Poem of the week: Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati

Carol Rumens
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters


An eleven-year-old boy from Aleppo
whose eyes hold only things no longer there
– a citadel, a moat, safe rooms of shadow,
‘afterwardness’ in his thousand yard stare –

years later, decades even, might turn around
to see, through the long tunnel of that gaze,
a yard, a pond, and pine trees that surround
as in a chaharbagh, four branching pathways.

Where do memories hide? the pine trees sing.
In language of course, the four pathways reply.
What if the word be lost? the pine trees sigh.

Lost, the echo comes, lost like me in air.
Then sing, the pathways answer, sigh and sing
for the echo, for nothing, no-one, nowhere.

The author of this week’s poem Mimi Khalvati tells her interviewer here that she refuses to avoid nostalgia in her work. There’s no choice – or shouldn’t be – for a poet but to be true to her own perception and feeling, and if nostalgia is at their heart it has to be honoured. This doesn’t mean that Khalvati’s poetry connects only with personal longing for her homeland and home city (Tehran, where she spent her early childhood), as this title poem from her 2019 collection of sonnets reveals. The coined word, “afterwardness”, filling an English lexical gap, expands the temporal concept of the adverb, “afterward”. The suffix “–ness” implies a condition or state. Afterwardness has a wide psychological resonance, in which nostalgia has a part, but not the only part.

An extreme experience of “afterwardness” belongs to the “eleven-year-old boy from Aleppo” who, we may surmise, has lost his home, family, country and, perhaps, his life. He, or his ghost, is remembering, feeling, seeing what it was to be protected and defended. In the solid shapes of “a citadel, a moat, safe rooms of shadow” there is also pride, dignity and tradition. The poem’s narrator sees into what the boy sees, the images of an ancient city held by his “thousand yard stare”. It’s easy to slip another word, “year” into the place of “yard” and imagine a longer backwards look. And as the poem progresses we can begin to imagine the child is not necessarily confined to the present moment: he may belong to an earlier historical period, and know a wider expanse of yearning.

Although not as symmetrical as the quadripartite Islamic garden, the Petrarchan sonnet, when divided into two quatrains and two tercets, bears some formal resemblance to it. The walled garden, representing Paradise, is divided by its central pathway into four separate gardens. So we have almost seen its shape on the page when, in the second quatrain, the sense of loss deepens. Now “years later” the protagonist might take its measure: “he might turn around” and see images of the chaharbagh.

This garden seems to symbolise the period when Islamic civilisation flourished most richly, holding it in a word, just as the destruction of that culture may also be evoked by a single word – a placename such as “Aleppo”. The boy sees a great 12th-century citadel but the contemporary westerner may find in the name only images of civil war, brutality and ruin.

The final six lines take us into the garden’s soundscape. Its pine trees sigh and repeat the word “lost”. Stoutly, the pathways speak up for language. But “What if the word be lost? the pine trees sigh.” The voice in the poem, now perhaps the boy’s, continues after that haunted stanza-break: “Lost, the echo comes, lost like me in air.” The pathways’ reply could hardly be more sorrowful and ghostly, leaving an impression that contrasts strongly with the previous solid memories: “Then sing, the pathways answer, sigh and sing / for the echo, for nothing, no one, nowhere.”