The Exclusion Zone
These days the line between dystopian and realist narratives feels increasingly blurred. The virtual world too now seems inseparable from the physical. The Exclusion Zone amply demonstrates that poetry is able to speak to these convergences.
Shastra Deo’s second collection takes destabilisation seriously, not only as an aesthetic value but as part of the texture of experience and subjectivity. Many of the poems are placed in the midst of catastrophe or violence, energised by critical questions. When our survival is threatened, what previously unimaginable acts become necessary? How do we change when plunged into high-stakes scenarios?
“Fukushima Soil” considers how radiation permeates material existence much more stubbornly than human language: “It was many years ago, now, when a stone was just a stone.” In “Aubade (Earth-TRN688)”, Deo asks, “Who in any wasteland / would not eat around the shape of their better self.” “Search History” begins: “I tell this story in the conditional: We may have known / the future. We may have done nothing”. At the same time, “if I am telling you this then ... there is still time.”
While species loss and language degradation are recurrent, interrelated themes, The Exclusion Zone is also preoccupied with the hunting of animals, family and memory, spells and incantations. The poems often speak in jagged and urgent syntax, through fragmentary narratives peppered with fierce, kōan-like phrases. Just as important as this voice – troubled and troubling but also tender – is the arrangement of text on the page. There are list poems, a flowchart questionnaire poem, a constellation of stars in “View of the Sky from an Imagined Lake”.
Hyperlinks, footnotes and references proliferate; poetic Easter eggs, you might say. “It survives” is a choose-your-own-adventure poem, branching through the book with equal parts wit and dread. The poem includes passages in Hindi. Deo writes in a note, “curious reader-players can use the ‘camera’ function of an app like Google Translate to delve deeper into the text”. Rather than feeling gimmicky, this feature reminds us that poems always point elsewhere, to worlds that are actual or imminent.
Discovering in the notes that many of the poems are inspired by video games, for me, slightly diluted their visceral, amorphous effects. No doubt many other readers will experience the opposite. Regardless, the rigour and playfulness of these poems make for a formidable collection.
UQP, 104pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as "The Exclusion Zone, Shastra Deo".
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