twenty-three: Mimi Khalvati, The Meanest Flower

A couple of weeks ago I went to the first poetry reading I’ve been to in a while – Poetry ‘in’ the crypt at St Mary’s Church, Islington, where the two featured poets were Mimi Khalvati and Canadian poet Alice Major. It was a fantastic evening: both poets really engaged with the audience, I think, and made me want to read their latest collections (as well as write, too. I scribbled a few things down on the way home).

So: Mimi Khalvati’s latest collection, The Meanest Flower. It opens with a beautiful twelve-sonnet sequence called ‘The Meanest Flower’ that I really enjoyed – an extended meditation on childhood. I love these lines, from the first sonnet:

… Childhood,
swing your little bandy legs, take no notice

of worldliness. Courtiers mass around you –
old women all. This is your fat kingdom.

Khalvati is a master of very elegant – and zestful, too – form. As well as the many beautiful sonnets, she writes a lot in the Persian form of the ghazal (my favourite was ‘Ghazal: after Hafez’), which I hadn’t come across before, and the truly stunning sestina (I think? I’ll have to check) ‘On Lines from Paul Guaguin’.

It’s great to read poems when you’ve recently heard them read by the poet. My favourites were the opening sonnet sequence, ‘The Middle Tone’, ‘Scorpion-grass’, ‘Soapstone Creek’, ‘Motherhood’, ‘The Robin and the Eggcup’ and ‘Sundays’, which was heartbreakingly tender. Although it’s not very seasonal, here’s ‘Soapstone Retreat’:

Late summer sun is falling through the forest.
As if the forest knew it would soon turn yellow,
it shifts a little, stars in the creek below
signalling to the sunlight on its crest.

In the centre it is still. Still late August.
On the periphery, branches, leaves, follow
the scent of autumn. Like a woodfire slow
to get going after the stove’s long rest,

the forest stirs with ambivalent longings
for movement, stillness, as if its life were elsewhere
but its heart were here. And as cold nights near,

those last sweet sips at the cusp of the year
hang suspended in the balance as the flask swings,
hummingbird feeds and the sun sinks, stair by stair.

The Meanest Flower, Mimi Khalvati (Carcanet, 2007, Poetry Book Society choice)

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