Meditations on Solitude

Manahil Bandukwala and Conyer Clayton’s Sprawl reviewed
By Phinder Dulai
 
Sprawl - the time it took us to forget - by Manahil Bandukwala and Conyer Clayton

Sprawl – the time it took us to forget
Manahil Bandukwala and Conyer Clayton
Collusion Books, 2020.

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When you think of the word sprawl you are immediately inundated with images of landscapes turned into suburbs with little thought in civic planning. As a definition the word refers to the "spread or developed irregularly or without restraint". As a title of a long series of poems, Sprawl – the time it took us to forget, the word takes on a broader meaning of a sprawling nature where human hands have yet to impose their terrible designs; and sprawling ideas that seemingly have little to do with each other but are connected by word images and repetitive phrasing.

Sprawl, the chapbook, is a collaborative series of inter-locking poems that meditate on solitude, distances, oceans and landscapes. These eco poems were written over a six-day period during the pandemic, where one writer wrote one poem and sent it to the other to build another poem using the last line as their first line.

In a recent YouTube video produced by Collusion Books, the authors read the whole series amidst the backdrop of trees, rivers, paths, and lakesides. The poems are meditations of landscapes, oceans, the natural world outside the grey city scape. Additionally, one can’t help but think given these poems were written in mid-March, 2020, that the pandemic looms large in the spaces of solitude both writers inhabit.

Throughout this eloquent chapbook is the theme of solitude and living in isolation. The poem never mentions the pandemic, but the described actions lend themselves to images of life lived alone and with little contact with the urban world, as noted in this line: I wrap my arms around/ my own body/ so I don’t forget/ touch.

The poem Sprawl is a well-crafted constricted versescape. There is a vastness and open spaces described in these poems:

I hiked a forest yesterday
Picked apart the newly fallen trees
from older ones
Mutation is only natural in winter

The authors write to each other where each writer begins where the previous writer leaves off on and the last line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next poem. In this way there is a contiguous interlay of imagery and repetition of images in slightly different ways.

And in this sprawling versescape we are introduced to the deepest part of the ocean – the Hadal zone – where transparent life forms live and glow. One of the authors brings us in the deepest space of silence and darkness where she transforms into a glowing shrimp, an ancient deep-water crustacean that is over harvested throughout the world.

Sparse phrasing lends itself to appreciate the language that is deployed in this short collection. In a moment of reflection in the heart of the forest the authors pose

Why breathe the wood scent of an art gallery
When pine and cedar dance their way up a gentle slope
Ecosystems thrive when we forget them

And yet there is also intimacy here focusing on the body’s embrace of another body and the call to the subject to "please notice me across the salt flats". A yearning connection permeates throughout these poems.

One author hoards "love, tomatoes, mountains, kindness, water" while the other author hoards "pistachio shells that can now be crafted into flowers." In this way specific words are repeated with different reference points and emotional registers around differing subjects. All the while creating a connective line of verse.

Time and distance are two reoccurring themes in this chapbook. The two friends write to each other "through distance". Later in the work time is seen as too early and how are schedules kept and "time has been disproven." The tone of this work harkens back to the melancholic self-exploration of T.S. Eliot’s work.

Sprawl explores the changes in season from the cold ice laden landscape to the Spring thaw. Through anthropomorphism the author becomes moss that "change, sprawl, make/my way down the valley. Crush." The blending of a human life with the landscape’s visual imagery is seamless in this collection, as a technique it works well and with wonderful shifts and changes in the topography of the long poem.

The chapbook ends with a pithy observation "I measure life/not in seconds/but in pollen". By bringing again a reference to the cycle of renewal, we are introduced to the diurnal flow of time as it relates to the seasons; and in this case the late Spring, as the authors reflect on their solitudes.

Phinder Dulai is a writer and poet living in Surrey, B.C. His poetry is published in Canadian Literature Offerings Cue Books Anthology, and other publications. He is a co-founder of The South Of Fraser Inter Arts Collective, and is the author of two poetry books.
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