Do Norfolk birds converse Punjabi? Mona Arshi, the poet transcribing hen calls

The pandemic has introduced birdsong to the ears of many individuals previously 12 months. Not like 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 known as out “Kui” – “why” in Punjabi – whereas godwits sang “thohreh deh” – “give me just a little”.

This was one sudden advantage of a 12 months spent “barely possessed by hen 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 current months as writer-in-residence.

Marsh life … Arshi reads her poetry alongside sound recordings and wildlife pictures. {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 explicit spots on a round stroll round Cley is a revelatory expertise, even in dismal rain. Her phrases emerge from the huge 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 consistently altering mixture of Arshi studying her poetry alongside sound recordings and wildlife pictures 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 time.

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

Getting into the countryside was not a part of her childhood rising up below the Heathrow flightpath within the Seventies. Norfolk’s hen 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 have been typically unseen, their songs emanating from the reedbeds.

“I’m from the diaspora, I don’t know the panorama, I’m an urbanite and my mother and father 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 at the back of 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 carefully attended to the wildlife of Cley she discovered the birdsong reconnected her with the Punjabi language she had been discouraged from utilizing by her Seventies education.

“Birdsong has no syntax, it has no grammar, it has no sentence construction,” she says. “For those who simply enable your self to hearken to it, you don’t know what’s going to come back 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 every of Arshi’s poems. She additionally makes use of Ghazal, a round and musical sort 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.

That will sound like making use of fascinating layers of tradition to nature however Arshi resolved to be led by the birds and their track. “I actually didn’t wish to put my phrases into the birds’ mouth. That’s one factor I felt was ethically flawed,” 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 successful 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’re feeling in a poem that’s doing what it must be doing. That’s thrilling.”

Making an attempt to create these emotions for individuals, somewhat than hammering house 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 wish to be given data,” she says. “And poems go straight to the center. Environmental poems are actually fascinating methods of constructing individuals suppose and really feel, and you might be aroused by feeling. It’s not the identical as my human rights work, however I do suppose that poems are doing one thing necessary. They’re a car for the reality telling.”

  • Shifting Traces – Mona Arshi is at Norfolk Wildlife Belief’s Cley customer centre till 28 June; additionally on-line at

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