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This review is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Cover of Afterwardness
MaitreyabandhuPalpable in Absence
Mimi Khalvati, Afterwardness (Carcanet) £9.99
In his Paris Review interview, Geoffrey Hill, responding to a question about the ‘difficulty’ of his poems, said ‘Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other…’ This is true. But to think of those difficulties as somehow intellectual difficulties requiring ‘difficult’ poetry to express them is absurd. Mimi Khalvati feels no need to do that in her new collection. Afterwardness is a sequence of fifty-six Petrarchan sonnets that meditate on a central difficulty of life: a void ‘palpable in absence’.

This absence probably came into her life at the age of six when Khalvati moved from her native Tehran to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight. In that move ‘first languages, half-formed, [were] dropped at the border’ (‘Dreamers’). ‘What if a heritage were lost en route?’ she asks in ‘Mehrabad Airport’. What if the past becomes ‘a book with no plot, story, timeline, no protagonists even / and no witnesses to events’ (‘Life Writing’)? The crucial achievement of this collection, Khalvati’s most ambitious and personal so far, is to write an emotionally-convincing sonnet sequence that circumambulates a void; a book whose subject is absence.

Except ‘absence’ suggests loss and pain, the sense of having lost some cherished thing. But these poems are too rigorous for certainties. One of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thinkers without final thoughts’, Khalvati interrogates the vacuum at the centre of Afterwardness for meanings and feelings in a sonnet-essay on difficult truthfulness:
Why did I say I minded things I didn’t –
soul-making things I’d find too crude to ...


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