Categories
Uncategorized

Hannah CajanDig-Taylor, Romantic Portrait of Natural Disaster

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?

Brandon McWilliams
Brandon McWilliams

Brandon McWilliams is a student at Seattle University, where he combines his passion for writing and the environment.
His work has appeared in Hidden Compass MagazineBay Nature, Fragments, and the Seattle Times. When not writing, he works as an environmental educator, climbs tall things, and cooks needlessly elaborate meals.

Categories
Uncategorized

A case for the land and its stories.

For many years, our collective imagination has been starved,  and we have only recently started to feel the hunger pangs. Amidst the explosion of art and writing that bursts forth from modern creatives, something is conspicuously missing.

Illustration by Camara Ward, a former Literary Illustrator Intern

The land.

As a society, we have largely thought about the land we live in and on as either a background or a resource; something to be appreciated for a moment or used, if it even crosses our mind. This isn’t a new tendency of course. For hundreds of years, colonization and manifest destiny have shaped western patterns of thought. Think of the US Bureau of Land Management or National Parks, for example. For all the various good they may do, they still distanced us from the animacy of the non-human and insisted that land is productive or beautiful or dangerous, but always it is for us

Now, though, we are facing the consequences of this narrative. The stories we have consumed for generations, the Johnny Appleseeds, the Paul Bunions, the classic westerns have made it all too easy to exploit the land while remaining deaf to its warnings. But the land has stories of its own to tell. 

It is time we listened a little more closely, tune back into the voices of our non-human neighbors and family. But how do we do that? As we have seen over and over, it’s hard to convince a people to unlearn the thoughts of generations.

I believe the place to start is with our stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They take the chaotic and overwhelming and make them into memories and lessons we act on. As Patricia Hempl put it, “What is remembered is what becomes reality.” 

For hundreds of years, the stories we remember as a society (and of course “western society” is an enormous generalization) have been those of colonizing powers, like the bucolic ideal of Huckleberry Finn or the man vs nature conflict in Robinson Crusoe. Other, healthier, more nuanced stories exist, but have often been overlooked or suppressed. The first and easiest step we can take to combat the narrowness of the dominant stories is to seek out those others. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amitav Ghosh, Linda Hogan, Arundhati Roy, NK Jemisin, and so many others both historic and modern have been pushing back against the idea that humanity is the center of everything (also known as anthropocentrism). Try reaching for one of these authors the next time you look for something to read.  

As the above authors show, the saving grace for us and our stories is our capacity for imagination. In stories, we are not bound to the rules of what we have been told is possible. Stories are what we make them, and we change who and how we are based on those stories. So what happens if we all imagine a different, perhaps even better world? 

I will freely admit that this is easy for me to say, and entirely another thing to make it a reality. The key, I think, is to start small. To borrow a term coined by the great Kenyan writer and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, we have to first decolonize the mind.

 Start by seeking out those buried stories. They can help you think beyond what we have been told is true, and to trouble the waters of our learned narratives. Then, if you can, bring some of those new ideas, those questioned premises, into your own life. Start small. Instead of just picking a flower for its beauty, think of what life is like for that flower. Think about the bird outside not just as a beautiful song, but as a small being of its own. As the environmentalist Aldo Leopold suggests in his Land Ethic, “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively: the land.” It takes practice and time to change how we think, but it is possible. The more you work at it, the easier it gets.

Finally, when the narrative has been complicated and thoughts have been expanded, it is time to craft new stories of our own.

For storytellers, and we all are storytellers in a way, this re-acknowledgement of the land is both a boon and a weight. Our imagination is enriched beyond measure when we think outside of the confines of ourselves, but it also makes the dangers like global warming that we collectively face even more pressing. Reading stories and noticing trees may feel vanishingly insignificant when compared to the scale of the challenges we face as a planet. I know it often does for me. But we as a people and a species need to change how we see the world and our place in it before we can take more concrete actions. 

So please, pick up a new book that challenges you. Read an article or poem that makes you think in a new way. Maybe take a moment to consider why you think the way you do. Whatever you do, though, I hope you will close your eyes and notice the earth underneath you. Then, go and tell someone about it. Not for you or for me, but for all of us.

Brandon Mcwilliams
Brandon Mcwilliams

Brandon McWilliams is a student at Seattle University, where he combines his passion for writing and the environment.
His work has appeared in Hidden Compass MagazineBay Nature, Fragments, and the Seattle Times. When not writing, he works as an environmental educator, climbs tall things, and cooks needlessly elaborate meals.