Leeya Mehta’s A Story of the World Before the Fence is a collection of poems which traverse time, space, and human emotion. Over the span of eighteen poems, Mehta, an award-winning poet, weaves together disparate peoples, locations, times, and events to blur the lines that separate while revealing the subtle yet profound bonds which tie together intergenerational and individual experiences. Throughout the collection, the fence reoccurs both directly and inadvertently as a barrier, one which severs the ever-shifting poetic voices from belonging, connection, and the notion of permanence.
The book of poems begins with the passage of Parsi Zoroastrian refugees sailing to India, signaling that the poet and the reader are likewise on a journey. From this original embarkment, the sequence of poems follows locations, times, and events that may at first feel disjointed and distant but are in fact gently tethered by reoccurring connections. For example, the opening poem “Refugees” is set in 917 AD on the Arabian Sea, while later poems traverse from India to the United States and Japan. While these changes may seem random, they are carefully tethered strings that pull the reader through the poetic journey. The Zoroastrian refugees cross the Indian Ocean, where they arrive on India’s western shore. The Thar Desert, located in India, is a nuclear testing site where the poetic voice experiences tremendous loss. In the Japanese city of Hiroshima, another site of a devasting nuclear bomb, women protest the obliteration of their loved ones. In Tokyo, the Japanese capital city, the poetic voice laments an unrequited, “outside” love. Along a river near the capital city of the United States, the country that nuked Japan, the poetic voice recalls her own journey from the Arabian Sea to the United States that is twisted and knotted like the brown river before her. And so it continues. These shifts in location and time, connected by threads of place and emotion, are accompanied by shifts in voice, perspective, and time—and together are as tangled and profound as a river.
With the fence comes separation, an immediate line between here and there. Frequently, the poems lament, reflect on, and even challenge these borders. Instances of these include the experience of generational trauma among the uprooted Parsi Zoroastrian community in India, the poetic voice’s ancestral and personal experiences in immigrating, and the feminine-centered voices of the poems. These generationally traumatic experiences are nuanced in that they both sever the poetic voices from a sense of belonging as well as connect the different generational iterations by common, unvanquished memory. While the refugees of long-ago face pressure to assimilate to the dominant cultures and religions, thinking “how many generations it takes to go from conqueror to refugee”, their descendent, in the form of the poetic voice, reflects on the price of civilization, longing “to forgive myself for what we have lost”. Similarly, while a young mother looks onto the Indian coast and understands “the every day abuses girls seem not to know they carry”, a small girl in Washington, DC throws off her dress to play in the water, only for her and her family to be threatened with the “fury” of racism, sexism, and the sexualizing male gaze. In linking these stories across national and temporal boundaries, A Story of the World Before the Fence reminds us of the interconnecting legacies of shared trauma.
To add another layer of interconnection beyond the fence, the author’s background clearly and unabashedly influences the poems. As stated, Leeya Mehta was born into a Parsi Zoroastrian family in Mumbai—the same group inferred at the beginning of the book and the same western Hindustani shore. In fact, one of the only named characters is a young woman and mother named Armaiti, who is one of the first Parsi Zoroastrian refugees to arrive with her family. Armaity is also the name of Mehta’s own grandmother. This subtle but clear connection reflects the author’s presence in the text and her own direct connection to the events that occur. Armaiti is not only named to identify the often-forgotten, distant relatives who made a new life possible, but to distinguish a distinct relationship between the past and the present as well as the personal and the poetic. Furthermore, similar to the poems’ locations of Gujarat, Washington, and Tokyo, Mehta notes in her biography of having lived in each of these locations. By so openly referencing her own family and personal history in the poems themselves, the author transcends her distance from the subject matter to create an intimate reading experience which defies yet another fence: that boundary between the poet and the poem, the author and the subject, and the experience and the reflection. In doing so, she draws the reader into a private world filled with love, loss, and ultimately, after a long journey spanning nations and generations, forgiveness.
Although the titular “fence” is a physical barrier erected in Washington, DC to keep out a herd of deer, the fence represents not only physical barriers, but ones of definitions by which we divide and isolate ourselves. In these poems, the fences are more than white pickets around a house by the woods, but the very notions—such as the linear passage of time, national divides, gender roles, and emotional expectations—of imagined separations. As the sequence of poems defy those long-standing conceptions of time and space, they likewise connect the reader to the moving world. Mehta reminds us of the transience and the interconnectedness of all things, even when belonging feels “like loving a dead corpse” amongst “history’s endless funerals”. The trauma felt by a young woman saying goodbye to her homeland thousands of years ago echoes to the journey of another searching for a new home. In this deeply personal and emotionally profound collection of poems, Leeya Mehta questions our preconceived notions of the “fences” which separate us from the oneness of ourselves and of the universe, the tangled flow of life, and the love and loss we share across generations.
Leeya Mehta, A Story of the World Before the Fence. Georgetown, Kentucky: Finishing Line Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Nina Lee