The pandemic has brought birdsong to the ears of many people in the past year. Unlike most newly transfixed listeners, Mona Arshi, who a decade ago made the unusual 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 worker and poet John Clare – she found that the songs of lapwings, reedwarblers and redshanks brought to mind long-forgotten Punjabi words from childhood. Lapwing called out “Kui” – “why” in Punjabi – while godwits sang “thohreh deh” – “give me a little”.
This was one unexpected benefit of a year spent “slightly possessed by bird sound” as Arshi puts it. The results of her possession can now be experienced both online and in real life at Cley Next the Sea, the Norfolk nature reserve where Arshi has spent recent months as writer-in-residence.
I’m not a fan of listening to my mobile phone in a wild place but hearing Arshi reading her poems via a QR code at particular spots on a circular walk around Cley is a revelatory experience, even in dismal rain. Her words emerge from the wide skies and the vast reedbeds and mix with greylag geese honking overhead and reed warblers chuntering in the ditches.
There are weather-proof ways to experience her poems too: online and within an installation at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley visitor centre. Here, the art collective Mutiny has used software usually deployed by VJs to mimic the improvisation of the natural world and deliver a constantly changing mix of Arshi reading her poetry alongside sound recordings and wildlife photographs from Cley.
Arshi’s poems shift and deepen my experience of a familiar place. Writing them was also revelatory for Arshi, who admits she felt “mildly estranged” when she arrived at the reserve last summer.
Entering the countryside was not part of her childhood growing up under the Heathrow flightpath in the 1970s. Norfolk’s bird flyway was an unfamiliar peripheral place where Arshi doubted whether she had a right to roam, or even belong; it was populated by unfamiliar birds who were often unseen, their songs emanating from the reedbeds.
“I am from the diaspora, I don’t know the landscape, I am an urbanite and my parents had this very urban experience of migration, which was part of my life,” says Arshi. “And Cley felt quite foreign, but familiar too, because in the back of my body there is something calling to me that is very nature-led.”
Despite her urban roots, other species have always stolen into Arshi’s poems “like fugitive guests into the soil of the work” as she puts it, and now, when she closely attended to the wildlife of Cley she found the birdsong reconnected her with the Punjabi language she had been discouraged from using by her 1970s schooling.
“Birdsong has no syntax, it has no grammar, it has no sentence structure,” she says. “If you just allow yourself to listen to it, you don’t know what’s going to come out. I heard something that I hadn’t heard for decades – the language of my childhood.”
Punjabi words spring forth in one of Arshi’s poems. She also uses Ghazal, a circular and musical kind of poetry which migrated from Persia and which is more ancient than the sonnet. For Arshi, it mirrors rather beautifully the circularity of Cley, its seasons, and the migratory birds from pink-footed geese to black-tailed godwits that flock there.