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The autobiographical poem is about the conflict of identity, of two tongues. The poet, living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, is afraid of losing her mother tongue. She fears it might rot and die. The poem tells us of how she then dreams about her mother tongue returning as she sleeps: blossoming, growing back. It reflects the idea that our language is our identity. The poem shows the importance of identity in different ways. When she explains losing her mother tongue over her other language she is losing a part of herself: ‘if you had two tongues inside you and lost the first one, the mother tongue’. ‘Search for my tongue’ represents a common and modern conflict which many can relate to and even empathise towards.
The structure of the poem expresses the poets feeling and ideas about identity. ‘Search for my tongue’ has a clear three part layout which symbolises the poet’s feelings about her divided identity. The clearly divided stanzas symbolise divided culture and identity and the difficulties of being fluent in two languages are expressed in the first stanza. ‘You could not use them both together, even if you thought that way’.
There is strong imagery in the poem which represents the poet’s feelings about her divided identity. She imagines that knowing two languages is like having two tongues she compares her tongue to a flower: ‘would rot and die, it grows back, grows strong veins’ there are two main images created throughout the poem which contrast each other. The first being the mother tongue rotting and dying as the other foreign tongue takes over. It contrasts greatly with the second image which is more positive and pleasant, her mother tongue blossoms and shoots up like a plant. She is pleased when she realises: ‘every time I think I have forgotten, I think I’ve lost the mother tongue, it blossoms out of my mouth’.
The poem moves from explaining what its like to lose your mother tongue: ‘your mother tongue would rot, rot and die in your mouth’ to showing the joy of rediscovering it: ‘it grows backâ€¦ the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth, it pushes the other tongue aside’ and so has a changing tone.
‘I ask you what would you do if you had two tongues in your mouth’ this quotation emphasises that, for the writer, being able to speak two languages has led to difficulties. ‘I ask you’ involves the reader in the situation making the reader empathise with Bhatt.
Lines 17-30 are written in Guajarati with phonetic spelling. The phonetic spelling allows those who aren’t bilingual to also relate to the poem. But the use of another language could also be a way of disorientating the reader, as those who are not bilingual would not understand it. The Guajarati stanza describes the comeback of her mother tongue and also gives the impression that although you may forget your mother tongue, you still dream in your native tongue: ‘but overnight whilst I dream it grows back’ and it will never leave you. The Guajarati lines are translated immediately afterwards, this symbolises the return of her mother tongue. The structure expresses the problem of identity of the poet. She puts the Guajarati ‘tongue’ at the heart of the poem as if it is the heart of her being.
The Guajarati part of the poem shows us her mother tongue visually and emphasises the difference from English. The English language also contrasts throughout the poem as she uses a more informal approach at the beginning making it sound like she’s talking to the reader about her problem: ‘you ask me what I mean’ whilst at the end she uses more metaphoric language.
Metaphorical language is used in the poem to show ideas about identity. The poets tongue is described as a living thing. In the poem ‘Search for my tongue’ there is an extended metaphor of her tongue being like a flower growing in her mouth: ‘grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins’ and words like bud an blossoms show that its growing back and create the impression that her tongue is rooted in her. It emphasises her feelings about her identity coming through her mother tongue.
Using Guajarati shows the two languages operating in her life and makes a powerful point in the poem. It shows the contrast of the two languages. The Guajarati has more ‘plosives’ and is harsh sounding, whereas in contrast the English is softer sounding. The positioning of the Guajarati: at the core of the poem with English either side of it, gives the impression that the two languages are able to function together in her life. The languages changing in the poems also represent her struggle to find her identity, representing no fixed identity but different layers that adapt to the surroundings, not frozen at a time or place.
The poem ‘presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ uses the experience of receiving ethnic clothes from Pakistan to explore a sense of shared culture and identity. It also projects the dilemma of divided culture and divided families. The idea of using a representation of identity is repeated in Alvis poem but there is a more materialistic approach compared to Bhatt’s efforts.
The technique of a symbolic structure is also true in Alvi’s poem. ‘Presents’ does not have an orthodox structure but contains distinguishable stanzas organised as free flowing verses. The lines move backwards and forwards as if to symbolise the move between the two cultures. The free flowing verses also allow for the sentences to contain sudden pauses and then continue on the next line (Enjambment). This continues throughout the whole poem giving it a hint of suspense. The structure could also represent a trail of thoughts as they resemble the path a persons mind would take whilst wondering slowly flowing moving from one idea to the next.
Alvi also contrasts English culture with Asian culture as does Bhatt with the languages. She receives gifts of clothes, shoes and bangles from her relatives. In the first stanza they are described carefully and in huge detail to stress their difference to English clothes. An image of an exotic and colourful outfit is merged in the readers mind from the description. The bright colours of the salwar kameez suggest the familiar indication of exotic clothes worn by Asian women, but when she states: ‘candy-striped glass bangles snapped, drew blood’ it is creating an image, symbolising how her tradition harms her. It can be assumed she feels, as if it is not ‘practical’ for the lifestyle of a young woman in the west or it could be a way of showing how her Pakistani heritage was cut short and ‘snapped’ like the bangle.
In contrast she does secretly admire the clothes, envying their beauty and feels intimidated by them: ‘I could never be as lovely as those clothes’. She mentions feeling ‘alien’ when wearing them.
The poem also shows her in two minds when she ‘longs’ for denim and corduroy, indicating the English side of her nature but also wants her parents ‘very Pakistani’ camel skin lamp. This symbolises the conflict of her identity.
There is strong imagery in the poem as Alvi uses detailed and vivid descriptions to build up an image entwined with personal meaning. This is cleverly carried out throughout the whole poem.
In the poem she recalls the event of her mother’s jewellery being stolen. She comments on how important the jewellery was to her mother as she ‘cherished’ the Indian gold. The fact of it being stolen perhaps shows how her mother wasn’t part of the Asian culture.
She then once more admires the clothes and states ‘the presents were radiant in my wardrobe’. This stanza ends with the irony that the aunts who sent the traditional clothes themselves requested cardigans from Marks & Spencer.
‘I often admired the mirror work, tried to glimpse myself in the miniature glass circles’. The fact that they were so small means Alvi would not have been able to see her whole reflection, just a segment which underlines the idea of a split identity. She briefly recalls her journey from Pakistan to England. ‘Prickly heat had me screaming on the way’ emphasises pain and the difficulty of being divided between two cultures.
She tries to visualise her birthplace using photographs. She reads about the conflict in Pakistan in the newspapers describing it as a fractured land, which reflected her fractured identity. She pictures her aunts, screened from male visitors by fretwork, wrapping presents.
She sees ‘beggars, sweeper-girls’. She pictures herself: ‘of no fixed nationality’. This shows she feels no sense of belonging. Like her aunts, she is behind a screen, the screen symbolises division and stops her from seeing the whole image.
The clothes make her embarrassed as she blushes: ‘my costume clung to me and I was aflame’ she then states: ‘I couldn’t rise up out of its fire, half English, unlike aunt Jamila’ and comments on her presumably Pakistani aunt Jamila and how she can ‘rise up out of its fire’ by being bold enough to wear such garments and look perfectly natural. Her half English heritage makes such display seem excessive. She feels as though her half English heritage holds her back from looking natural. Alvi: not being as daring, ‘longs for denim and corduroy’ plainer but comfortable and inconspicuous.
Moniza Alvi shows a paradox as she secretly admires the presents but felt they were too exquisite for her and lacked street credibility. This is shown when her school friend is ‘unimpressed’ by her outfit.
Moniza Alvi tends to use more descriptive language in her poem and does not use many metaphors but frequently describes in detail building up images for the reader. Whereas Bhatt uses more colloquial language at the beginning and then goes on to use more metaphoric language including an extended metaphor: Alvi does not.
The other similarity between the poems is the tense. Both poems have a changing tense, reflecting the idea of changing identity.
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