D A Prince finds that Mahendra Solanki’s tight, economical poems leave ample room for the reader.
It’s a compelling title. The ‘we’ is inclusive: it’s not only poets who tells lies but each one of us, variously and in different forms. Solanki’s poetry has circled this area in the past, using the same apparently simple, direct language that we meet in this collection. ‘Always there’ (a poem from his 1996 collection, What you Leave Behind) ends with the lines Strangers, you tell us,/ would only lie. Is it that lies, or versions, of our individual backgrounds are an inevitable part of our make-up? Do they help us put on masks in order to make a life? While Solanki poses these questions in the context of his own past he is too honest a poet to reduce the answer to a straightforward yes or no. Instead, this collection, built around family history, art and two commissioned public works, turns the question back to the reader, giving the collection a resonance that lasts long after the book is closed.
Solanki divides the collection into three named sections: i) ‘forever marked’; ii) ‘for the grace of accuracy’; iii) ‘Commissions, Instructions, Warnings’. Each is prefaced by an epigraph – one from V.S.Naipaul, two from Robert Lowell – which, coupled with the epigraph for the whole collection from Wallace Stevens (‘We keep coming back and back/ To the real …’) – edge us in. The nine poems making up the opening section take violent family history and its effects as their subject, but not as anecdote which excludes the reader. Father, mother, wife are all there, not named further, so the ambiguities of who the ‘her’ is, or whether the ‘you’ is addressed to someone outside or to the self, allow the reader to bring themselves up to the poem, to share in the shock and immediacy. ‘After a while you believe the lies you tell’ (the opening poem) shows the uncertainties of the past –
That bump on your head –
did your father really throw you down the stairs?
Solanki sets up private doubt from the start, leading to the only truth there is –
There are no pictures of you as a child,
no way of checking if that lump was there before.
This section ends with ‘I wish I had asked’, quoted in full here –
We argue each time we meet
we cannot agree to anything.
Yes, I read your book, not meaning to;
someone had left it behind.
I wish I had asked of what you thought
about how I described ourselves.
It’s typical of Solanki’s style – distilled, unadorned, unrhymed, stripped back to the essence of what it has to say, yet with a perfect balance between the unsaid and the words which make up the poem. He is sparing with adjectives, leaving the reader to supply this seeming lack. For me this works very well, allowing the poems an element of universality that self-indulgent anecdote prevents.
The second section, opening with a series of eleven short poems ‘Fading from View: Hammershoi interiors’, continues the theme of bleak relationships but through the palette and narrow focus of Hammershoi’s paintings. The partially opened doors, the back view of the woman, the silver light, and – above all – the lack of any explanation for the repeated scenes, mirrors the personal alienation Solanki creates in the first section. On the surface these are poems about individual paintings; within this collection they are an extension of Solanki’s interior life.
The sequences on Rothko (four poems), Anish Kapoor (six poems) and Richard Long (nine poems) all work in the same way, with the title of individual works prompting not a description but a personal response and interpretation, the meeting point of poet and artist. From the Richard Long sequence, this is the opening poem, ‘A line made by walking’, quoted in full;
This is a line, made
by others before
you, to guide you
through your uncertainty.
I find this satisfying: it’s the summing up of the dialogue the poet has with the art in front of him, a response that connects with his own concerns about the stories we tell in order to survive.
It is this attention that gives structure and scale to the collection. The final section (a freer mix of subjects, though still within the same tonal register) includes two Nottingham City commissions which may work better in situ than on paper. There are two four-line poems for his daughters, Hannah and Ansuya, which are glimpses of pure happiness, celebrating how he is unlearning habits of restraint. But that reserve and restraint runs deep, and the underlying questions of lies and doubt are always present. In the nine-line ‘Card Players’ – the painter unnamed, though presumably Cezanne – the description in the first stanza leads into abstraction and a more troubling truth –
Time to call the other man’s
bluff, each knowing all the time
a wrong move means losing all.
A less thoughtful publisher than Shoestring might have been tempted to cram these poems in to a pamphlet, on the basis that they are short, compact and an empty page is simply a page without a poem. Solanki’s poems, however, need white space around them: they distil his response to lies, deceptions, uncertainties, and questions about how to live into the essence of truth. Some poets write too much, letting words multiply to disguise weaknesses in thought; by contrast the consistency and clarity which Solanki displays in this collection reminds us how effective language is when pared back to essentials. This is poetry that acknowledges the reader, that ‘we’ share the same troubled ground as the poet himself.
D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection Common Ground appeared in autumn 2014.