Several of the poems in the anthology convey a sense of alienation; however “An Unknown Girl” by Moniza Alvi and “Into Your Mind” by Carol Ann Duffy are for me particularly clear in the way they describe such a feeling of ‘not belonging’. In ‘An Unknown Girl’, the poet expresses how her culture roots of India are reawakened while an unknown girl is deftly hennaing her hand. In ‘In Your Mind’, the poet transports us from the boring England, whose language is ‘muffled by the rain’ in autumn, to the exciting and wonderful ‘other country’. In this essay, I will describe how the use of language, poet’s attitude, structure and form of the poems help the poets to articulate such a powerful feeling of alienation.
Upon investigating the poems, we can see that both uses language in various ways to express their wistful sense of ‘not belonging’. In ‘An Unknown Girl’, Alvi starts off by constructing a crowded and lively image of India with the ‘evening bazaar studded with neon’. She is part of such a delightful picture, but the existence of a local ‘unknown girl’ in the following line immediately creates a gap between the poet and the country she truly belongs to. Therefore Alvi uses repetition of the pattern of ‘In the evening… an unknown girl is hennaing my hand’ throughout the poem for three times throughout the poem to emphasise her search of identity and sense of belonging, while hinting that she is also unknown to the country. She seems to know none. She seems not to be part of India. She is alienated.
However, we can see that she is really engaged to the country, using sensory language to create an energetic India, for examples , the ‘satin-peach knee’ of the girl, the colourfully floating balloons, the curtain cloth and sofa cloth. These are all very colourful images and feelings of India that ‘canopy’ her, which shows the naturally intimate and inevitable relationship between India and herself. Alvi also frequently uses enjambment in the poem, separating lines to add suspense, strengthen her fast pace of thoughts, excitement of India and her longing of a sense of belonging. She uses a beautiful metaphor of ‘new brown veins’, which represent both the peacock tattoo and the assimilated culture of India deep into her roots. To Alvi, the tattoo is a symbol of India, when she states, ‘when India appears and reappears…’ which shows her longing of belonging to India.
In the same manner, the use of language in ‘In Your Mind’ is also very efficient and exquisite. It can be argued that the ‘you’ in the poem can be applied to anyone who is desperate for a bit of refreshment in order to escape from the boring reality. The use of second person makes readers more involved in the adventure of the persona. At the beginning, Duffy uses a rhetorical question, ‘is it anticipated or half-remembered?’ to bring ‘you’ immediately into the situation of the poem, with the English rain falling all afternoon. The power of imagination ‘in your mind’ is so fast that although in line 4 you are working, in line 6 you are already ‘on the plane’. With the help of present tense, enjambment and an abrupt full stop, Duffy creates an image as though within a second ‘you’ are already sitting firmly in the plane. The use of simile when ‘the past fades like newsprint in the sun’ quickly transport ‘you’ into the imagination of ‘the other country’. Here, ‘newsprint’ is of course a symbol of England.
However, ‘you’ are then established to be familiar to it, because ‘their faces are photographs’ in the memory. A dream-like, enjoyable and relaxing imagery is beautifully constructed when ‘a moon like an orange peel itself into the sea’, spreading, floating, dissolving in all directions. Duffy also uses lots of monosyllabic words and short lines to describe the ‘other country’, particularly in the third verse: ‘Seagulls. Bells. A flute…’ These short but simple descriptions immediately appeal to our senses, creating a feeling of ‘you are there’. Nevertheless Duffy uses such a method to transport us back to the reality too, as we can see: ‘A newspaper. English rain.’ This brings to an abrupt stop, as though all are only dreams.
Although the two poems I have chosen both explore feelings of alienation, the poet’s attitude and the context of alienation are very distinguished. With respect to ‘An Unknown Girl’, Alvi feels alienated because her inborn ‘veins’ of India are intimately connected with her soul. As we can see, she cannot stop ‘clinging to these firm peacock lines’-the experience in the bazaar, being hennaed, is so profoundly deep, unforgettable and memorable. However, Alvi figures out that having not been living in her home country, she feels strange, unknown and alienated. She knows that the cultural roots and bonds brought by the veins will ‘fade in a week’. We feels very sorry about her because she understands the transience of her sense of belonging, and therefore she knows that she can only be wistfully ‘longing for the unknown girl’, and the unfamiliar India with her hands ‘outstretched’ to find back the feeling of the hennaing experience, alone.
Throughout the poem, Alvi has changed her tone: from the sense of wonder and delight when she notices the ‘furious streets’ full of energy and excitement, to a sense of doubt and gentleness when she decides to ‘scrape off the dry brown lines’, and finally a sense of longing and loss when she discovers that her cultural roots can only be remembered by ‘longing for the unknown girl’. The type of alienation in Alvi’s poem is as though however intimate the relation is, the cultural struggle of not living there in your childhood or throughout your life will simply create an invisible wall between you and the home country, which is very sad and unavoidable.
On the contrary, the attitude of Duffy’s poem is one of powerful desire to escape to the ‘other country’ in an exciting way ‘in your mind’. The poet is possibly dissatisfied with the boring and dull ‘English rain’ and the work in England, so she creates a persona ‘you’ who wants to escape to his/her relaxing and sunny paradise of imagination. Although Duffy states that ‘you know people there’, an old ‘painting’ and ‘the old hotel, it can be noticed that Duffy is leading us into a wonderful world of imagination, because these descriptions of ‘the other country’ can arguably apply to anyone who is worldly and experienced. She is introducing us to a world of wonder, by writing ‘YOU do this and YOU do that’, for instances, ‘You left… You love the job’ and ‘you are there’. The use of second person makes everything seem imperative. Indeed, ‘you’ are doing all sorts of things ‘there’, but it is only a mistaken imagination. ‘You’ can neither belong to an imaginative world, nor you are happy to be in the mundane England. This is why we are left with a sense of alienation in the end of the poem: the exciting and hopeful imagination can only act as a consolation of boredom, because the cruel reality is inescapable.
Lastly, the structures and forms of the poems artistically contribute to the meanings and feelings. In ‘An Unknown Girl’, the use of free verse allows Alvi to explore her flowing thoughts and wonders freely. The use of single verse reinforces the cultural association between India, her cultural roots, and the peacock, tattoo. The particularly long, thin visual layout of the poem shows a hennaed hand and strengthens the existence of India in Alvi’s mind. In contrast, the use of free verse and regular layout allows Duffy to create a freely flowing memory of place and imagination. The poetic structure creates a big sandwich of the reality as the tasteless bread at the beginning and in the end, and the imagination as the most delicious and wonderful part in the middle. Such symmetrical and dream-like qualities both give Duffy to strengthen the transience of happiness.
In conclusion, ‘An Unknown Girl’ shows that having an unfamiliar cultural roots is very difficult involving only wistful longing; while ‘In Your Mind’ shows us the possibility of escaping from reality which will not last long notwithstanding. I think that ‘An Unknown Girl’ is a more effective poem to show a sense of alienation, because it involves lots of internal struggles and the contrast between the energetic India and her ‘not belonging’ soul makes us realise the sadness of something we cannot simply change.