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Wildfires swept across California in the autumn of 2017, destroying property worth $9 billion and claiming at least 45 lives.
American climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh as well as other researchers have claimed that the devastating fires were a direct consequence of climate change and predicted more such incidents in the future. Their prediction proved true with bigger, record-setting, fires in 2018 and 2020, sparked by heatwaves and winds.
During the 2017 incident, one of the houses that burnt down belonged to Pakistani-American poet Sophia Naz.
“Almost nine years ago I fell in love with this quirky house in Glen Ellen, a tiny village in Northern California’s wine country,” Naz writes in the Introduction to her new book of poems Open Zero. But as Naz and her family are evacuated on October 15, 2017, she sees her home for the last time before the tongues of the devastating fire consume it.
In his 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement, novelist Amitav Ghosh writes how climate change – perhaps the greatest existential crisis of our times – is missing from “serious” fiction.
“That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish,” he writes.
“To see that this is so, we need only glance through the pages of a few highly regarded literary journals and reviews… It is as though in the literary imagination climate change was akin to extra-terrestrials or interplanetary travel.”
Indian poetry has begun to respond to this lacunae in recent years with books such as Open Your Eyes edited by Vinita Agarwal, which I had reviewed this column, and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation by Sudeep Sen.
Naz also cannot help referring to the real cause of her home burning down. “[B]eyond the immediate cause of the apocalyptic history-making fires lay a deadly trifecta of conditions. An unusually wet winter, an unusually dry summer, and unusually strong winds. The first two culprits are clear hallmarks of climate change.” She goes on to address how former president Donald Trump’s continuous denial of climate change has only aggravated the situation in the US.
Having lost one’s home, Naz must have felt acute frustration and anger at local and global political leaders dragging their feet on climate change action, as seen recently in the Glasgow summit. This frustration or sense of loss, maybe even bewilderment, manifests itself through the image of burnt trees.
The trees are real – the ones Naz must have seen herself – but also metaphorical:
Trees wear their green reluctantly.
Who knows the wind’s true intention?
In “Sketching ‘Normal’”, Naz performs the Platonic challenge of representing a burnt-out tree in a sketch:
At the pinnacle
of the forest path, a grove
burned trees, no birds
next in leafless arms, only
the wind lays
an occasional limb
When you sketch
torched barks, thickness
of scabs sinks in
dominoes falling on cue, a snake
But even burnt trees can be a source of hope, of song, as in “Arrive Slowly”:
I saw a bird at sundown, perched
atop the burned redwood, where limbs
fell away, leaving sole étude
point of trunk, reservoir
Or they can be glorious, verdant, full of promise, as in “Wish Fulfilling Tree”:
I dreamed a tree at river’s edge,
grand, motherload of shade
and I, a refugee, leafing through
promise of a green country
In all these images of trees, there seems to be hidden a desire for the cyclical nature of seasons that can be a source of comfort in our uncertainty-saturated times.
Perhaps, this cycle is best represented by a “zero” – which is at once nothing and everything, the beginning, and the end. To open up a zero is to rupture it like an egg, to allow precious life to leak out and catastrophe to leak in.
The 67 poems in Naz’s book are divided into four parts, each part beginning with an epigraph from another poet—Octavio Paz, Paul Celan, Meena Alexander, and Athena Kashyap. It is not really evident how these poems have been divided. Besides climate change, the other important theme in the book is language. In poem after poems, such as “Mother Tongues”, “The Ballad of Allah Miyan”, “Barq”, “Nakhoda”, “Bera Gharq”, “Kaffir”, and others, she harks back to her roots in Urdu and the culture of the Indian subcontinent.
For instance, in “Bera Gharq”, she writes:
Letters lie folded
Stowaways in the suitcase
Guantanamo of your immigrant throat
ghain and qaf suffocate, refuse
to give up the ghost
Poems such as these continue to be fashionable but are likely to leave a serious reader cold. Naz herself has explored such poetry in great depth in her previous collections Pointillism and Date Palms. (This book, too, has seven pages of Glossary explaining non-English terms.) She needs to find newer themes or newer ways to explore these themes.
Also, some of the shorter poems seem only to be turning verbal tricks and not really engaging with any idea or theme. For instance, “Bomb”, which opens the eponymous third part of the book:
See, man ticks
Language is the bomb.
What sense does this make really? Perhaps Naz is trying to emulate the trick used by some Urdu poets at mushairas where they would begin their performance by reciting a witty couplet. Agha Shahid Ali was also fond of doing this, but Naz’s “Bomb” is nowhere near, say, Shahid Ali’s “Stationery”.
These are, of course, complaints of someone who has read Naz’s poetry for years and even reviewed her previously. (Full disclosure: My first book of poems, Visceral Metropolis, was launched along with her Pointillism in New Delhi in 2017.)
In Open Zero, what really shines for me are the four prose poems – “The Mirroring Gossamer”, “Nakhoda”, “Descano for America”, and “Thumbnail”. Liberated from the tyranny of the short, free-verse line, these poems expand like the greening banyan trees of her childhood in Karachi:
Dug into flesh with a savage tenacity, feral as a meathook, the jagged nail is a gnawing bipolarity, both earth and air, a wing of Lilith, a Kinnari, bird-woman in microcosm. Perhaps this is the original meaning of familiar; pain as a totemic animal, a prehistoric relic perched on her wrist.
I look forward to more of these in her next book.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published in 2020; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.