An Unknown Girl, by Moniza Alvi, is another poem, which explores the experience of being female, but is more specific to seeking identity. From her name and the poem, I think she is from an Indian family, but now lives in England. It sounds like she has gone to India to visit and see if she truly is Indian or will live a better life in England. The poem generally, describes a young girl at a night market stall, who is hennaing people’s body. Moniza Alvi is having her hand hennaed, with the picture of a peacock. As she sits patiently, she looks around and describes everything in her sight, using many poetic techniques, especially metaphors, which lead you into thinking about other meanings of what she has written.
The poem, after the first couple of lines, begins with the phrase, “An unknown girl is hennaing my hand.” This phrase is repeated throughout the poem. It keeps you thinking about the ‘unknown girl’. Right from the start you think that this ‘unknown girl’, must be the girl hennaing, but the ending gives it a twist, and I think that the unknown girl is actually, Moniza Alvi, this I will explain at the end. This poem is very atmospheric and realistic, in the way it describes in great detail the area, using such techniques as, metaphors, similes and some internal rhyming. Examples of what I think are the most effective metaphors, are, “Studded with neon.”
As she describes the picture of an unknown girl sitting in the bazaar, lit up by small neon lights dotted around. “A peacock spreads its lines across my palm.” Is also a good description, because although this is just metaphoric for the girl painting the lines on her hand, she is literally painting the lines of a peacock. This is a pretty, decorative bird, which fits into the Indian atmosphere. Her use of Indian language adds to the atmosphere; as she describes the night market, as an ‘evening bazaar’, the currency called ‘rupees’ and her tunic, being a ‘shadow-stitched kameez’.
There are also some rare, internal rhymes, that go unnoticed. Here are just two, “On her satin-peach knee” “For a few rupees.” And, “Banners for Miss India 1993” “Canopy me” She gives great descriptions of what she sees, one of my favourites being, “Dummies in shop-fronts tilt and stare with their Western perms.” They seem to be incongruous to her. One line that is especially well written is towards the end, where she explains, how she will take off the henna before she sleeps, “Reveal soft as a snail trail the amber bird beneath.” A simile, a metaphor and sibilance are used, as she describes a sleepy time, and the intimitants of the henna.
She doesn’t use punctuation often, dis-obeying the rules, as she misses capital letters after full stops, but enjambment is used a lot instead. I think this makes the poem flow better, so it is less formal but still meaningful. It has a subtle structure, making it more like a conversation between you and the poet. The actual positioning of the poem is straight down the middle of the page, so it hits you straight away when you look at it. It makes it easier and sharper to read each line. I think the way it is centred also has something to do with the way the poem is ‘centred’ on Moniza Alvi, showing that infact, it is all about her and not the girl in the bazaar, as you may have thought.
From the whole poem though, I believe that the best technique has to be in her use of similes, just before the last few lines, where she twists the poem, making you re-think your thoughts about the situation. It is very meaningful and expresses her feelings in a literal sense. “I am clinging to these firm peacock lines like people who cling to the sides of a train.” This explains how she feels stuck between two cultures. She feels precarious and scared, like people clinging to the sides of a train. They hold on very tightly, just as she does to the tattoo on her hand, because she is unsure of her identity. She doesn’t mean, that she literally holds on to the painted pattern, but she does not know whether she is Indian or English. This brings in a great deal of her emotional feelings into the poem and makes you change your mind about the meaning of the title.
When I had finished reading the poem over, several times, I began to think differently about the title. I think she is exploring her identity, and may mean the title as a metaphor for herself. She is insecure, and proof of this is in the phrase; “I am clinging to these firm peacock lines like people who cling to the sides of a train.” Moniza Alvi, in my opinion, is ‘an unknown girl’.