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Analysis of Poem Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Moniza Alvi

Moniza Alvi

Moniza Alvi

Moniza Alvi and a Summary of An Unknown Girl

An Unknown Girl focuses on personal identity and sense of belonging through the simple action of a girl being paid a few rupees (Indian currency) to draw a design on a hand. She does this using henna, a brown plant dye, squeezed from a plastic nozzle, which is a common practice in India.

The first person speaker is the one having this design drawn by an unknown girl. As this is taking place in the bazaar (from the Persian, meaning market or working area), the poem builds up a picture of the surroundings.

The peacock design becomes increasingly significant. Not only is it the national bird of India, turning up in Indian mythology and folklore, it represents 'new brown veins' on the skin of the speaker. That is, new blood.

  • So the basic theme of this poem is one of shifting identity, of being caught between cultures (in this case India and probably the West).
  • In the poem, we are not told where the speaker originates from, so there's ambiguity.
  • Is she Indian herself? She seems to be making a keen contrast between tradition and more modern cultural aspects, such as Miss India 1993, where female models are paraded for their beauty and grace.
  • The ending suggests that the speaker, wherever they are from, is unhappy with her identity and craves for the unknown girl's presence or wishes to be her.

This would dovetail neatly into Moniza Alvi's real life, as she says:

'I never feel entirely at home in England, and of course I'm not part of the Asian community at all.'

And this is reinforced by poet and critic Deryn Rees-Jones, who writes:

'much of Alvi's work engages with a surreal or fantastical world of fractured and partially recovered identity.'

An Unknown Girl explores the idea of belonging and identity through personal narrative, repetition and cultural allusion. However, the ending is ambiguous, the speaker uncertain of who she is, wanting to retain that feeling she had when the design was fresh and the unknown girl and she were one.

This poem first appeared in the book A Bowl of Warm Air, 1996. Moniza Alvi, born in Pakistan but raised in the UK, has published several books of poetry over the years and gained a reputation for her unique insights into the nature of identity and alienation.

"An Unknown Girl"


Analysis of An Unknown Girl Line By Line

An Unknown Girl is a 48 line poem that, visually, on the page, is 'all by itself' not knowing whether to move left or right, a continuous series of short lines that widen then narrow, a little like a stack of lines that could topple over at any time.

This physical uncertainty is mirrored within the text as the speaker has her hand hennad (henna, a plant dye used to 'tattoo' the skin) in an evening bazaar by an unknown girl.

Lines 1 - 4

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The first person speaker is having a design drawn on her hand. The bazaar (marketplace) is lit red...'studded' with neon lights. That word studded adds to the idea of something being fixed into.

The title is unknown girl...someone anonymous, a person with no name. This is important because it reinforces the idea of no identity. This girl could be any girl, just like the speaker.

Lines 5 - 9

The action is described. Using a plastic bottle the girl squeezes out the henna dye, wet. It will soon dry.

Note the language here...icing my if the hand is a cake and the henna a sweet decoration. This is perhaps a hint of the western world which the speaker knows intimately, where cakes are iced.

But there is also a saying in the west...the icing on the cake...which means that a good situation has been made better, is enhanced. So is the speaker suggesting that her situation is being improved by this icing?

The girl's satin-peach knee is a strong image of a skin smooth and pastel coloured.

Lines 10 - 13

A direct repeat of the first line - In the evening bazaar - perhaps because the speaker cannot quite believe where she is and what's happening to her.

She is having henna applied by an unknown girl. And it is very cheap, only a few rupees. The current market rates are 1$=71 rupees or 1£=93 rupees. So it is only a matter of cents or pennies for this design.

Lines 14 - 19

There's a breeze (a little air) coming in to the covered bazaar, moving the speaker's kameez (traditional dress worn b y women from north west India and east Pakistan) where the shadow is said to stitch - again like studded the word is related to something being fixed into material.

Already the speaker is attached to the design, which is a peacock, the national bird of India, a very important bird. She's having her palm decorated. The street's colours outside float up in balloons, to enhance the feeling of expansion.

Lines 20 - 26

The reader is given more information, the picture building up. This is a commercial area so there are dummies (mannikins) in shop windows...they are at an angle and seem to be alive (they stare)...and more importantly they have western wigs on, they have perms.

Also Miss India is in the news (it's 1993, competitions like Miss India were popular back then, and maybe still are in certain areas), where beautiful young women are chosen for their looks and personality.

Different cloths form a roof (a canopy) around the speaker. All of these things give the reader a feel for the atmosphere. Here is the speaker in a new environment, wearing a traditional costume, being worked on by an unknown girl.

Lines 27 - 31

The speaker has new brown veins, suggesting that the henna has become an integral part of her physical make-up. New blood runs through them? This is the poet using metaphor to reflect the speaker's new found identity.

And a repeat of the first line again, like a mantra, is more to remind the speaker that here she is, a fresh identity being created before her very eyes by a skillful girl (very deftly)

Lines 32 - 35

However, she isn't really happy or contented with her situation. She feels insecure, almost desperate, like those people who ride the trains, packed to the limit, having to hang on because if they let go they would drop off and get crushed!

This is a strange scenario, yet what the speaker is going through is confusion....she really senses the peacock design as something that is, like the train, going to take her somewhere new, somewhere different.

Lines 36 - 42

The scene quietens down. The reader is taken away from the bazaar - perhaps the speaker has drifted off into the night, and back to her hotel room?

She feels a need to scrape off the design, to reveal the lighter orange peacock beneath, the lines compared to a snail maybe the speaker isn't so impressed by her decoration after all.

Why would she want to scrape it off in the first place? Is she no longer certain of her new identity?

Lines 43 - 48

It'll all be gone in 7 days, the peacock, the henna, India. Or perhaps it will all reappear...the speaker will lean across a country...does this mean her hand or has she a map open...or is it all going on in her head?

Either way, the speaker longs for that moment again in the bazaar, when an unknown girl began the design and the speaker felt however fleetingly that she had a valid new identity.

Analysis of An Unknown Girl - Literary/Poetic Devices

An Unknown Girl is a single stanza free verse poem of 48 short lines. On the page it is a slim design itself, placed in the middle, neither to the left or right, perhaps a reflection of the theme of split identity.

The title suggests that this poem is about one girl but it could be about any anonymous girl. It's a title that makes the reader think about this single personality even before reading the poem - will she be known at the end, will she remain unknown? Why is she unknown?


When two or more words close together in a line begin with the same consonant they are alliterative, adding to the sound texture and pattern:

hennaing my hand....shadow-stitched....with their Western...soft as a snail...bird beneath...


When two or more words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels:

icing my....satin-peach knee....leave the street....snail trail....


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, so the reader continues on without pause or with very little pause. The sense of meaning is maintained. For example, the last four lines are all enjambed.

Internal Rhyme

Although this is a free verse poem with no set rhyme scheme, there are rhymes within. For example:

satin-peach knee/rupees/kameez/leave the street/...peacock/people....reveal/beneath/lean


When an object or thing or person is replaced by another thing, widening understanding and deepening imagery. For example:

I have new brown veins,


Repeating lines or words or phrases helps rein force an image or meaning. For example:

an unknown girl .....repeated three times (plus the unknown girl at the end of the poem)

is hennaing my hand.......repeated three times.

wet brown line/spreads its lines/firm peacock lines/dry brown lines.


Comparing two or more things using the words like or as. For example:

like people who cling/to the sides of a train.


Being Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2004

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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