This poem was first published in 1996 in A Bowl of Warm Air, the poet’s second collection of poems. The speaker is a new bride who experiences a very strange and surreal wedding ceremony. The reader should pay close attention to the speaker’s dream-like account of the events of the wedding ceremony and how the poet has woven in an extended metaphor speaking on themes of immigration and identity.
Although it is never stated in the lines of the text, it’s simple to assume that the country the speaker is thinking about is Pakistan (due to the poet’s background) and the mention of Jinnah Gardens in Islamabad.
Explore The Wedding
‘The Wedding’ by Moniza Alvi is a powerful poem that describes a wedding through dream-like imagery.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker looks back on her emotions regarding her upcoming wedding ceremony. She believed it was going to be something small, held in a forgotten city. When the ceremony finally came along, it was as expected—dull. When the guests arrived, their suitcases initiated an extended metaphor that gives the poem its deepest meaning. The poet uses numerous examples of similes depicting the wedding guest as beggars and smugglers.
For her dowery, the speaker offers a smile, whisper, and more intangible things. She rides down the street with her groom, and they look in front of themselves as though they have the power to look through their closest surroundings and into another realm of existence. Here, the poem’s dream-like powers are at their peak. In conclusion, the speaker says that she would prefer to marry the country of Pakistan itself.
She imagines the various elements of the country becoming her dress and veil. Her dreams are temporary, and she knows that holding onto them is going to be impossible. The bride and groom face one another, and the speaker describes the markings on their hands as appearing like maps.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Wedding’ by Moniza Alvi is a twelve stanza poem that is made up of sets of three lines, also known as tercets. There is a single concluding line that makes twelve stanzas at the end of the poem. Visually, the poem looks to be quite regular. But, as one is reading it, the repetitive use of enjambment changes the rhythm dramatically.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words in succession. For example: “stealthy as sandalwood smugglers” and “stared straight.”
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader senses, allowing them to envision the scene the writer intended them to. For example: “The ceremony tasted of nothing / had little color – guests arrived.”
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. This occurs numerous times throughout the poem. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one as well as lines one and two of stanza three.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a paws into the middle of a line of verse. For example: “had little color – guests arrived.”
Stanzas One and Two
I expected a quiet wedding
had little color – guests arrived
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker describes what she expected from her upcoming wedding ceremony. She believed that it was going to be held in a quiet place in a “lost city,” this is a reference to a romanticized version of a city in Pakistan, perhaps Islamabad, that no longer exists, or that only ever existed in a dream. But, as the poem progresses despite some of her expectations coming true, the wedding ceremony becomes far more complicated.
In these lines, the speaker uses numerous examples of similes and metaphors. She compares her marriage to a “forest of sticks, a pot of water.” This is the first of numerous dreamlike images that give this poem its meaning.
This helps to convey the speaker’s experience of being pulled between two histories, countries, and identities. There is England and there’s Pakistan. She wants to be able to balance her life, meaning, balance the various cultures that are part of her life.
Stanzas Three and Four
stealthy as sandalwood smugglers.
I insisted my dowry was simple-
When the wedding guest arrived at the ceremony, they open their suitcases and their cultural identities spill out. She depicts this quite simply as “England.” This part of her new life is scratching at her, it is clawing at her trying to keep control of her in full. But, she has another identity that she has to contend with. The arrival of “England” throws her balance off. It also makes it clear why the speaker has such a longing for Pakistan or a version of Pakistan.
The following lines initiate a depiction of the speaker’s metaphorical dowry. Rather than possessions or money, she has something else to offer.
Stanzas Five and Six
a smile, a shadow, a whisper,
Our eyes changed color
The speaker notes that she has a “shadow, a whisper.” These are the things that she can give on her wedding day. The home she has is made of things that are not durable or dependable. They are “rags and bamboo.” Here, the speaker is creating an intentional juxtaposition between England and Pakistan as well as what one would expect and what reality is.
The speaker in her groom travels around roads “with English / names.” They are living an English life but still have a different cultural heritage to contend with.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
like traffic-lights, so they said.
breath life into new cities.
There’s a beautiful simile in the transition between stanzas six and seven. The speaker describes how their eyes change color “like traffic lights.” Or, at least that’s what people said. This is a suggestion of the way that the speaker, and perhaps her groom as well, transitions between one culture and one history and the next. She also notes at this point that it was not time for them to “view each other.”
Since this is a marriage of two countries, maybe the speaker is implying that neither was ready to embrace the other entirely. Perhaps, there is still some distance between the two due to their knowledge of what they would lose and gain as they left the unity of their previous lives behind.
Rather than look at one another, the two stare straight ahead, this is something the speaker describes in dream-like terms once again. She says it’s as though they believed they could “see through mountains / breathe life into new cities.”
Stanzas Nine and Ten
I wanted to marry a country
Our thoughts half-submerged
In stanza nine, the speaker reveals that she wanted to marry a country. That is Pakistan. She wanted to have the Pakistani river as her veil and spend time singing in the botanical gardens of the capital. This is a beautiful image and one that is unattainable.
It is, of course, impossible to marry a country. Here, the speaker is admitting her fears about the duality of her identity that she’s going to have to face. As she marries, she’s leaving what she knew behind and will need to contend with her new life in England. The poet does an exceptional job weaving the theme of immigration within these lines.
She wanted to marry Pakistan, but it’s hard to hold onto that dream. She compares it to charming a snake in the tenth stanza.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
like buffaloes under dark water
and imprints like maps on our hands.
In the eleventh stanza and the final tercet, the speaker creates another simile. She describes how she and her groom pushed their thoughts deep into their minds, like “buffaloes under dark water.” This is suggestive of the disruptive power of their thoughts as well as how difficult it would be to submerge them in this way. The two finally turned face one another in the final lines, but it is not without “turbulence.”
At the end of the poem, the speaker notes that on their hands are “imprints like maps.” This is suggestive of the fundamental way that history, identity, and culture affect one’s experience in the world and with others. Where they’re from is a fundamental part of their identity.
The tone is dream-like and fractured. The speaker flips from one image to the next, with a little time for the reader to interpret her meeting. It takes several readings to fully understand what the speaker is trying to convey through her various similes and allusions.
The purpose of this poem is to describe a very personal situation related to the difficulties of marriage, immigration, and the coming together of various cultural identities. Although the poem is personal, because there are only a few specific details, it is possible for multiple readers to place themselves in the shoes of the speaker and relate to her experiences.
The poem deals with themes of identity, immigration, and culture. The speaker weaves concerns about all of these throughout the twelve stanzas of the poem. Although it takes some interpretation, by the time one reads this poem carefully, it’s clear how tied into the speaker’s identity her cultural heritage is.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Wedding Cake’ by Naomi Shihab Nye – describes a brief moment a speaker took care of a child on an airplane.
- ‘Identity’ by Abhimanyu Kumar – a relatable poem that explores themes of memory, identity, and personal history while inspiring readers to take control of their lives.
- ‘The Ache of Marriage’ by Denise Levertov – explores how difficult marriage can be, with Levertov arguing it is a ‘joy[less]’, painful affair.