VMAG reviews Wayne Amtzis’ City on Their Backs

8 min read
30 Aug 2017
8 min read
872 words
From the Archive (Mar, 2016): City on Their Backs, a collection of poems and portraits, is so deeply rooted in the reality of Kathmandu’s downtrodden that it is almost as if they were the co-authors of the poems
Wayne Amtzis’ City on Their Backs is so deeply rooted in the reality of Kathmandu’s downtrodden that it is almost as if they were the co-authors of the poems

Nepal’s the one against the wall, 
Whose blood’s thin, whose chest caves in, 
who being who he is, 
who can’t go on… Goes on

And go on he must. Nepal, in the titular poem ‘City on His Back’, like all other subjects of Wayne Amtzis’ poems, is caught in the spirals of the same drudgery-filled reality every day. Weak and weary as he is, swallowing sweat and breathing fumes, Nepal cannot go on; but he does. How he manages to go on is, indeed, a mystery. There is a tired yet omnipresent resilience in his existence.

City on Their Backs is a collection of poems and portraits, written and photographed by Wayne Amtzis as he observes Nepal and captures the soul of the common man and of the working class. With the weight of their own existence on their shoulders in Nepal are the porters in ‘Olympics’, ‘He Can’t Make It’; footpath vendors in ‘Purchase’, ‘The Thinker’; farmers in ‘Not to Return Till Dusk’. The characters in these poems are as real as the struggles of the Nepali people who have to earn food for every night, and yet they are also constructs that stem from Amtzis’ observations, captured as the living, breathing entity that is Kathmandu. They are images of an entire ecosystem existing in shadows within the city, wherein the characters attempt to shelter beside Kathmandu’s crumbling walls, on its filthy footpaths, in “tin-roofed bamboo cages.”

Amtzis, in an almost apologetic tone, describes himself as the observer of his poetry, objective as much as he can be
Amtzis is both a poet and a photographer, and thus an observer: his watchful eyes have been witness to the difficult lives of his characters in the decades he has spent in Kathmandu. The poems in his collection, all carefully interwoven with the portraits, meticulously document the struggles of the working class. The work is about empathy, about the writer finding himself in the poems and through the portraits, about the characters coming to life through them.

None of the poems in Amtzis’ collection are sentimental tales. The poet has ensured that the truth is told as it is, seemingly not even filtered through a poet’s subjectivity. The poems look closely at men, deeply immersed in their never-ending pursuit of work. In ‘Olympics’, Amtzis’ exactness in re-creating a reality in which a porter waits for the means to earn a day’s work brings to memory the American poet Phillip Levine and his poem ‘What Work Is’. In that poem, Levine waits in line at a park so that he can work; and although it is not known whether the poet will be hired that day, the wait becomes his life, the only salvation he has left, the only way in which he can provide for his family. In Amtzis’ ‘Olympics’, the porters rush to carry yet another staggering load and then have to wait, endlessly, for more work to come their way. Unlike Levine, however, Amtzis is not part of the waiting game himself: he is the observer, and he lives that role without asserting himself at any point in his poems. In his first poem of the collection, ‘In Whose Court?’, Amtzis writes: “For a time/ I hauled the city/ on my back./ Unlike those depicted here, / I can put it down,” where the poet offers the raison d'être for the anthology that follows. In the poem, Amtzis, in an almost apologetic tone, describes himself as the observer of his poetry, objective as much as he can be, so that the subjects, the real characters, of his poems are the highlights.

He writes about worn sneakers, filthy rags, flies that peck at the skin, matted hair, vein-gnarled hands. It is in these details that the essence of his poems lies. Amtzis refuses to sentimentalise the lives of his characters. In ‘What Future?’, the character, who has been forced to come of age too soon, is doomed to live the life of a porter, like his father. There are no glorious promises of transcendence for his characters. And while their stories might seem hopeless, the very lack of resolution in them prevents the work from becoming a work of illusion.

City on Their Backs presents snapshots of a Nepal that we do not see, or worse, that we choose to ignore. Through his portraits and his poems, Amtzis calls on us to confront the realities of the people who have been living in the shadows. Amtzis’ poems are important because, as Richard Hugo said of Phillip Levine’s work, “in them we hear and we care.” 

Genre: Poetry
Price: 600
Page: 129