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Intimate but Distant

Joseph Turner

[1]

Mina Gorji
Art of Escape
Carcanet Press
2020
72pp
£9.99 (Paperback)



Mina Gorji’s Art of Escape (2020) is a book interested, as its title announces, in the vexed relationship between poetic artifice and the idea of escape. T. S. Eliot once wrote that poetry ‘is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion’; ‘not the expression of personality but an escape from personality’. That tension between expressing things and escaping them animates Gorji’s verse, in which visions of cosmic flight jostle with the minutiae of childhood memories, and in which Eliot’s neat distinction gets wonderfully muddled. ‘Turning loose’, with its suggestion of unconstrained movement and unpredictable energy, begins in Gorji’s hands to look like a way of breaking beyond the comfortable detachment of poetry from emotion — a way, as she puts it in ‘Escape’, to ‘get free’.

The collection takes its title from ‘The Art of Escape’, a poem about Harry Houdini, in which Gorji imagines the great escapologist ‘imagining himself | inside the lock’. The grand spectacle and apparatus of the public stunt — ‘a coffin’; ‘a straightjacket’; ‘a bridge’ — give way to a more intimate reflection:

Closing his eyes

he felt the night air

close against his skin:

even the outside

couldn’t hold him long.

Such poetry balances external and internal states of being with the precarious elegance of a tightrope walker.  Gorji invites us into the most private of all spaces, that between the eye and the eyelid, which can never be glimpsed by another person, but impinging on that privacy is ‘the night air’ and ‘the outside’, at once zones of capacious vastness into which we might escape and of suffocating size from which we might wish to flee. Gorji treads the path between such reactions with a word like ‘close’, intimating both nearness and enclosure. Adjectivally, we feel, with Houdini, the comforting closeness of the night air; verbally, we sense its potential to ‘close against’ the skin, hemming us in. There is always something to escape from. ‘[H]old’, too, is poised between loving touch and constraining grip; the proximity of tenderness and danger is one of Gorji’s themes. In ‘Tehran’, an especially striking poem, she writes:

Outside in the boulevard

they’re wiping lipstick

off girls’ mouths

with tissues wrapped

round razor blades.

The girlish, the stagey, and the violent are placed in disturbing proximity. The softness of tissues conceals a dangerous sharpness, much as the postponement of ‘razor blades’ beyond the line-ending allows the verse to enact a similar concealment. Safety masks threat. In the moment at which each line turns into the next, the prospect of beginning things afresh is made to face the uncomfortable reality that what lies around the corner might be worse than what came before. In the context of such deceptive comfort, the small securities which Gorji’s poetry does depict are all the more powerful. An octopus seeking shelter is seen

nestling

in the tiniest crack,

conceals itself

with pebbles,

carapaces,

shells.

Art of Escape is adept at finding ‘the tiniest crack’ into or out of which an escape might be enacted, or through which light might gleam. The book is a bestiary of tiny animals. Wasps, ants, rats, crabs, bees, and birds populate its pages, deriving their energy from the array of defensive, resistant strategies those small beings require to exist. The ‘Armadillo’ is witnessed ‘alone |in armour’ with its famously ‘protective carapace’, while a ‘horseshoe crab’

scuttles away

alone in the Creation.

The climax of the collection, ‘Escape’, is a long mixture of prose and poetry that explores Gorji’s family history (she emigrated from Iran at an early age), and the history of her birthplace, as it unfolds in the light of her ‘home’ in London: ‘SW13’. Emigration, one version of escape, is evoked in stark language:

Bombers were targeting the airport. As our plane took off, you could feel the relief, smell it: the adults all lit up.

Starkness is not Gorji’s characteristic mode, though. ‘Migrants’, for instance, moves from the elliptical declaration that

‘Skylarks that sung to Nazis

are not welcome here’,

to what might be read as a statement of poetic intention:

Territories of the heart contract

as music’s mapped;

song-flight’s fleshbound and distressed –

a small brown bird

in alien corn.

‘Territories of the heart’ and ‘music’s mapped’ concisely bring the geographical and global into contact with the personal and lyrical. It recalls what Christopher Ricks once wrote about Seamus Heaney: ‘You continually catch yourself wanting to apply to the poems their own best formulations’. Territories of the heart contract in Gorji’s verse because big questions are best understood on a smaller scale. The poems are as finely attuned to what they call ‘the limits of imagining’ as they are to imaginative possibility. The lyric of the same name describes the contraction of universal wonder (‘The planet cools | against the edge of space’) into the more quotidian but no less wondrous experience of life on Earth:

The thought

of all that emptiness,

of unknown, scentless galaxies,

makes me appreciate

the pull of earth,

these feet of clay.

Escaping, here, might simply mean paying more careful attention to what is under your nose, letting go of interplanetary daydreams. That attention need not, Gorji implies, entail a narrowing of consciousness or poetic ambition; it is rather, to use her fine phrase, a ‘gainful loss’.

‘Beside the River’ embodies this sense, as childish awe at meteoric flight (‘so many shooting stars!’) occasions a quietly dramatic shift in perspective:

These are not stars

but landing lights –

not blazing out,

but coming home. 

The intelligence and instruction of such verse resides in its reluctance to take things at face value. What initially appears as the extinction of light, and perhaps life, turns out on closer inspection to be a return home, and therefore a recovery rather than a fading away. The poetry reveals more of its riches, too, when we adopt the lesson of attending to fine distinctions in our reading of it. Consider Gorji’s title: Art of Escape. The absence of an article (we are not reading The Art of Escape, or indeed An Art of Escape) introduces a powerful ambiguity: does it refer to the artful business of escaping, such as Houdini practised, or might it invoke an art that is itself constituted by escapes, perhaps such art as is involved in the writing of a poem?  One of the book’s many enjoyments is its capacity to admit both interpretations, its resistance to simplifications and platitudes.

An artful manipulation of line-endings typifies the poems in Art of Escape. In ‘Kamasutra (The Subsidiary Arts)’, mastery of the sixty-four traditional ‘arts to hold desire’ is envisaged as producing a state in which

there’s no room left

for emptiness,

no time

for broken hearts.

Enjambment splits the rejection of heartbreak being described into a curt evacuation of time (‘no time’), in one line, and the melancholic plainness of a dedication (‘for broken hearts’), in another. But it is the peculiar capacity of such negatives as ‘no room left’ and ‘no time’ to invoke the very things they seem and seek to deny. When the assertion that ‘there’s no room left | for emptiness’ is broken up by the roomy emptiness of the page between one line and another, it becomes at once a more tentative and more valuable claim than its declarative syntax at first suggests. The visual blankness beyond the words permits the reader to wonder whether ‘emptiness’ might not be a merely negative condition, but rather a space of accommodation and acceptance, reserved, perhaps, ‘for broken hearts’.

Gorji’s poems, thanks to their short lines, are especially full of this kind of emptiness — what Glyn Maxwell calls ‘the whiteness of the page’. Reading them, you are repeatedly struck by a sense of slightness, as if something is being withheld from your field of vision, or as if the poems might at any moment vanish into the air that surrounds them. This is not necessarily a fault; if the art of escape is also, as Adam Phillips has written, ‘the art of courting accidents’, these poems invite accidents of reading by virtue of their very reserve. They escape the trite conclusiveness of symbolic correspondences and takeaway wisdom because they repeatedly return to feelings of inconclusiveness and inscrutability. We are shown ‘Secret histories | in stone’, told that ‘the grass | shares it secret’ without ascertaining the nature of that secret, and are ushered out of bees’ nests as those insects ‘delicately seal them shut’. But we keep on reading because concealment quietly preserves the possibility of disclosure, in the next poem, perhaps, or the one after that. In ‘Signs’, one such disclosure takes the form of a wasps’ nest discovered above the speaker’s childhood bed:

It had been growing slowly

over many years

and only now

revealed itself.

What we might have considered as empty spaces are shown, in fact, to be regions of unexpected fullness. Art of Escape is haunted by the minuscule and material residue of human existence, in dirt, spores, and particles. In ‘The Tenacity of Dust’, the air we breathe, like the white space of the page, is home to the enviable ability of such residue to survive even the native forgetfulness of humans to which the lines attest:

lodging itself

between the window panes,

along the skirting boards,

on the forgotten,

underneath the bed –

even the lampshade furred.

The air is filled

with particles

of light.

Domestic environments become rich sources of cultural memory, preserving light and life in the smallest of corners. Each poem is, as Ishion Hutchinson has observed, ‘an acute canticle of remembrance’. In one of many encounters — or collisions — between the scale of human history and that of personal memory, a voice recalls the moon landing:

Living a life

between these shores –

I, born inside a sealskin tent,

hear on the radio

two men have landed on the moon.

Such moments are, in Gorji’s idiom, ‘intimate | but distant’, and in so being they exemplify in miniature the collection’s attractions: the enticing operation of an idiosyncratic lyrical intelligence; the dual attention to things great and small; and the economy of expression that delights as much in familiar words such as ‘life’ or ‘between’ as it does in obscure ones, such as ‘charango’ or ‘haemocyanin’.

In The Spirit of the Age (1825), William Hazlitt remarked that ‘Could our imagination take wing to the other side of the globe or the ends of the universe […] we might then […] hold intimate converse with the inhabitants of the Moon’. But, crucially, ‘being as we are, our feelings evaporate in so large a space – we must draw the circle of our affections and duties somewhat closer – the heart hovers and fixes nearer home’. It is the gift and distinction of Art of Escape to draw the circle of its own affections and duties closer — as the record of such hovering, it marks the emergence of an exciting new voice into English verse.

**

Joseph Turner [2] studies at St Anne’s College, Oxford.