Two scholars exchange letters on poetry and climate
March 30, 2023
This piece is part of the Climate notebook, which features art by Katrina Bello.
Last summer, we invited the scholar Min Hyoung Song and the poet and scholar Jennifer Chang to correspond about literature and climate. We saw a resonance between their work, particularly between Song’s recent book, Climate Lyricism (Duke University Press, 2022), and Chang’s lecture “Other Pastorals: Writing Race and the Environment,” presented at the 2019 Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference: both scholars have developed an approach to reading that draws attention to the environment, race, and climate change in the work of contemporary poets of color.
As the two had not engaged with each other much before this, we invited them to each select a poem to ground their correspondence. Chang chose Agha Shahid Ali’s “In Search of Evanescence,” while Song picked Shreela Ray’s “five virgins and the magnolia tree.” Through their correspondence over the course of nearly three months, the two offer readings of both poems and what these texts show us about the many intersections of climate and, as Chang puts it, “a migratory imagination, voices and perspectives permanently poised to be elsewhere.” And with compassion and openness, the pair share some of the questions, travels, and griefs in their own lives that accompany their engagement with these texts.
—The Margins editors
August 19, 2022
This is the first letter in a long-delayed literary correspondence. The delay, as you know, was made necessary by my mother’s sudden death in early July. What I haven’t shared is that she had advanced Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and in the end succumbed to a stroke. We were gathered in Maryland—more or less halfway between my parents’ home in Atlanta and my sister’s home in New Jersey as well as mine in Massachusetts—to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. It was meant to be a joyous occasion, and in the back of my mind possibly our last chance to be together as an extended family. My mother’s stroke on the first day of our vacation upended all of these plans. My father, my sister, and I spent the next eight days at the hospital, and then while our families returned home, we drove back to Atlanta with my father.
He was lost in a way I had never seen. Always stoic, a consummate doer, someone who doesn’t dwell on feelings for long, my father sat by my mother’s ashes quietly for long periods of time. He kept speaking to us of the past, or would ask himself like he were speaking aloud a sutra, “What should I do?” He and my mother had been together for sixty-two years. They met in high school and had barely ever been apart since. In many ways, theirs had been an epic love story. Now he had to find a way to live on without her, and it was difficult for him to imagine what form this living-on would take. He was full of a rich past while the future was impoverished and murky.
Throughout these weeks of family emergency, as my sister and I traveled back and forth from Maryland to Atlanta to our homes in the Northeast and then back to Atlanta and then to Detroit (where my family had settled after immigrating to the US many decades ago), my constant companions were the long poem “In Search of Evanescence” by Agha Shahid Ali that you had picked out for us to discuss in this exchange and the short poem “five virgins and the magnolia tree” by Shreela Ray that I had picked out. It helped that they were poems, since I had so little time or ability to read anything else.
Ray’s poetry, long out of print and little read, has been brought back to public view in a series called the Unsung Masters. I hadn’t heard of her before I received the new volume of her work in the mail, and it sat on my office shelf for a long time. But one day I picked it up, and the very first poem—the one I had picked—held and held my attention. I keep going back to it. Written in a simple, almost conversational style, it recalls the speaker as a young woman at a Catholic school, lingering under a magnificent magnolia tree, overcome by the aroma of its flowers. She is with her friends, who have gone on to lead their lives in their separate ways, and they are talking their “heads off.” But lurking under this mundane scene is the “sweet, rich scent” of the flowers overhead:
the cream and white of the magnolia blossom
eight inches across
and blooming strong
way about my head—
If only the nuns knew what the speaker remembered, the poem ends by musing, “they would cut that tree down.”
There is the outward scene of a group of young people on the cusp of adulthood: two will become doctors, two will become “students of literature,” and a fifth will die.
And then there is something shared between them, unspoken, an inward scene, made possible by their gathering under the tree and its physical connection to them. They are connected to the tree as much as the tree is connected to other trees around it by mycorrhizal fungi and their hyphal tendrils. It’s a physical, sensual connection, so intensely erotic that those invested in policing and restricting sensuality would, if they recognized it as such, act immediately to sever whatever connection there was between tree and humans.
This poem speaks to something that many young people might intuitively recognize but older people and those invested in an orderly being might dare not admit: All life is connected in ways that are a constant seduction, and what we desire and want for ourselves is bound by such connections. As I sat in the hospital room for hours and days, I found comfort in this thought.
Meanwhile, I was also going back and forth between the hospital and the house we had rented. My sister and I took turns sitting with our father and mother. And on the first night, as I rushed back to the house to get whatever my father might need for his coming vigil, it rained so heavily the radio was warning motorists off the road. By then, it was too late for me, as I was listening to the warning in my father’s car, crawling along unfamiliar and barely visible roads, wading through inches of standing water. It was evening, and getting dark. By the time I got back to the house and gathered what I needed, the rain had stopped as suddenly as it had started. It was night. The car headlights caught a deer standing on the side of the road, its eyes shining. There was mist and fog like a halo around it. And then along a long stretch of an empty street, I caught a glimpse of a fox gamboling across from one underbrush to another.
Over the next few days, in the hospital room, we heard reports of extreme weather events happening around the world—historic heatwaves in South Asia and Europe, heavy downpours in Korea, wildfires in the US West—and my father mixed his grief over my mother’s condition with grief over the state of the planet. “The whole world is out of balance,” he said.
But what my father could not connect in the days and weeks to come was how car dependence contributed to the mess we were witnessing (though he is convinced electric vehicles will replace internal combustion engines within the decade). We drove a lot this summer, which I had such mixed feelings about. These roadtrips ran through the countryside that Ali’s poem evokes so powerfully with his imagery, and like the poem, I had difficulty sorting geography and memory. I’d like to share some thoughts about the drives I made with my father and “In Search of Evanescence,” but I would love to hear from you first about what led you to pick this poem for us to discuss.
What I do want to say, before I forget, is this: anthropogenic climate change is altering our experience of private tragedy, as I discovered so vividly this summer. My wife and kids had to fly to Atlanta to attend the funeral mass for my mother, and both their inbound and outbound flights were delayed for hours because of extreme thunderstorms rolling stupendously across the Eastern Seaboard.
September 12, 2022
I was very moved by your depiction of your father and his long marriage to your mother. The question “what should I do?” resonates with so much of what you’re writing about: the prospect of life after loss, the imbalance of the world. “What should one do when being close to those we love becomes an ethical dilemma?” doesn’t strike me as that different from ”How does one move on after the love of your life has passed on?” It is impossible to answer either question without accepting more pain.
I am sorry for your loss. And I am moved, too, that you wrote so eloquently about your mother’s death so soon after, especially given everything else your family is going through.
I am well familiar with travel obstacles, and travel more broadly has been a recent preoccupation. This time last year my family and I, after much deliberation, made the difficult move from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas. Moving during a pandemic was fraught and more fracturing than we could’ve anticipated. Vaccinations were not yet approved for children, so we were hesitant to gather because ours are still quite young. We said what goodbyes we could—inadequate, incomplete—and my husband and the older child drove west, while I, the younger child, and the geriatric cat waited for the movers to empty our beloved rowhouse before flying to Texas one August morning. We had lived in D.C. for nearly a decade, the longest I’d lived anywhere as an adult, and it was where I finally understood myself as a poet, a mother, and a citizen, an understanding that I felt I was somehow also saying goodbye to. A year later, my history there still doesn’t feel ready to end.
This is perhaps why I chose for our correspondence Agha Shahid Ali’s “In Search of Evanescence.” It is a poem in which the speaker’s imagination traverses geographical distances, evincing what critic Lawrence Buell calls “place-sense,” a palimpsest of every place an individual has been. And so, on a road trip, the speaker glimpses an exit for Calcutta on an Ohio highway. This is how travel can happen in poems:
. . . I’m driving
away from the widow’s house, my eyes open
to a dream of drowning. But even
when I pass—in Ohio—the one exit
to Calcutta, I don’t know I’ve begun
mapping America, the city limits
of Evanescence now everywhere . . .
Here, in the second of the eleven sections that make up “In Search of Evanescence,” Ali’s traveling invokes the power of the migratory imagination to remake our map. Our map, as in a map of America, but also a map of the world, a map of time. The section wanders from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Acoma, New Mexico, to the “ghost towns of Arizona,” to Bisbee, California, a westward journey that invokes the romance of road trips and, alternately, the perpetual rootlessness of the immigrant.
Calcutta recurs in the next section and is as ghostly a presence as Evanescence and Phil, the friend, lost to AIDS, to whom the poem is addressed. I get lost in the travel, in Ali’s swift shifts through time and space, but that’s the point: that displacement disorients and diffuses who we are and where we find ourselves. “What can I be but a stranger in your house?” Ali writes in section 7, and the “you” is unidentified—potentially the reader, potentially the self. The question echoes W. E. B. DuBois, who asks in The Souls of Black Folk, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” Although the sense of alienation is shared, Ali and DuBois diverge sharply in their possessive pronouns. Whose house does the subject occupy? For Ali, for the immigrant, the house is always yours, not mine. He is forever the guest. Forever rootless.
Writing about “In Search for Evanescence” now, I admit to being overwhelmed by the poem’s vastness. (Too long to read while sitting vigil; for that I apologize.) But that vastness reflects the climate crisis, and one crucial way I see climate change existing in Asian American poetry as inherently shaped by diaspora. There are environmental consequences to mass migration, which is itself often a consequence of war, imperialism, and disasters environmental and economic, not to mention the enduring psychological aftermath. A Kashmiri poet, Ali was born in India and knew displacement intimately even before immigrating to the United States for his education. I find it devastating that in elegizing his friend, Ali turns to geography and tropes of travel because they constitute his language for grief. If the search for Evanescence reflects the impossibility that the speaker and his friend will ever commune again, it also inscribes a distinctly immigrant pain—both the impossibility of belonging and the ceaseless desire to belong. Ali borrows Evanescence from Dickinson and reimagines it as a sort of Paradise, the home he hopes to find. It only exists in poetry, of course. However, instead of the physical reality of a home, Evanescence invites a sense of belonging that’s possible with those we feel most akin to, where we can dwell if not in place than with others.
I am the child of immigrants, who were themselves the children of immigrants. My grandparents were forced to flee China in the wake of the Communist Revolution to Taiwan, where they encountered violent opposition from native Taiwanese. Some twenty years later, my parents took advantage of loosening immigration policies in the United States, leaving behind a country that wasn’t quite theirs and that lacked economic opportunity. And so my sister and I were born American. My opportunities have not been nearly as limited as those of my parents, but I cannot shake the migratory imagination, this rootlessness that I fear I’ve inherited from my family. Here in Austin we’ve endured a heat wave and its concomitant drought since May, the worst they’ve had in ten years, and I often daydream whether we should move again in five years or ten. Do we go further west and brave wildfires and more heat, or do we return east, only further north? Am I escaping the weather or the culture, or am I merely rehearsing our anthropogenic fate? Amidst the endless driving of the poem, Ali writes:
And now the road is a river
polished by cars
The cars are urns
carrying ashes to the sea.
The image is elegiac—personal and environmental—and reflects how hard it has become to distinguish between the natural and the man-made.
It’s true that you chose a poem that remains in one place and I chose a poem that wanders, and yet both have absorbed a migratory imagination, voices and perspectives permanently poised to be elsewhere.
October 7, 2022
These lines! “And now the road is a river / polished by cars // The cars are urns / carrying ashes to the sea.” They leap out to me as I’ve read and reread Ali’s poem, and as I read your message to me, because they immediately evoke a summer of too much water flooding so many places in the US and elsewhere. How many pictures of cars have we seen half-submerged in flood waters this year alone? I especially recall a photograph of a reporter looking calmly at his phone while sitting on top of his drowned car in Seoul (not far from where my parents-in-law live in an area I know fairly well). And the cars, of course, aren’t just the victims of such extreme weather, they are also a cause. So, in a literal sense, cars might be “urns” in that to be caught in a car in a flood could very well lead to death and also because cars are a large factor in the frequency and extremity of weather that kills.
But the lines leap out to me for personal reasons as well in a highly self-centered way: they remind me of my drive from Atlanta to Detroit, which took us north on I-75 through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, crisscrossing terrain Ali evokes directly in his poem. We were driving with my mother’s remains in an urn, which we were on our way to burying. Even as I write these words, I feel the words are part of some kind of sick joke as highly figurative language turns all too literal.
As you point out, so perceptively, you’ve chosen a poem that wanders while I chose one that remains in place, but both are part of a migratory perspective. And this is also something you and I share—the migratory perspective that comes from being an immigrant, whose families are scattered, and where we call home is not where our parents and grandparents called home. But maybe immigrant isn’t the right word. I’ve been feeling its limits for some time now, hemmed in by its prim sense of powerful pull factors, unidirectional motion, and the promise of settlement. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed still once in my life, even if I’ve lived in one city for decades. An indelible wild restlessness marks how my extended family is spread out, and we have to travel such large distances to be with one another.
Immigrant can’t capture this being of no place. Maybe it’s better to use the word migratory? Maybe we should call ourselves migrants?
If so, then my father and I enacted migrancy this summer—I traveled from Boston to the Chesapeake area to northern Atlanta to Boston to central New Jersey to northern Atlanta to Detroit and then back to Boston. There were three flights and a lot of driving. My travels were maybe only half the distance traveled by my father, who just kept moving from the South to the Midwest to the Northeast. I spent a week helping my father move out of the house he shared with my mother, throwing things out, giving away or selling other things, and storing what he wanted to keep in the basement. I’m haunted by the worry that we got rid of too much stuff. In the act of emptying the house, my father seemed to want to embody the sense of being at home nowhere in the most literal way possible because my mother was gone and the very idea of home had become cruel.
If you and I are migrants, I wonder if climate change is raising the cost of migrancy to unbearable levels for us? By this, I mean it wasn’t too bad to have one’s family spread across dispersed geographies when the world itself seemed to have shrunk and to be growing ever smaller. There is, after all, instant electronic communication across vast distances, and air travel has obliterated the sense of apartness that those of us living in the US might feel with family members who remain in Asia or elsewhere. It’s gotten so cheap to fly; airplanes feel more and more like buses. A concept I have long found useful is the geographer David Harvey’s notion of “time-space compression.” The amount of time it takes to cross a certain spatial distance has compressed. How long would it have taken for someone to travel from Boston to Seoul, or even to Atlanta, two hundred years ago? Seventy years ago? And now?
This story, which is also the story of globalization, is very familiar to us, but I keep thinking that we may have stumbled into an era when time and space has begun to decompress. Let’s call this time-space decompression, then. Air travel is becoming ever more precarious and unpredictable. You can easily catch COVID flying, the security and surveillance is getting worse and worse, rising nationalisms make border crossings everywhere ever more fraught, the cost of jet fuel is going up, and extreme weather events as well as staff shortages cause delays and cancellations. Royal Air Force planes were rerouted from an airstrip in England this past July because the heat was melting the runway.
The fact that we can talk to whomever we want anywhere in the world instantaneously on compact computers we keep in our pockets may only accentuate the widening physical distances between us, measured by the time it takes to cross those distances and the difficulties we face in making such trips.
I didn’t know, until you told me, that Phil was the name of Ali’s friend who died of AIDS, but this fact makes these lines even more poignant:
. . . It
was a year of brilliant water, Phil,
such a cadence of dead seas at each turn:
so much refused to breathe in those painted
reflections, trapped there in ripples of hills:
a woman climbed the steps to Acoma,
vanished into the sky. . .
There is too much water and not enough in these lines—the water is imagined in Ohio, the land Ali is evoking explicitly in these lines, as the state is landlocked (except for a small strip facing out to Lake Erie), but the water has also arrived in the form of cascading showers and floods. It’s not just that some places are parched and others overly wet, although this is happening to a worrisome degree in many places, but more that places now must deal with dueling bouts of drenching rains and droughts. The dueling bouts have their own “cadence,” and the “brilliant water” is also part of “dead seas.”
Whether we move or stay still, the ground beneath us is shifting, becoming restless, so that while distances grow large again, the local refuses to remain the same. Migrancy is no longer just about traveling elsewhere.
I’m sorry for how fragmented these thoughts turned out, but the fragmentation seems unavoidable because it reflects the very phenomenon we are writing about.
October 25, 2022
I agree that fragmentation reflects the very phenomenon we are writing about. The fragment is arguably the building block of the lyric, the very rudiment of lyric, and that it finds correspondence with migration suggests that, at root, the lyric is always “shifting, becoming restless,” where “the local refuses to remain the same,” to borrow your language. Is it provocation to claim the lyric as the migrant’s art? “Migrancy is no longer just about traveling elsewhere,” you write, and doesn’t the lyric bear this out?
I received your letter while visiting a friend in New Orleans. Although we’ve known each other for over a decade, she and I had not seen each other in years because the distance felt too great. Last August, weeks after we arrived in Austin, she, her partner, and their cat stayed with us for several days when Hurricane Ida cut off their power. But New Orleans is idyllic in October, and walking along the Bayou St. John on a sunny, breeze-strewn afternoon with her, it was hard to envision the hurricane wreckage she described enduring over the years. A neighbor’s fence collapsed in one bad storm, releasing a flock of chickens onto their block, where to this day they still roam as strays. Once, still new to the city, she drove through a flooded street, only to find herself stalled, water rising up to her thighs. Still there are times when she panics while driving in the rain. My friend had a baby six months ago, the reason for my visit, and repeatedly the conversation turned to whether to stay and what that would look like with a child. You’re always welcome in Austin, I said; it was hardly assuring for her. Climate crisis is quotidian in New Orleans. It has made my friend and her neighbors closer, more reliant on each other over the years, but the predictability of weather disaster is a terrible test for civic devotion. How much chaos can one’s love of place overrule?
I think my friend’s rootedness, equally passionate and ambivalent, resonates with Shreela Ray’s poem, which I bring back because I’m having second thoughts about whether it does stay in one place. It’s fixed in the sense that memory is fixed, and yet the specter of the future looms with the suggestion of departures and distances. Memory inscribes an impermanence, marks what is away from us. The five virgins of the poem’s title are no longer adolescent girls sneaking out of their dorm rooms at night, and Ray subtly introduces a sense of the world beyond through her description of the magnolia tree as “one of the largest flowering trees in the world.” In the next stanza, the significance of the world comes into focus:
Two were to be doctors!
Two students of literature!
One was about to die
and so could not make plans
to heal the world.
It is through the description of the fifth virgin, the friend “about to die,” that Ray implies that the friends are all endeavoring “to heal the world.” There’s so much here I hadn’t seen in my initial readings. The parallelism of the doctors and students of literature, that the speaker is absorbed into the latter of these pairs, and that the two arts—medical and literary—might do this grand work of healing the world. We’re in a garden and thus in a dream of the harmony between nature and the human, a dream disrupted by future knowledge: one of them will die before adulthood and, as we learn by poem’s end, the tree, once “blooming strong,” will be cut down.
The garden is the place of the girls’ “runaway exile,” and it exists in the past. What then are we to think of their nights in the garden and their “plans to heal the world”? Do those exist only under a tree that is no longer here, in the aspirations of a friend now gone? I want to say no because the poem reifies a spirit of migrancy, despite (or perhaps because of) its elegiac and pastoral evocations. I want to say no because the desire to heal is, as Ray’s poem gently proposes, one way that young people make their way into the world. I read in that penultimate stanza less a turn toward destruction but a momentary suspension in possibility. See how the language lingers in description:
the sweet, rich scent,
the cream and white of the magnolia blossom
eight inches across
and blooming strong
way above my head—
Before we discover the fate of the tree, we look up at its giant blooms with Ray’s speaker. The good nuns cut the tree town, I presume, not the five virgins, one of whom still remembers. Among the survivors, I wonder, how do their plans play out?
Like the question of hope, the question of healing with regards to climate change is often met with silence. In reading and rereading both the Ray and Ali, I’m heartened by the restorative work that poems make possible. In both, language, memory, and imagination connect me to a stranger who feels familiar; we’re welcomed into a collective vision. Maybe it’s a shared migrancy, a solidarity formed through our various losses. That doesn’t solve climate crisis in any practical way, I know, but it does lift me out of despair. If you’ll forgive me for quoting you to yourself, I’m reminded of something you wrote in the introduction to Climate Lyricism.
I write in the second person because I am asking, alongside the lyric, what you and I have in common. This commonality is forged in recognition of a shared struggle and not in trying to ignore entrenched divides in the name of universal sameness. This commonality is founded on the belief that my well-being, and maybe even my very survival, is bound up with yours. I am asking, What kinds of shared futures can you and I imagine and bring into the realm of the possible, despite a highly organized investment in business as usual? I am asking, How can you and I together make use of an agency that gets stronger the more use it gets and the more people find ways to use it?
Poems introduce the impossible into the realm of the possible, where we are now writing and thinking together. I am inspired by your words, as I am inspired by the poems we’ve been reading together—they articulate the power of the lines and stanzas (and fragments!) and the spaces in between, where we are momentarily suspended. Where we might sit under that magnolia tree for another beat longer. I don’t mean to exaggerate what poetry and literary criticism can do. Rather, there’s a thrill to reading attentively, intensely, that gives rise both to the kinds of questions you’re asking and to the feeling that we are not alone.
Is it too grand to say that in writing these letters we are making plans to heal the world?
Or at least trying to?
October 25, 2022
I’m sorry this will be the last of these messages. It’s now also the end of a very long and grueling day, and as I was getting ready to give up on work, I saw your email in my inbox. I decided reading it would be a good way to end my work day, instead of whatever it was I was doing before.
Thank you so much for sharing such personal thoughts, and for being such a willing ear to what I fear might have been too personal. I found myself regretting what I’ve written to you at times, swinging erratically between worrying that I had shared too much and then worrying that I hadn’t shared enough. There’s so much urgency to this conversation, so much need to find new ways of communicating, new forms of expression and living, new genres of relating to one another, to ready ourselves for the changes I’m sure we all feel in our bones is imminent, but also connected by tendon and muscle to the everydayness of our lives and its many weary demands.
I want, gently, sympathetically, warmly, to disagree with your reading of Ray’s poem just a little. The last line is “they would cut that tree down,” which suggests the they, who are the nuns, had not in fact cut the tree down because they did not know what was going in the minds of the young woman and the sensual effect the magnolia had on them. The word would is carrying a lot of weight here.
In many ways, I find our divergent readings of the poem lovely and fitting, as you saw an inevitable destruction while I saw destruction avoided. Perhaps we are at the impasse of these two readings: perhaps what seems like sure destruction is still something we can avoid, or perhaps the destruction has already occurred and we are like the young woman in the poem, unaware of how short our time is.
Regardless, I believe we should behave as if there is still a chance to save the magnolia.
October 31, 2022
I think you may be right that the nuns did not cut the tree down. “[I]f only they knew what / I remember / in the nights of this runaway exile—,” Ray writes, framing the drama of the tree in the conditional. And yet I’m troubled by the dashes, which fracture the sentence, so that I am not entirely convinced that that initial clause leads directly to the last line. What if Ray means to write, with the interruptions removed, “And the good nuns—/ they would cut that tree down”? To me, the dashes invite doubt. I do think you may be right, but I also am not sure and, in the poem, the dashes suggest how memory blurs the lens.
Perhaps it is appropriate that we end in this gentle, good-spirited disagreement. Our divergent readings—yes, lovely and fitting—reflect the thin margin between hope and despair, where I imagine we’ve each placed a foot. That one is not sure is why one asks questions, summons a discourse, and so seeks communion.
I am grateful for your large-hearted and large-minded correspondence over these last few weeks, and I am grateful to Shreela Ray and Agha Shahid Ali for giving us the means toward the personal. I chose Ali, in part, because his poetics are deeply rooted in the epistolary, not only in his compassionate reach for the second person but also in his abiding faith that writing does reach another (or an Other). “The world is full of paper. // Write to me,” he famously concludes one poem. The conclusion of “In Search for Evanescence” is hardly different:
Ahead is a year of brilliant water—
there’s nothing in this world by hope: I have
everyone’s address. Everyone will write:
And there’s everything in this world but hope.
Nestled within that chiasmus of hope and hopelessness is the act of correspondence. For Ali, it is the ritual by which we meet across time and place, a travel that we can all (environmentally) afford, another way to think about poems. Dare I say this is what we have shared? Earlier in the poem he writes, “Someone wants me to live” and the line keeps repeating, “(Someone wants me to live).” Again: “Someone wants me to live.” I like that refrain as the impetus for letter writing. I write to you because I want you to live, you write to me because you want me to live. Our desires for the planet may be as simple as that.