Do Norfolk birds speak Punjabi? Mona Arshi, the poet transcribing bird calls | Poetry

The pandemic has introduced birdsong to the ears of many individuals previously 12 months. In contrast to most newly transfixed listeners, Mona Arshi, who a decade in the past made the bizarre transition from human rights lawyer to poet, felt an urge to transcribe the sounds.

When she wrote them down – following a path first trodden by the Northamptonshire farm employee and poet John Clare – she discovered that the songs of lapwings, reedwarblers and redshanks delivered to thoughts long-forgotten Punjabi phrases from childhood. Lapwing referred to as out “Kui” – “why” in Punjabi – whereas godwits sang “thohreh deh” – “give me a bit”.

This was one sudden good thing about a 12 months spent “barely possessed by chook sound” as Arshi places it. The outcomes of her possession can now be skilled each on-line and in actual life at Cley Subsequent the Sea, the Norfolk nature reserve the place Arshi has spent latest months as writer-in-residence.

Marsh life … Arshi reads her poetry alongside sound recordings and wildlife photographs.
Marsh life … Arshi reads her poetry alongside sound recordings and wildlife images. {Photograph}: ©Matthew Usher

I’m not a fan of listening to my cell phone in a wild place however listening to Arshi studying her poems by way of a QR code at specific spots on a round stroll round Cley is a revelatory expertise, even in dismal rain. Her phrases emerge from the vast skies and the huge reedbeds and blend with greylag geese honking overhead and reed warblers chuntering within the ditches.

There are weather-proof methods to expertise her poems too: on-line and inside an set up at Norfolk Wildlife Belief’s Cley customer centre. Right here, the artwork collective Mutiny has used software program often deployed by VJs to imitate the improvisation of the pure world and ship a continually altering mixture of Arshi studying her poetry alongside sound recordings and wildlife images from Cley.

Arshi’s poems shift and deepen my expertise of a well-recognized place. Writing them was additionally revelatory for Arshi, who admits she felt “mildly estranged” when she arrived on the reserve final summer season.

‘I get a hit out of reading poems. There is something about your atoms shifting’ … Mona Arshi.
‘I get a success out of studying poems. There’s something about your atoms shifting’ … Mona Arshi. {Photograph}: Karolina Heller

Coming into the countryside was not a part of her childhood rising up underneath the Heathrow flightpath within the Nineteen Seventies. Norfolk’s chook flyway was an unfamiliar peripheral place the place Arshi doubted whether or not she had a proper to roam, and even belong; it was populated by unfamiliar birds who had been usually unseen, their songs emanating from the reedbeds.

“I’m from the diaspora, I don’t know the panorama, I’m an urbanite and my dad and mom had this very city expertise of migration, which was a part of my life,” says Arshi. “And Cley felt fairly overseas, however acquainted too, as a result of behind my physique there’s something calling to me that could be very nature-led.”

Regardless of her city roots, different species have at all times stolen into Arshi’s poems “like fugitive friends into the soil of the work” as she places it, and now, when she intently attended to the wildlife of Cley she discovered the birdsong reconnected her with the Punjabi language she had been discouraged from utilizing by her Nineteen Seventies education.

“Birdsong has no syntax, it has no grammar, it has no sentence construction,” she says. “In the event you simply permit your self to take heed to it, you don’t know what’s going to return out. I heard one thing that I hadn’t heard for many years – the language of my childhood.”

Punjabi phrases spring forth in one in all Arshi’s poems. She additionally makes use of Ghazal, a round and musical type of poetry which migrated from Persia and which is extra historic than the sonnet. For Arshi, it mirrors somewhat fantastically the circularity of Cley, its seasons, and the migratory birds from pink-footed geese to black-tailed godwits that flock there.

Which will sound like making use of fascinating layers of tradition to nature however Arshi resolved to be led by the birds and their tune. “I actually didn’t need to put my phrases into the birds’ mouth. That’s one factor I felt was ethically fallacious,” she says. “Why not simply take a look at the residing factor in entrance of you and attend to that?”

Throughout her earlier profession as a human rights lawyer working for Liberty, Arshi loved the excitement of being in court docket. Writing poems appears a radically totally different job however there’s an “equal buzz after I learn poetry”, she says. “I get a success out of it. There’s something about your atoms shifting whenever you learn one thing. You by no means really feel extra alert and alive than you are feeling in a poem that’s doing what it ought to be doing. That’s thrilling.”

Attempting to create these emotions for individuals, somewhat than hammering residence political messages, is Arshi’s purpose however Cley aroused each surprise and disquietude, with a way that this low-lying place faces losses within the near-future – of land and species – attributable to the local weather disaster. Her poems are infused with elegy and maybe melancholy.

“Individuals hate the didactic in artwork. They don’t need to be given data,” she says. “And poems go straight to the center. Environmental poems are actually fascinating methods of creating individuals assume and really feel, and you’re aroused by feeling. It’s not the identical as my human rights work, however I do assume that poems are doing one thing essential. They’re a automobile for the reality telling.”

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