On Mona Arshi’s Small Hands ~ Emma Hall

I am a poet, though to call myself a poet feels somehow unnatural. It is not my occupation but rather a part of me that weaves through everything. I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “to be a poet is a condition, not a profession,” and I often think of this when I am compartmentalizing the pursuits of my life. It is easy for me to say, I am a mother, because this is something I act out daily and see the physical reality of manifesting in all that I do. To be a poet, however, is a different story.

Mona Arshi’s debut collection Small Hands, winner of the 2015 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection, in its own way gets at a bit of this. I won’t say that I feel this is her intention, but that I found, woven among her eclectic mix of poems, a thread that led me back to that place in myself where I struggle to realize the expression of different aspects of self-hood and how that conflicts with both outer expectations and inner dialogue.

My first introduction to the collection was through a friend who shared the poems ‘The Lion’ and ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage,’ and through these two poems I noticed a lovely diversity in voice. The mythic obliqueness of ‘The Lion’ provided an interesting contrast to the immediate, whimsical, sometimes burdensome observations of ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage.’ Arshi has a voice that branches, aiming to explore female existence not from a fixed position, but from a world in flux. What might seem commonplace to the opening voice of the collection in ‘The Lion’ who says “Although / you can never master the deep language / of Lion, I am made dumb by the rough / stroke of his tongue upon mine,” might become something of curiosity or triviality to the woman suffering the loss of her brother in ‘In the Coroner’s Office.’ Yet there is a tenderness and vulnerability about the collection as a whole that brings the differing elements together.

A personal favorite poem of the collection was ‘The Gold Bangles’ where Arshi explores familial connection and the female position in the world among other themes. Like other familial poems in the collection, the poem explores two important cultures present in Arshi’s consciousness, the English and the Punjabi, and shows how those two existences transfer not only for the woman telling the story, but for the subject of the story as well.

There is a sense of culture and tradition, but also a sense of impending change and a need to preserve things of importance in the midst of the inevitable alterations of living. The poem begins with: “In my bedroom dresser, in a little red box / sit two gold bangles. / They are pure yellow gold / and the pair are a set, though I believe / they once belonged to part of a bigger set.” And the plays between past and present, between inheritance and ownership, between generational acquisition and first hand understanding are placed at the forefront. We do not experience things through our own senses alone, but through all that we accumulate through the act of living, and these poems act as a reminder of that.

Arshi’s poetry is full of this sense of the communal intersecting with the personal. How death brings us deeper into the fold of our close circles, how the imaginative vision of our families shapes the way we interact with the world, and how the world itself, in all of its mystery, beauty, and foreignness can lead us into places we never expected. And while I am never fixed on my position of poet in my constantly shifting life, I find small bits of comfort in recognizing, in the poetry of others, that I am not alone in my wanderings.