Disasters seem to be on our collective minds lately. We are surrounded, it feels, by endings, fractures, faults, and failures. As fires blaze, storms rage, and a pandemic sweeps the globe, it feels only appropriate to contemplate the nature of catastrophe.
On its surface, Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster by Hannah Cajandig-Taylor does just this. Lines like “when a world dies/nobody is around to hear it” and “Everyday/ is the end of the world, each season/ braiding a noose” may give readers the impression that this work is a dirge or some celebration of despair, but upon closer inspection, it is so much more than that.
Cajandig-Taylor weaves threads of environmental writing, meteorology, personal experience, and emotional vulnerability together with a depth, and resonance that left me stunned in the best of ways.
One of the most striking things about Cajandig-Taylor’s work is her masterful use of persistent images and themes. The lines never feel overburdened or weighty. Rather, visions of constellations and clouds fuse seamlessly with the earthy crunch of tectonic plates. Space and meteorology play a major role in Cajandig-Taylor’s poems, but earth, flora, and images of haunting and decay make consistent appearances as well. These elements blend together to complicate the line between human experience and the nonhuman world so that companionship is found in a stone and love takes on the energy and danger of a raging inferno. Each theme is masterfully sustained throughout the sequence, appearing for a moment, disappearing, then returning when you least expect it like elements of a well-orchestrated symphony.
The other striking element of Cajandig-Taylors craft is her surreal, often transgressive style. Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster, like some of the best poetry in my mind, is constructed of moments that feel deeply true without being precisely placeable. Each page is a tantalizing, illuminating web that asks as much from my own experience as it tells of hers. Cajandig-Taylor’s use of couplets and ever-shifting articles invites the reader into each poem. While it may not be the most approachable of poetry for those used to linear stricture, the lasting resonance Cajandig-Taylor achieves is more than worth the initial opacity.
Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster’s theme of fragmentation and brokenness extends to realms far beyond the merely physical. Elements of the book were influenced by the increase in natural disasters stemming from climate change, according to Cajandig-Taylor, but much of the final impact developed organically. Supernovas and wildfires condense into a vulnerable, deeply felt meditation on personal fragmentation. The world comes to reflect the body, the poet reflects the world, and all are in the process of crumbling, over and over. Cajandig-Taylor wrestles with the question of “Am I falling apart in the right way” throughout the book, and each line, each moment seems to be another attempt to make sense of endings. Strangely, though, the work is not bleak. There is melancholy, certainly. There is trauma and sadness and all the sharp, painful moments that reality seems to heap on us. Yet each disaster is followed by another moment, another experience of the world and often a recognition of the beauty that lies within even the small moments.
In one of my favorite poems of the collection, “Self-Destruction & Other Disasters to Think About”, Cajandig-Taylor rolls through a staccato litany of images and feelings which build until the narrator and the world collapses; “the collapsing/ of stars, a black hole born from oblivion. My body,/ with its slumped posture on the closet floor.” But just when it feels like the weight of the world will crush everything, there is a reprieve. “I think about paradise…about the desert/ writing songs with my name.”
These moments, along with the book’s overall construction, presents a complex and mature message. Yes, it is implied, there is destruction. The world is full of endings and catastrophes, but that is not all there is. After each catastrophe, there is something else, some room for joy or simply life. Cajandig-Taylor said that she hopes this book shows those experiencing trauma, anxiety, or those who just feel buried in the weight of disasters that they are not alone. That it is possible to take ownership of their experiences and, if not fix them, at least learn to live beyond them.
As I mentioned at the opening of this review, Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster feels both timeless and like just the book for the time we are living through. So much is happening in the world right now that I find myself struggling just to keep up with it all, much less process the maelstrom of emotions elicited by them. We as a people need space to mourn, to feel the weight of the world and the urgency of what faces us, but that cannot be all that we do. Cajandig-Taylor’s poems give that space and catharsis to begin the long journey of processing the many internal and external traumas that exist right now, but also ensures that they don’t become an eclipsing force. Yes, this book says, recognize the disasters. Look them in the face and make them part of yourself. Then, once the tears have fallen, continue on. What more can we do? And right now, what more do we need?