“our gift to the moon reflected back to us”

Earthshine, Mimi Khalvati, Smith/Doorstop, £5
reviewed by Emma Lee

Earthshine takes its title from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch which is reproduced on the cover. It refers to the way the moon’s landscape remains lit when the sun sets on the earth-facing side of the moon and the sun’s light is reflected on to the moon from earth giving the moon a crescent-shaped glow. Mimi Khalvati explains it more poetically in the title poem:

there, where we looked pointing, like an Oriental illustration
of Arabian Nights, lay the old moon in the new moon’s arms:

earthshine on the moon’s night side, on the moon’s dark limb,
earthlight, our light, our gift to the moon reflected back to us

and the duty we owe our elders as the Romans owed their gods
– duties they called pietàs, we call pity – shone in the moon’s pietà.

Each poem in the pamphlet is written in long line couplets. This gives spaces for Mimi Khalvati to start with an observation and expansively list associations and explore ideas radiating from the original observation. There is an elegiac tone but not a maudlin one. Perhaps because the poems feature small animals rather than people and use the weather as a metaphor for the mood of the narrator. In ‘Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur’

little living furry torch, eyes two headlamp luminaries, front
a bib of chamois, tip to tail – and mostly tail – barely as long

as the line I write in, despite illegal logging, slash and burn,
would survive longer than many folk, especially in captivity.

Only the barn owl, goshawk, to watch for in the dark – raptors
with their own big beauty. But Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur

is caught in the act – a chameleon clasped in her hands,
a geisha lowering her fan; the smallest primate on our planet.

The tone is gentle and playful. Personally I don’t like attempts to humanise animals so the use of “hands” rather than claws jarred for me. However, the “geisha lowering her fan” image is appropriate here as an animal who looks like a cute, long-tailed small ball of fur is revealed as a hunter, just as a geisha’s role as ornamental escort conceals darker desires. It gives the poem an undertow that stops it being just observation.

It’s the final poem, ‘Tears,’ that explains the purpose of the pamphlet: Mimi Khalvati’s mother’s death and its aftermath,

But in the weeks that followed, tears dried up

and world took up its stick and walked blindly
through the riverbeds. Had they been floodplains,

had there been no dams to render them obsolete,
nilometers would have measured the overflow

from faraway monsoons on stairs, pillars, wells.
Too high and there’d be famine, too low, the same.

I measured distances by her. My mother my compass,
My almanac and sundial, drawing me arcs in space.

Tellingly it’s the only sentimental poem in the collection. The others, with their focus firmly in the natural world, hint and suggest that nature became a means to heal grief.

Emma Lee

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