and empathy with the persona’s preoccupations must build up from stage to stage.


While I enjoyed Khalvati’s tonal elegance and her superlative verbal and formal techniques, despite repeated reading I lost my way in the longer poems, even in the celebrated series of sonnets, ‘The Meanest Flower’. It’s a crucial reflective reprise of the entire ‘child’ exploration, but too often recollection feels cluttered, and in an attempt to find unity in all and sundry, the mundane is awkwardly mixed with would-be profundity, as in this anticipation of ageing and death:


…you don’t think of dying, however,

hovering on the edge of being noticed,


organdie sleeves perked like butterfly wings,

your antennae alert. In later life

you will home in on fields of tiny flowers,


an infant’s fading kaftan pinned to the wall,

Annette in an orange shawl, linings, borders,

bindings and trims, each dot, each floweret open.


A feast of inaccessible associations, but easier to deal with than a tendency in the more leisurely exposition of expansive poems to obscure or delay the context and purpose of reflections while the narrator wakes up, takes stock of dreams, showers, gets out of the house, or harks back to something else. The largely travelogue poems of the final New and Uncollected section suffer most in this respect, rich as they are in observation and local atmosphere.


I prefer the more intense lyrical poems, many of which seem to derive from Khalvati’s fruitful return to the roots of her Persian cultural heritage. She explores through tapestry-like meditations how art and living may be integrated,

associates flowers and plants with moods and revelations, and hints at the elegiac sense of passing lives set against nature’s renewal. She is also adept at turning an image round and round to discover its emblematic layers. All such strands are finely distilled in two poems. The moving ‘Rubaiyat’ recalls in traditional poetic form her grandmother’s unaffected rootedness, never to be relived, and the sonnet, ‘Overblown Roses’, plays unaffectedly with the image of a flower’s attractive decline ,which becomes an interlaced reflection on the contrasting lives of three generations of women.






Mimi Khalvati