David TaitNanjing, China

Winter is Coming: Smog Sketches

A number of my students love watching Game of Thrones and a number of the younger students quote from it directly.

One student, Xiao Wu, who has given himself the anglicized name of Lannister, likes to jokingly borrow money from people and then say “A Lannister always pays his debts” whilst returning it. However, for most students, and indeed for me, it is the words of House Stark that resonate the most: “Winter is Coming”.

Up at the Wall (in Beijing this time) the fear isn’t of an army of the dead led by The Night King, but the inevitable mind-blowing levels of pollution that winter brings to North China.

A heating system dependent upon the burning of coal north of the Yangtze river, a huge population of people, traffic, cars, combined with China’s position of being the world’s factory floor, all leads to soaring air pollution levels, particularly of the harmful PM2.5 and PM10 particles.

It is estimated that millions die early each year as a result of the continued exposure to this level of air pollution, with huge numbers of “smog refugees” fleeing the urban centres when a red alert is issued and travelling south. Conservative estimates indicate that life expectancy is reduced by 10

So to live through it, of course, the only thing for a poet to do is write about it, or at least make notes about it, and I’ve often found staggered by small details: smog playtime where kids can’t go outside, particle magnets installed over football fields to magnetically strip clean the air, an app that plots the least polluted route for your journey, the design of bicycles that clean the air as they go, tales parents tell their children to justify the pollution. Sometimes these images will make their way into poems fully formed, and sometimes the images won’t quite fit.

Here are some images I’ve noted down during extremely heavy pollution that haven’t made it into poems yet:

a man removing his facemask to smoke a cigarette
a woman selling balloons on an abandoned street
a dumpling seller coughing and coughing
a TV screen showing a sunrise
a group of people at a poetry reading wearing face masks as they read

Sometimes, also, the key image of a poem brings along the poem itself. I’d like to share a couple of these “pollution poems” I’ve written, and talk a little about how they came to be.

This first poem, ’The Air’, came about from waking up to a severe and thickly polluted day in Guangzhou, just as the pollution was becoming thicker. The climate in Guangzhou is semi-tropical, and the air con inside the apartment versus the warm smog outside created condensation and the appearance of things like handprints on the windows:

The Air
A text from the embassy: the air today will not be good.
If possible I should stay indoors.
If possible I should wear a mask.
Today is my day off. I sit and watch
as the air rolls in. The skyscrapers lose their sure angles.
The skyscrapers could almost be whales. I think of Ahab
hurling his pipe. The air buffets against my window.
It is colder inside than outside. The air pants
against the glass. Handprints begin to appear.
Now it’s just me. The air mimics the voices of traffic
and hawkers.The traffic and hawkers are drenched in the air.
The walls are starting to sweat.

I’d also like to share my poem “Three Dragon Day”, which describes the pollution from a child’s perspective. I overheard someone saying that they told their kids that when the day was very polluted it meant that dragons were nearby – so on that logic I decided that a truly polluted day would become a three dragon day.

Three Dragon Day

Forget the particulars of particulate matter,
air pollution comes from dragons.

On a blue day the dragons are far from the city.
On a day like today the air scratches and growls.

Imagine them, out there, wrapped around skyscrapers,
shrieking to each other through blast furnace throats,

their scales buckled steel, eyes deep as mineshafts,
grey wings rippling with varicose veins.

Putting on my face-mask, a five year old girl
looks out at buildings made as vague as Monet’s London.

“Today is a three dragon day” she says, then steps out
onto the street, towards the crossing, and is gone.

In the UK I think we take things like clean air for granted, and we are lucky in so many ways that our country’s rapid industrial development is rooted in the past. Before I came to China I had no idea how bad the pollution could be, and I had no idea that pollution and the people affected by it would become the key theme of my writing.

Now when I look at the calendar I think about when the coal-generated heaters will switch on, of the inevitable pollution headaches and stinging eyes and sitting near to air purifiers that the cold months bring. It’s late August now, but winter is coming.

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