A Fortnightly Review.
Art of Escape
by Mina Gorji
Carcanet 2020 | 72 pp | £9.99
by Mina Gorji
Carcanet 2022 | 56pp | £11.03
By TOM LOWENSTEIN.
IT IS A curious phenomenon, and one that continues to puzzle me: that a literary scholar should write her/his own imaginative work. There are a number of accomplished academic writers who have written both poetry and literary criticism — Donald Davey, Charles Olson and Paul Celan come to mind. But they are exceptions and there are few. Most academics are tied to an institution and the majority of poets are outsiders who hammer at institutions for recognition. The two paths are different and those who cross the boundary expose themselves. They are brave.
Mina Goji is such a daring individual. She belongs to the Cambridge English department but she crosses the accustomed boundaries quietly and without self-ostentation. Her first collection, Art of Escape, suggests some sort of heroic break-through – which, in fact, quietly, it is. But such is her disarming self-confidence, that the vision her work projects communicates freedom and in-touchness. It is appropriate that her published academic work focuses on John Clare, the nineteenth-century ‘peasant poet’. And in a slightly dangerous way, the Clare-like Cambridge poet must also undisguisedly be a ‘peasant’. I suggest that this is dangerous. After all, it takes daring for a sophisticated thinker to expose her own simplicity or even primitivity — while this, in paradoxical turn, becomes a kind of super sophistication. It’s hard to put the two together. And perhaps it doesn‘t matter. We enjoy the spectacle of a newcomer speaking out against silence or prohibition. And perhaps this — in addition to time and employment issues — is perhaps one reason why people who write eloquently about literature can seldom produce what they describe. It is difficult to imagine Leavis publishing a lyric. It might have dealt a death blow to his critical work.
Besides, it is, after all, enough to know a lot and be capable of forging standards. And the task of a poet is to produce something which is both beautiful and original. Literary criticism does not aim at beauty. It is expository and if this is beautiful – as often it is – the poetry writer’s intention is other.
To read this work, it remains important to understand that the author is both English and an immigrant from Iran. There is a substantial passage of prose at the end, and this offers an awesome and humblingly complex family history of displacement and the cosmopolitan experience of a large family. And it further suggests that existence on the fringes of, in this case, UK culture, represents one way of understanding that UK culture, far from being one thing, is, in itself, cosmopolitan — UK culture, after all, being a means of incorporation, and its outward identity of coherence is a means of defense against that acknowledgement. This involves, in the case of the Art of Escape, painful reading. For it incorporates a sense of constant uncertainty and the presence of a cruel tribalism from which the author is both in necessary retreat and critical understanding. This, of course, is reinforced today by the frightening and frightful events of 2022. And today’s news colours what the author expresses as an historical fact which remains present. How one wishes this not to be. The only positive gain being a poetry of frightened but brave acknowledgement, suffused with pain but capable of seeing beyond this to an inter-ethnic co-existence of nature and human history. Such is the achievement of Mina Gorji. She is a citizen of the world – and this world includes wasps, bitterns, mushrooms and ancient history – to which pain, displacement and not-quite-belonging makes of her both participant and spokesperson. This is deeply moving and while the reader is probably excluded from this status, collusion in both is necessary and unsettling. The poetry is therefore far from complacent in the sense of its suggesting arrival. The present incorporates both the past and the experience of what is escaped from, in the present. For the past, too, is alive and a means of escape will forever be partial.
The naked beauty of what may be perceived is signaled from the outset. The self is more or less excluded though it is represented as a sensibility and as a person of great knowledge. What exists, in the present, is perceived as a phenomenon and this is expressed in the spare, clear manner of a partner in the world of both things and people. The poetry thereby joins that world and takes its place in what is seen or remembered. It is a poetry which, without regarding itself with marked self-seriousness, has a concrete quality. What (in a deformation of the words of William Blake’s London) is marked becomes indelibly part of that mark.
These are generalities. And this is a book of poems. I have suggested that they are ‘spare’ – and this could mean that they are thin – which they are not. For within an abandonment of decoration, exists compact meaning. These are straightforward poems which are rich in suggestion, in association and most compellingly in themselves robust . They are short, sometimes abrupt, but almost invariably alive with the moment of composition. One is aware perhaps of antecedents – HD, Willams, F.S.Flint. But the imagists while still living within their own word pictures, are of less account than Gorji’s idiosyncrasies. She has a recognizable style which asserts itself, one feels, between and perhaps in spite of dark enclosures. The poetry is urgent. It forces itself against and through experience. The past is as alive as the present. And the mushroom of the poem belongs not just among companion species but in a world which reciprocates its presence:
My first batch
made me hesitate…
This is beautiful and relaxed first-person but non-self-referential writing — and partly because of a focus on what is otherwise overlooked by less adventurous or knowledgeable cooks. This provides the reader with a sense of someone living with keen vivacity, an observer, a happy do-er, in whom nothing is insignificant because it is small and taken for granted. Similarly, time: The present is alive. But, for better or worse, its identity is pre-conditioned and Gorji lives within that often painful continuity, for the present exists simultaneously with what went before. There are few contemporaries whose existential present knowledge incorporates what previously happened. The past is present. And the present inevitably contains that.
This is also a poetry of information. Living creatures have biological existence which the poet understands, so far as it is possible, from their own point of view. She perceives them in terms of their physical make-up and this is informed by scientific reality. Octopi, molluscs, crabs, starfish are less symbols of natural life than versions of their own intact selves. And their lives give life to the poetry. But the writer is also aware of how partial and temporary all phenomena must be. As she writes in Half-Lives (note the pregnancy of the hyphen):
in stone —
sometimes a filigree
of leaf and bone,
sometimes the wind
will shape itself
lifetime in a flash
Perhaps most beautiful and telling, this image, apparently suggested by Rumi, of natural truth:
Inside the reed
gathers into ink.
And what is tantalizingly obscure communicates all too convincingly. As in the poem ‘In White’, a poem which can only reach the reader as a mystery. And this, all too well, must remain so; it marks the poet’s ambitious idiosyncratic exploration. It is lovely to encounter mystery as a phenomenon in itself. What a beautiful and persuasive first collection.
MINA GORJI MUST write fast: her first book appeared in 2020 and this was followed by Scale in 2022. This is a speed which proclaims not hurry, but urgency and the pressure of life-enhancing splinters of vision. The poetry is idiomatically similar to Art of Escape and suggests a justified self-confidence in addition to an awe-inspiring scientific knowledge which the poet transforms into convincing poetry. Both volumes have a cover design by Giulia Ricci, and the visual impact of these is in harmony with the poems which nimbly and excitedly explore our uncertain place in the cosmos:
rise up in black and white
above my desk –
suggesting that even her place of work exists in the same world as the spider (humorously and companionably evoked later) and a hugeness which is at once remote and familiar to the point of being tangible because the Alps exist as a personalized landscape.
There must be defects. But I can’t find any. Sometimes the poet teases us with a cliché, as in the lines
whiteness swirls –
brightness of blizzard.
only to shock the reader with a superbly original observation which is part concrete and part weird, concluding with a lived and subversive generalization:
An owl with orange eyes
The strange unnoticed
stillness of an owl,
as the world turns
This is something — given horrifying news from Iran — to be honoured and taken seriously, and which also gives the quoted poem an agonized currency. This harmonizes with the nature of all the poems, in that each represents a journey stimulated by or in response to a particular image, phenomenon or experience. And the poems themselves are shadows of or reports on that journey, the journey itself having an importance beyond its recall, which is the poem. Such authentification is perhaps more significant than the poem itself and this adds to the reader’s respect: the words themselves being a considered approximation of a thing, a creature, a scientific observation. The poet is and has been there and what she writes is a key to our greater possibility.
This makes it sound as though the poetry itself is secondary. We could not, on the other hand, learn from this kind of communication, if the poetry itself were not very good. Perhaps all good poetry provides the reader with a similar map. It remains interesting that allusions to literature, teaching and academic status are completely absent and the writing self, continually present, is there not just as a very active member of the human race, but as a participant in the entire natural world and its changeful, dynamic history.
TOM LOWENSTEIN was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009). The Structure of Days Out is serialized in The Fortnightly Review as After the Snowbird Comes the Whale, beginning here. An archive of his Fortnightly work, including a number of his poems, is here.