Episode 15

The Lilies 

by Mona Arshi

 

Mona Arshi reads ‘The Lilies’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Dear Big Gods by Mona Arshi

Dear Big Gods book cover

Available from:

Dear Big Gods is available from:

The publisher: Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press

Bookshop.org: UK | US

Amazon: UK |US

 

The Lilies

by Mona Arshi

The lilies were sick.
I was new and wifely, 
a first tiny garden and 
my favourite flower right 
by the back door.
They had been planted 
in raised beds, all
self-conscious in 
their outsized whiteness.
For weeks they seemed 
fine, but then I noticed 
a kind of injury, perforations
on the petals and a black
sticky gob –
             the fly’s excrement.
I cleaned them up as best I could
but the blight returned.
In the dark with the kitchen lit
they must have peered in, 
their occultish hurting faces
pressed against the glass.
They were hard to love back,
             these flowers.
I gave them nothing else,
spared them my gaze.
Those poor dazed heads.
I suppose I could have 
pulled up their sick stems
or poisoned them from the bottle.
But I let them live on
             beauty-drained
in their altar beds.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Mona, where did this poem come from?

Mona: ‘The Lilies’ was a poem that I’ve had in my imagination for a long time, that I’ve held in my imagination quite a long time. The idea behind it was a memory of when I first had a garden for the first time and which was mine. And I guess the first thing to say about the poem was the fact that it was one of those poems that almost floated into the first collection, Small Hands, and some of its subject matter which contains themes around beauty and death, and beauty and pity, and beauty and disease are, themes that I’ve been interested in. But I guess it was in my notebook, these ideas were in my notebook and this memory was in my notebook.

So a lot of my poems, I collect in notebook form. And I went back to this poem and I basically just used it as kindling for some of the themes that I was interested in and the poem arose from that idea of literally having a garden and trying to nurse these flowers and being really… feeling as if I was really inept at it and actually using that feeling to discuss things around death and grief and just living really.

Mark: Yeah. So that’s a really kind of shifting relationship between the speaker and the lilies, though first, it’s like, ‘Oh, my favorite’. But then, it all goes a bit wrong, doesn’t it?

Mona: Yeah. I mean, I remember also when I was reading… when I was writing this… I’ll say that again. I also remember whilst I was circling around some of the issues and themes in the collection Dear Big Gods, I read this really interesting essay by Vladimir Nabokov and it was his Cornell lectures, and he was talking about… Because I was kind of really concerned about how you write about beauty and by complicating this idea of beauty. Because I guess a lot of people say my poems are beautiful, they’re lyrical, they’re beautiful and I think that… I understand that because they’re quite lyrical, but I also feel as if there’s a complicated beauty in some of the work that is sometimes not emphasized.

And I guess, so I was looking and searching for what that meant and I came across this really wonderful essay by Nabokov where he talks about art being beauty with a tincture of pity inside of it, all beauty has to have pity alongside of it. And actually, that’s a really… it’s a very non-Western aesthetic actually of looking at beauty. So I became really interested in this idea of what that means to have beauty and pity alongside each other. You know, alongside beauty, do you have to have this idea of the terrible or the awful? And I guess that idea of those two poles, beauty, pity, lyric beauty, something that’s beautiful but also has… you have this, kind of, complicated relationship with it. I think that was sort of… those are the ideas I guess. So I was cycling round and I think they transmuted into the poem a little bit as well.

Mark: Well, maybe I could go a little further and say beauty, pity, and even horror, because you’ve got these wonderful gothic images, the ‘occultish hurting faces’ pressed against the glass and poisoning them from the bottle. And this isn’t isolated, you’ve got another really amazing poem, but also horrific, about wasps in the collection. And there’s this image of a little boy who’s being attacked by wasps and you described it as the wasps ‘drizzled’ onto him. And that was just such a just a horrible and absolutely memorable image. And I think yeah, the beauty in your work is obvious, but there’s also a vein of horror, isn’t there?

Mona: Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s what life is, you know. I think I’m trying to… I mean, that poem that you refer to, ‘The Wasps’, is about, again, a memory of my younger brother who I write about. I’ve written elegies for him because he died and Small Hands is concerned with that loss. But again, that was a memory and I think that… I guess I’m not consciously trying to write about horror or about these issues in a kind of… you know, I’m not trying to shock the reader, put it that way. I just think it’s just a really truthful way of writing about memory. And actually, memory is really interesting because in a way, we don’t live our lives in a linear way. We are often tripping over our memories. They are like emotional trip wires and we trip over them all the time.

And actually, so our days are spent looking forwards and being in the present, but also a lot of it is spent looking back. And I guess I’m doing a lot of that, that looking back, and I think that some of it is wonderful and some of it is complicated. And that’s the most truthful way of being able to translate those memories into poems, I guess. And I think that’s basically what the poems are doing.

I always think that the poem is always wiser than its author. I think the poem knows what it’s trying to do. It’s only afterwards when you reflect back, actually sometimes years later, I mean, this poem was written, I think, three years ago, maybe four years ago now, and I can talk about the poem in this way. I mean, I was too close to it before, but I do think that there is something about… If you can get out of the way of the poem, the poem, sort of will discover… you’ll discover the poem and it will illuminate some of the parts that you might not have really consciously put in it, if that makes sense.

Mark: Yeah. It makes total sense. And it takes a lot of trust, I think, to learn to do that, not imposing your own will on the poem but being open to what it’s going to bring to you.

Mona: I think that’s the hardest thing to do, Mark. I think that’s the hardest thing is to not impose yourself on the poem and try to find… it’s really hard to find a way to let the destination, let the landing be the poem, where the poem needs to land as opposed to you determining that destination. You know, the poem will be what it wants to be. And I think with ‘The Lilies,’ I sort of let loose. I think you get better, I think, at doing that as you get experienced as a writer.

Mark: You know, maybe as you say that, now I’m thinking about ‘The Lilies’, and maybe in one way, you could say that it’s a poem about somebody letting the lilies be what they want, even if that means they’re not going to be the favorite flower image, not the Instagram version of lilies.

Mona: I love the idea of that, perfect Instagram lilies! Yeah. I mean, yes, I guess circling around those issues around beauty and what we consider is perfect beauty as well and loving something and wanting to love something that’s perfect. But also, there is a part of that poem where I am avoiding looking at the thing that was beautiful and is no longer beautiful. There’s a lot of avoidance in that, which, again, is part of what we do when we are living and avoiding looking at the truth of things, things that have… things that are dying and things that are going to leave us, which takes you back to Nabokov’s lovely little pivot around beauty and pity again.

Mark: Yeah. And within the context of both of your collections the reader will be aware of these themes of death and loss that you write about more directly in other poems. And, I think this is another argument for… we’re reading the poem in isolation today, and I’m saying this is the argument for reading it as part of the collection! But I this is one of the great things about poetry is being able to do both, being able to zoom in and see what’s in an individual poem and then also look at it in context. And even beyond the collections, a couple of poems that kept coming to mind for me when I was reading this are, one, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, where he’s got that line, ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,’ and also Blake, ‘O Rose thou art sick.’ I’m curious, were either of these in your mind as you were writing?

Mona: Gosh, yes, the Blake one definitely. I didn’t even think about the Shakespeare one. That’s so interesting. Yeah, yeah. Blake was there, I think. I think the first line, ‘The lilies were sick,’ I just wanted to present to the reader something very simple about what I was looking at, the gaze. I mean, in a way, the poem is… it is around the gaze, but of course, alongside that, underneath that is all the other things that are going on in terms of lyric and rhyme and half-rhyme, which I’ve actually had… that was the hardest thing actually in this poem, which is the form. But yeah, I love the idea that you picked up Blake and I think it is something that I think you do when you read quite a lot, you sometimes inadvertently… It’s quite wonderful actually.

I mean, I think there’s a lot of Plath in this poem as well. I know other people have talked about that. And actually, Plath is a really big pull for me to the extent that I almost feel like I couldn’t read her for a long time because I felt like I was often sailing so close to those occult-ish sort of sensibilities that Plath would bring. And I guess I sort of… I let myself sort of… you know, I let myself touch base with Plath again in this poem. I think it’s probably my Plathiest poem because I think that you read somebody in your 20s and 30s and they become part of your body and your DNA, you know. And even if you don’t touch base with them, Angela Carter is another writer, actually, who I kind of… I almost feel as if I can’t read her anymore because she’s such a big pull.

But I think this poem is in touch with Blake and in touch with Plath too in terms of its sensibility and also its themes. And I kind of want to embrace that in the poem actually. It’s not something that I shy away from. I think it’s something that I wholeheartedly, kind of, accept and love about that that’s what happens. You read a lot and then those little echoes are in the work which you’ve seen, which is really lovely.

Mark: Well, I think this is… it’s obviously a strength in your work and, to me, it’s one of the great pleasures of poetry that you can… if you’re a poet, you can be having a conversation through the work with Blake, with Plath, for instance, and I think that can only make us step up to the plate if you’re in the room with people like that. And as a reader as well, I often think it’s a bit like through these little signals like that first line and echoes is so we can eavesdrop on the conversation between poets, even if it’s across time.

Mona: Yes, of course. I mean, we don’t write our poems in a vacuum. We have a context and there are ghosts of other writers in the room when we are writing. And I love that, I love the idea of that seepage, that we’re very porous to those voices that become part of our work. I guess when you are starting out as a writer, I think there’s a real resistance actually to read too much of a poet that you love because you’re worried that you might be writing a pastiche of their poem or being… you know, writing too closely. But I think as long as you read widely, I think it’s never an issue and I think you become more confident with your own… I hate to say your own voice, actually, because I don’t like the idea of that, but I think that every voice… every poem has its own voice.

And the lilies have a voice here and I think in the end they are transmuted from lilies into creatures. I mean, in the end, they’re almost like babies. I mean, there’s a line about… you know, I could have used a different word when I referred to poisoning them from the bottle. It feels as if they’re transmuting into something that’s a bit more creaturely. So those are things where the poem has led me to this other territory, it’s taken me by the hand and taken me to this other place. And I guess so that’s where the poem… that’s what I love about poetry because you can travel. You can travel miles and miles and miles with a poem and you can travel through time with a poem as well and you can take… you can meet the poem halfway. A reader can meet the poem halfway and…

Mark: Well another place it’s traveling, as you talk about them coming alive is The Day of the Triffids, particularly the TV adaptation that was on in the ‘80s that scared the hell out of me when I was a teenager. You know, the flowers wanting to come in at the window?

Mona: Oh, yes. Yeah, I know that text really well. I think I read it at school. Yeah, I mean, that might have been part of the… you know, it might have been an influence, I don’t know. I just had this… I think the poem is very visual and I wanted to… I like the idea of these flowers, these lilies that were turning and becoming creaturely and having a life of their own and wanting to be looked at because I no longer wanted them or I felt disgusted by them. I mean, a lot of this poem is actually around disgust and how you can become disgusted by something that, kind of, was beautiful. And the language as well, which is unusual language and quite a lyric poem, ‘gob’ and ‘excrement’. I think those are decisions I made about wanting to make sure that the reality of what we were seeing was clear. And I could have used different language, but I sort of wanted to tell the truth of the thing that now disgusted me.

Mark: Yeah. Those were two of the words I underlined and I’ve drawn a line between them because I think there’s almost like a kind of force field between those two words. I mean, ‘gob’ is just a horrible kind of street slang term. You couldn’t get more basic than ‘gob’. And then you’ve got ‘excrement’, which is like the Latinate term for it and it’s for the same thing. But between the two of those, you’ve got… you know, there’s different ways that we’ve got of talking and thinking about that side of life.

Mona: Yeah. I mean, I think looking at the poem now, I think that’s absolutely right. I think it is those two poles that it’s flitting between the beauty and the disgust and the pity, and I think that’s what it’s trying to do. And I think even in its syntax, just slightly, there is a counterpoint between the more conventional language, ‘The lilies were sick, I was new and wifely’. There’s an expectation, I think, that I’m trying to… the language that I’m trying to thwart because there’s an expectation at the beginning that it’s going to be a certain type of poem, especially in the first line.

And then, of course, there’s a turn and then a turn again, and then another turn. And I guess the poem is trying to navigate these two poles really between… Yeah, I mean, those two poles again and again. The syntax, I think, was something I wanted to actually strain a bit, you know. I wanted to sort of… I wanted to keep the reader awake a little bit, I guess, and you can do that, I guess, by just using words that will keep the reader awake as well as the music and the language. I mean, the music is something else that I really had to think about.

Mark: Okay. So I’d like to pick up on something you said earlier on, which was that it was really hard work to get the form right. And I’m curious about this because I know that you are a very skilled and conscious poet around form, the way you think about it, the way you use it. How did the form evolve for this poem?

Mona: So I think one of the reasons I wrote this poem is because I think on paper the architecture of the poem looks really quite simple. And I’m not using conventional form and its setup is sort of, you know, it looks like it’s in free verse. Of course, it’s in free verse, but I really struggled with the form. This is what I spent the most time on because initially when the poem was arising, it came out with loads and loads of rhyme, full rhyme. I mean, there’s still lots of assonance and alliteration. You can see it, ‘Pressed against the glass, I suppose I could have pulled up their sick stems’. We’ve got ‘perforations’ and ‘petals’. I mean, ‘beds’ and ‘heads’, and, ‘days’ and ‘gay’. You know, we’ve got lots of that.

But actually, the poem started in rhymes and in long couplets and so the original poem was set out in a very different way where there were rhyme endings and I was letting a lot of the lyricism float in, I was allowing those rhymes. And there was something about the poem that just felt, like, really safe and too beautiful and too lyrical, and especially in those couplets, which you often associate with love. So I decided that I wanted to hide and bury some of those rhymes. And so that took a long time because I felt like I was having to unstitch the poem, but it also felt really important because I think I wanted to have those counterpoints between… and for the reader to have this experience of having the lyric, the conventional language up against the… having, you know, slightly off syntax.

And then you can see, I think, when you hear the poem read, that there are lots and lots of rhymes and echoes and music in the poem. But I think there… You can probably almost feel that there was another… almost feel like there was another form underneath this, but I actually quite like… I like the sound of that. I like the sound of that original form breaking up underneath it. So there’s one particular rhyme, which is, ‘Those poor dazed heads’, and then, of course, that last line, ‘In their altar beds’, and they were really close together. And so I had to go back and find a way of keeping or even losing ‘poor dazed heads’, which I wanted to keep and moving the rhyme backwards somehow.

And so there’s a lot of unstitching, a lot of rereading, a lot of listening to the poem again. Because as soon as you start undoing the rhymes, you have them in some places and not others, I think that you have to be quite consistent. If you’re going to undo them, you just really have to undo them. So even when I had a couple of end rhymes, I needed to sort of… I really felt like it was important to undo them completely and hide them. But hopefully, you can hear that that’s… I wonder if, actually, if you can hear the struggle, you can hear the struggle in that a little bit.

Mark: This is really fascinating for me listening, having experienced it on the page and then to hear you read it. And also, for anybody listening, if you haven’t seen the text yet, go and have a look at the website, amouthfulofair.fm, and you will see the way that Mona has laid it out. So she was saying the original text had long lines, full end rhymes, rhymes at the end of the line. But what you’ve got is actually – so, ‘The lilies were sick,’ is one line, and then, ‘I was new and wifely,’ is the next one, so that it’s really short, almost like broken-looking lines. And when you read it, I could hear some of those rhymes making a bit of a comeback. They weren’t as obvious as when I was reading it on the page.

And I think the image I’ve got in my mind now, now that I’ve got the back story, it’s almost like you took the sheet of paper that the poem was on and crumpled it. So we’ve got all these, kind of, fractures and words nestling up, some have been hidden and buried and others have been juxtaposed, and the whole thing is… it’s in a different and I think a lot more interesting relationship than the description you got from the beginning. But I wouldn’t have picked up the struggle! You know, when I read it, it felt like it was very sure-footed and it knew where it was going, even if it was an odd direction with a slightly unusual gait. So it’s fascinating to hear how much work went in behind the scenes.

Mona: Oh, good. Well, in a way, I’m glad that you didn’t see this scaffolding, that I removed the scaffolding before I published it, but because I know how hard it is when you see a poem and you think, oh, that’s just, you know… You know, there is a struggle in making these poems and there’s things that are at stake. And what was at stake for me was that I wanted to make sure that the poem was… once a poem had been captured and I got out of the way of the poem, I think that once you have your editing hat on, it’s very different from that other part of writing, which is to do with that initial part, which is actually the easier part, gathering the poem, capturing the poem. It’s that end part, it’s that last 40% which is form, listening, ear, ear, ear, and then trying to think about the best way of shaping the poem because, of course, the poem, it sort of is… laid out on the page, it looks like a sort of free verse poem but there are very light sections to the poem where you have ‘sticky gob – the flies’ excrement’ on one line. And so I’m making a real meal out of that line.

And then that line, ‘They were hard to love back, these flowers,’ and again, that’s syntactically a sort of odd way of saying something quite simple. ‘They were hard to love back, these flowers,’ is a more odd way of saying something and then breaking it back and then having this other section, like another new light section. I mean, those are all decisions I made at the end and they were… There were I don’t know how many versions of this poem, Mark, before it landed and I felt that the poem was as good as it can be.

Mark: And this is completely the opposite way round to the popular perception of what poets do, isn’t it? That we get this, kind of, effusion when we’re out for a stroll and then we just take it all down. And there’s a preciousness about that first draft, that first breath of inspiration, but what you’re describing is actually, it’s maybe more about patience and sensitivity and staying with it long enough to allow the poem to come out rather than your initial idea of the poem.

Mona: Yeah, yeah. I mean, absolutely. I mean, I was taught by Mimi Khalvati and one of the things she really taught me and which I really try to completely embrace as a philosophy when I’m writing poems is that the ear… you have to be led by the ear. And actually, we live in a world where everything is so visual, that’s the dominant sense. And it’s so difficult to take that away when you’re writing, but I think that when you’re writing a poem, I think as long as you privilege the ear above everything else, and don’t even actually think about the architecture, almost close your eyes and see if you can write the poem out in your head. It sounds odd, but just sort of compose the poem as opposed to write the poem is kind of another way of looking at it. And I think once you go with the ear, you tend to get the right… you tend to find a way into the poem and the poem…

Mark: Well, thank you, Mona. I think this would be a good point to privilege the ear once more and listen to the poem again.

Mona: Pleasure.


 

The Lilies

by Mona Arshi

The lilies were sick.
I was new and wifely, 
a first tiny garden and 
my favourite flower right 
by the back door.
They had been planted 
in raised beds, all
self-conscious in 
their outsized whiteness.
For weeks they seemed 
fine, but then I noticed 
a kind of injury, perforations
on the petals and a black
sticky gob –
             the fly’s excrement.
I cleaned them up as best I could
but the blight returned.
In the dark with the kitchen lit
they must have peered in, 
their occultish hurting faces
pressed against the glass.
They were hard to love back,
             these flowers.
I gave them nothing else,
spared them my gaze.
Those poor dazed heads.
I suppose I could have 
pulled up their sick stems
or poisoned them from the bottle.
But I let them live on
             beauty-drained
in their altar beds.


 

Dear Big Gods

‘The Lilies’ by Mona Arshi is from her latest collection Dear Big Gods, published by Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press.

Dear Big Gods book cover

Dear Big Gods is available from:

The publisher: Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press

Bookshop.org: UK | US

Amazon: UK |US

Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi portrait photo

Mona Arshi was born in West London to Punjabi parents. She worked as a Human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. Her debut collection Small Hands won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015. Her second collection Dear Big Gods was published in April 2019 (both books published by Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion Poetry list). Her poems and interviews have been published in The TimesThe GuardianGranta and The Times of India as well as on the London Underground. She has judged both the Forward Prize and The TS Eliot prizes for poetry. She is Honorary Professor at the University of Liverpool. Mona is currently poet in residence at the RSPB in Cley Marshes, Norfolk. Her debut novel ‘Somebody Loves You’ was published in 2021 by And Other Stories.

MonaArshi.com

Photo: Karolina Heller

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

It sifts from Leaden Sieves by Emily Dickinson

Episode 18 It sifts from Leaden Sieves by Emily Dickinson Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’ by Emily Dickinson.Poet Emily DickinsonReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessIt sifts from Leaden Sieves by Emily Dickinson It sifts from...

once a thing is gone, that is the end of it by Kate Ling

Episode 17 once a thing is gone, that is the end of it by Kate Ling  Kate Ling reads ‘once a thing is gone, that is the end of it’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: Last Things by Kate Ling and Jon NicollsAvailable from: Last...

The Oxen by Thomas Hardy

Episode 16 The Oxen by Thomas Hardy Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Oxen’ by Thomas Hardy.Poet Thomas HardyReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Oxen by Thomas Hardy Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.   ‘Now they are all on their knees,’An elder...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 × 4 =

Arts Council England logo