I first read Moniza Alvi’s wonderful ‘I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro’ in the book she shared with Peter Daniels, Peacock Luggage (Smith/Doorstep,1992). The selection of poems she chose to publish in this book also appeared in The Country At My Shoulder, her debut full-length collection with Oxford University Press, not long afterwards.
The feeling I had on finishing reading the poem was something close to elation, I remember. I felt transported to a completely different world and way of looking at the same, by a voice that sounded completely self-assured. Here was someone, I thought, who had arrived.
On the surface the poem is not self-consciously ‘about’ the poet at all. Choosing to speak in an assumed voice about the overlooked ‘dot’, it nevertheless tackles huge subjects: of art, gender, race and sexuality at the margins. This is all done in a voice which sounds effortless, chatty even. It is also explicitly a poem of ‘joy’ and celebration.
I have read the poem countless times over the years and the more I do so, the more I think that its most important line is not the description of the ‘tawny sky’, the ‘lemon stripe’ or the ‘beauty of the linescape’, gorgeous though those phrases are. The more I read this poem the line that cuts me in two each time I do so is its unassuming centre: ‘But it’s fine where I am’.
At first reading I thought this comically throwaway, and not terribly poetic to boot. What I have come to appreciate about it over the years is the way it lends the whole piece a tone of lightness. Without it the poem struggles to achieve its concluding note of acceptance, of relish in imperfection. The poem holds in tension the reality of life at the ‘edge’, a space it denotes as ‘fine’. This is the ‘adventure’ at the heart of the poem, it seems to me, which, for all its lightness of touch, is a deadly serious challenge.
I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro
I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro.
Barely distinguishable from other dots,
it’s true, but quite uniquely placed.
And from my dark centre
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape
and wonder-would it be worthwhile
to roll myself towards the lemon stripe,
centrally poised, and push my curves
against its edge, to get myself
a little extra attention?
But it’s fine where I am.
I’ll never make out what’s going on
around me, and that’s the joy of it.
The fact that I’m not a perfect circle
makes me more interesting in this world.
People will stare forever –
even the most unemotional get excited.
So here I am, on the edge of animation,
a dream, a dance, a fantastic construction,
a child’s adventure.
And nothing in this tawny sky
can get too close, or move too far away.
from The Country at my Shoulder (OUP, 1993)