Winner of the 2015 Forward Prize for Best First Collection
Mona Arshi’s debut collection, 'Small Hands', introduces a brilliant and compelling new voice. At the centre of the book is the slow detonation of grief after her brother’s death but her work focuses on the whole variety of human experience: pleasure, hardship, tradition, energised by language which is in turn both tender and risky. Often startling as well as lyrical, Arshi’s poems resist fixity; there is a gentle poignancy at work here which haunt many of the poems. This is humane poetry. Arshi’s is a daring, moving and original voice.
Mona Arshi was born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London where she still lives. She initially trained as a lawyer and worked for Liberty, the UK human rights organisation for several years, undertaking test case litigation under the Human Rights Act. She began writing poetry in 2008 and received a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She won the inaugural Magma Poetry competition in 2011 and was on the Complete Works Program, a scheme funded by the Arts Council. Mona was joint winner of the Manchester Creative writing poetry prize in 2014.
It is a testament to Mona Arshi's talent that, after a decade of not reading any poetry at all, her work had me clambering for old anthologies. Of course, little of what I read afterwards was as elegant, moving, haunting or true. Nothing less than Britain's most promising writer.
Sathnam Sanghera, The Times
Deliciously varied in form and approach, tone and voice, Mona Arshi’s poems display a tantalising ‘instability’ – each one prismatic and glittering. She opens a clear, suggestive window onto many aspects of life and inner life, on her cultural background, for instance, and on the tragic loss of a brother. So often one thinks, pulled up in amazement, ‘Where did that come from?’ that I’m tempted to the use the word ‘genius’.
There is an extraordinary keenness, sharpness, poignancy and precision in Mona Arshi's poems. They deal with loss, pleasure and the sheer particularities of life with striking grace, constituting something like ‘an erotics of the spirit’, tenderly and imaginatively taking apart and reassembling language, registering everything necessary. Time and again she hits the perfect note. It is rare to find a first book as beautiful as this.
Mona Arshi’s debut collection certainly lives up to that claim. Her work draws on a rainbow of influences, including her Punjabi Sikh heritage. Fuelled by grief at her brother’s death, but encompassing a range of human experiences, her poems have the vividly uncanny quality of dreams, as the surface of ordinary things shifts to reveal something quite disturbingly different. Her use of imagery is startlingly original: pomegranate seeds are ‘unborns ticking/in blisters of heat’.
Mona Arshi proves she has the tools to move and startle her audience with precisely-crafted work.
Dundee University Review of the Arts
Small Hands is a beautiful, minimally-designed and tiny edition – even the font is noticeably smaller than the industry norm – and Liverpool University Press have done an excellent job making the physical object match the work inside it. The collection is full of curious, shifty poems that seem intent on approaching their subjects sidelong, or from multiple angles at once. If this approach sometimes makes it difficult to get an accurate read on the poem’s message, it does make for work that seems to offer up something different with every reading.
This is an intriguing, powerful collection.
Cath Nichols, Poetry Wales
Small Hands seems to offer an early ripening of what promises to be a vintage trip into ‘foreignation.’
Ken Evans, The Manchester Review