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Charting Seas of Change with Sophia Naz

Updated: Mar 21

By Tansy Troy




Memory of Birth, Watercolour on Arches cold press paper


Some people are born to be the intrepid heroines and captains of their own adventure stories: Sophia Naz is one of them. With a global understanding few could be proud to boast, her most recent book of verse, Bark Archipelago, is at once far reaching and rooted, high spirited and deeply introspective.


Marine Layers, Gouache on Arches cold press paper


Naz, like every great autobiographical writer worth her (sea) salt, embarks on a voyage across the ages, taking us with her whether we like it or not: for make no mistake, this poetry is not for the lily livered, taking no prisoners with its fierce mastery of language.


If your decoding skills are a little rusty, make sure you pack your Hafiz and Khusro, before setting sail with Naz, and come prepared for the contemporary woman-birthed ghazal.


Circling Deep, Watercolour on Arches hotpress paper and layered photographs


The multi-layered possible interpretations are not simply in English (which many would say is complex enough), but in Urdu too.  For Naz loves to play with etymologies from all influences of her broad and deep experience of life on the high seas of the Poetic.


In her own words, Naz tells us how she is “fascinated by the Proto-Indo-European etymology of many English words” and uses them “as a means of reimpregnating them with their original DNA, bringing them back home full circle in a sense. The advantages of dual fluencies (as long as you don’t turn them into duelling fluencies) far outweigh any disadvantages.”



My Blues are the Colour of Blood Rivers


I personally love ‘Battles with Autocorrect’ as its frustrations ring so true for any India-residing writer composing in English, where at least one in three words will feel they need to be rendered in one of the many mother tongues of the land.  The ‘colonial didact’ who changes ‘anmol’ to ‘animal’, ‘kajal’ to ‘cajole’, ‘shair’ to ‘chair’ - is in this case the all-knowing, big brother search engine called Google (so far removed from the Cow in the Valley of Silicon, he would almost certainly consider that ‘doly’ really means ‘dolly’) who would seemingly love for all language to be as homogenized as rows of plastic-bottled milk.


In ‘Body of Work’, Naz kicks back, demanding to know ‘what would happen if these elbows made a fuss?  Made bus both noun and reverb?’  And these lines do indeed reverb, over and over in our minds. After all, few would differ: enough really is enough.


There are nods to the great English poets, as well as the Persian and Urdu masters.  ‘Cut Piece’ brings to mind Yeats’s ‘Had I the Cloth of Heaven’, making another poem from fabric. Compare ‘I cut up and old tweed coat to make a poem for you …’ to ‘Had I the cloth of heaven I would lay it at your feet…’  Though Naz recycles the personal and intimate and Yeats plucks the celestial remote from the starry skies, both know and understand the warp and weft of language, both are deft with their linguistic embroidery needles.


Perhaps the “liminal language” Naz claims we need to really understand ourselves deeply is indeed an interwoven textile of all her vast readings and adventures, which in turn are used to “conjure the liminal state” needed to create and rework language into something new and unique. Just like remembered rasas/tastes, these are poems whose ingredients form the recipes of childhood homesteads, though the same words may no longer be cooked in earthenware utensils, nor flavoured with the same organic spices grown in an unpolluted earth.


Bark Archipelago offers the reader an entire ‘continent on a rolling pin’, shaped like pre-Partition India, Pakistan and East Bengal/Bangladesh rolled once more into one, though these connected land masses have since become no more than islands in an archipelago splintered by circumstance, reconnected only by the journey we make on this somewhat magical barque, fashioned from sturdy, timekeeper trees of memory.

A supplicant sculpted in the eucalyptus, photograph taken with iphone, no filter


Ancestor, iphone photo with increased contrast


If oceans, liquid bodies of all sorts, swirl through the beginning of the book (‘Things I have swallowed’, ‘Blow Whole’, ‘All the Water in the World’), there is a sense of tentative earthing, of finding one’s ship in the second half, where the reader discovers several references to trees and plants, reconnecting us with the universal truth of a shared earth.


Forest Embrace, iphone photo, no filter



Branching Out


‘At times, a tree in a city,’ Naz explains, ‘is a tall and lonely sentinel, a natural clock/tower where all the hours untie/their shoelaces…’  She invites us to take off the suit, the watch, the cloak of servitude, and soak up the energy of our long-suffering final friends from the atavistic forests.  With echoes of Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, Naz continues, ‘A tree next to another/tree is an apiary of common causes… a child’s way of saying why/kaa kaa kaa kaa kaa kaa?’


Naz’s trees are not exactly romantic saviours but rather more final survivors in an apocalyptic present.  In the rare prose poem ‘Plots’, they are described as ‘persistent crucifixions’ (or should that read cruxifictions?) ‘…of wind borne plastic bags’ on the thorny kikar shrubs, self-seeded Sindhi badam and gulmohar trees, desolate reminders of a once-fertile earth, now a dumping ground for human debris in an increasingly populated world.


Yet in ‘Cloud’s Kiss’, the persistent and transformative comeback of nature is at last redemptive: this poem, which I imagine may have been written two years after Naz’s beautiful Californian home was destroyed by unprecedented and violent wildfires, traces the ‘wood’s ink black calligraphy of trees’; under our feet, however, Naz draws attention to ‘Wild fennel and tiny yellow/buttons lining the path:/Joy’s nameless address.’


Winter Tree


De-composition


Like wild, airborne and self-seeded plants, Naz’s words find places to flourish wherever they can, whether or not they are officially permitted.  ‘You may ambush and kill me, bury all evidence/But a rebel seed plies its cause in darkness,’ challenges the ‘Ghazal of Darkness’.  Like an eco-rap star, Naz throws these words over her retreating shoulder as she leaves the stage after a sell-out concert, gifting the audience a sense of both victory and unease at the end of this ‘unsteady fairy tale’: for none of us are ‘home’ safe and dry quite yet.  As Naz states of her own life journey, “I don’t feel fully at home anywhere. It’s a feeling that started early in life due to the constant displacement and persists, despite cultural integration and the reverence I have for this immensely beautiful nature that surrounds the picturesque village in the wine country where I live.”


This queasy feeling of constant displacement, however, strikes a common chord in us all during this epoch of change, urging the word to anchor our experiences in the real (however ephemeral), sentence, verse and book. “Writing” says Naz, “is a means by which we counteract erasure.” As readers, we are richer, wiser and a little sadder for receiving this bright spark of fiery advice, straight from the sun.



(The photos are courtesy of Sophia Naz.)


 

Tansy Troy is a poet, performance storyteller and maker of bird and animal masks, which she shares with audiences at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi, and other parts of India. You can read her poetry in Ratnakosha (Red River, August 2023), and her articles in The Apple Press, a young people’s eco journal which she edits and curates. Her poetry and stories have been published widely in newspapers and magazines. She lives with her family and many other beautiful birds and animals between Delhi, Rohtak and a nest in Manali.

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