Glimpses into deep time with palaeobiologist Iyra Maharaj on World Environmental Health Day    
Mon, 05 September 2022

On World Environmental Health Day (26 September) the AVBOB Poetry Project turns to poetry for a way to think more deeply about the world and for consolation as we face our ecology in crisis. As floods, heatwaves, rising sea levels and drought wreak havoc and destruction on human lives and livelihoods, we find alignment in the timely poetry of Iyra Maharaj, a PhD candidate studying palaeobiology at the University of Cape Town.

Palaeobiology involves the study of prehistoric remains in order to map the evolutionary history of life forms. What can we learn about our own place in the universe by taking a long view of history – paying attention to prehistoric creatures and the possible reasons for their success or extinction? As someone who asks this question on a daily basis, Maharaj is keenly aware of the unexpected encounters between ancient and modern. She brings these questions to the poems that form the body of her debut collection, earth-circuit, which is due from Dryad Press in 2023.

The word ‘circuit’ in the anthology’s title evokes closeness and connection, but also hints at danger or entrapment. Maharaj explains, “The title plays with connections – between people and nature. It links old to new; ancient to complex.”

Reading these poems is both disconcerting and exhilarating. “When the sun sinks, the earth’s skin crawls…”, the title poem begins. It feels as if we are witnessing fundamental change, without quite understanding what its consequences will be. The poems address the implications of human behaviour, but they do not provide easy answers. The reader is left to navigate unfamiliar landscapes, uncertain about the new rules that may operate in them.

Maharaj traces this style back to an encounter with WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ in high school. “When first reading it, I was consumed by its sheer power and terror, a twisted sense of beauty, and of a looming end. That craft is something I keep chasing in the pieces I create.”

The long view of history helps her to piece together how life forms have evolved over millennia and to imagine their evolution in the future. “I would like readers to question if life forms are better after evolving or more volatile.”

Scientists refer to the long history of the earth, and of the cosmos beyond it, as deep time. But, as Maharaj points out, it would be a mistake to think of ourselves as separate from that history. “I think of deep time as something that is a part of us. It’s important to find these linkages, to see that we’re strangely both new and ancient structures.”

Maharaj’s poems are attuned to potential violence in the circuit between the earth and human beings. “The looming sixth mass extinction would wipe out humans and leave our earth worse off than it was before we walked it. Art has a vital role to play in communicating the earth’s cries for help; and especially in processing what it would actually mean to watch everything we know and are ignite and burn away.”
But, of course, the circuit we make with the earth can also be joyous and nurturing. In ‘Gold Leafing’, she imagines herself tree-like, reaching towards the sun: 

Perhaps this is why God put me here,
to stand beneath a maple sky curling
my feet on wood, marching nowhere,
to the gold-leaf sun, with rolling kohl…

Can you write a lament for a lost species? Could you pen a ballad for the burning earth? Send your entry to the 2023 AVBOB Poetry Competition by 30 November 2022 at