Analysis of An Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi

 

Moniza Alvi is a Pakistani-British poet and writer. Her poetry records the condition of growing up half-Pakistani and half-British in England, and the sense of conflict which arises as a result. An Unknown Girl focuses on personal identity and sense of belonging through the simple action of a girl painting a henna design on the speaker’s hand.

 

Overview

Title: The title is repeated ‘an unknown girl’, someone anonymous, a person with no name. This is important because it reinforces the idea of no identity. This girl could be any girl, just like the speaker.

Form: free verse 

Rhythm: short lines, pace and movement is like a train.

Tone: nostalgic

Theme: shifting identity, being caught between cultures.

Narration: first person, the narrator may be the poetess herself.  

Main technique: imagery and stream of consciousness

 

Deep-end Analysis

This poem is consisted of a single stanza. For the purpose of analysis, it is divided into sections.

 

In the evening bazaar

studded with neon

an unknown girl

is hennaing my hand.

She squeezes a wet brown line

from a nozzle.

She is icing my hand,

which she steadies with hers

on her satin-peach knee.

 

color images: neon colored bazaar, wet brown line, satin-peach knee

alliteration: hennaing my hand

assonance: icing my, satin-peach knee

enjambment: helps to quicken the pace of reading.

 

The poetess creates a setting of a market road in India where neon color boards on either sides, a girl in a pedestrian stall drawing an art using icing like color oozing through a nozzle. Both the unknown girl’s pastel like brown color and the color of henna amid of neon lights creates a blend of color which is a mixture of Western and Indian. Writers close observation and the blend of feelings associated in her visible in her choice of words. She seemingly is moved by the experience she gets at the moment. Evening time is a transitory period of time and the words ‘hennaing’ and ‘icing’ gives the reader about the setting and the Western touch of the speaker in the poem.

 

In the evening bazaar

for a few rupees

an unknown girl is hennaing my hand.

As a little air catches

my shadow-stitched kameez

a peacock spreads its lines

across my palm.

 

symbol: peacock (national bird of India and has a connection to the god Krishna)

visual imagery: shadow-stitched kameez (may be the stitches are of dark color)

repetition: evening bazaar, unknown girl

alliteration: shadow-stitched kameez

personification: little air catches, peacock spreads its lines

 

The speaker’s repetition emphasizes her wonderment of a girl at such a transitory period of time drawing a hennaing art in her hand, or it might be her alienation amid of the unfamiliar culture and people. Giving the air and the peacock human qualities may show her attempt to be familiar with the environment and the culture.

 

Colours leave the street

float up in balloons.

Dummies in shop-fronts

tilt and stare

with their Western perms.

Banners for Miss India 1993,

for curtain cloth

and sofa cloth

canopy me.

 

visual imagery: colors leave the street float up in balloons (very colorful evening bazaar road like balloons covered the sky making the ground colourful)

personification: dummies… stare/ banners…canopy

 

So, the poet looks around her to realize how western culture has invaded the Indian streets too. She sees plastic dummies with western hair styles, indication of western conventions like beauty pageant. The banners ‘canopy me’ may have two meanings, one is the ‘Banners for Miss India 1993’ have been used as a canopy to the stall and it may be stating of her Eastern identity covered by her western culture.

 

I have new brown veins.

In the evening bazaar

very deftly

an unknown girl

is hennaing my hand.

I am clinging

To these firm peacock lines

like people who cling

to the sides of a train.

 

metaphor: new brown veins (henna design) to reflect the speaker's new found identity. peacock lines (her root cultural identity)

repetition: evening bazaar, an unknown girl is hennaing my hand.

simile: like people who cling to the sides of a train. (insecure of her own identity?)

 

The speaker feels that she has found a new Eastern identity when she is touched by the Eastern traditional art. However, she is not sure whether she can hold on to it for long. This shows her mental state of being caught between two cultures. Though she craves for her root culture, she cannot hold on to it. (this is true to poetess life itself, she is a cultural hybrid: her father is a Pakistani and mother is British)

 

Now the furious streets

are hushed.

I'll scrape off

the dry brown lines

before I sleep,

reveal soft as a snail trail

the amber bird beneath.

It will fade in a week.

 

simile: as a snail trail

assonance: snail trail

visual imagery: dry brown lines, amber bird

 

After leaving the bazaar, at her place, she admires the touch of her root culture and feel nostalgic about its disappearance after a week. Away from normal noisy Indian roads, in the peaceful realization, she has to remove the trail of her roots from her life. It seems hard for the speaker to do so.

 

When India appears and reappears

I'll lean across a country

with my hands outstretched

longing for the unknown girl

in the neon bazaar.

 

The ending suggests that the speaker is unhappy with her identity and craves for the unknown girl's presence, or indeed, wishes to be her. (The constant repetition may suggest that she is the unknown girl with an unknown identity) The last lines of the poem return the speaker to the country in which she lives. From there, when memories or thoughts of India “appear” and reappear, she will lean into them. She’ll reach from one land to the other, her “hands outstretched” and feel a longing for the “unknown girl” in the bazaar. This last mention of the “unknown girl” is the most obvious in its connection to the speaker. She is reaching for a past version of herself, the Indian version that is sitting in the marketplace.

 

Resources: AL resource book provided by NIE, www.poemanalysis.com, www.owlcation.com

 

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