Thursday, October 8, 2020

Review: Vijay Seshadri - That Was Now, This Is Then (Graywolf Press)

As an editor, I've read thousands of Covid poems in the past few months. This is the first full book full of them that I've read. Vijay portrays it as "thinking my quarantined thoughts, nursing my mortified body."

If you read poetry as a reflection of our current society, the full book may be right up your alley. For me, the pessimism was just too much. Sure, I'm not happy with the current reality either, but as a reader, perhaps as a shallow person, I prefer work that keeps me enlightened and not angry enough to wish suicide over isolation. 

The first poem opens with "I could complain. I’ve done it before. / I could explain."  And then goes on for many more lines doing both. Complaining and explaining. The second poem, just as thick with anger, does have some poetic moments that at least help me appreciate Vijay's approach toward language: "Today is the day the self’s / whispering to itself in its hundred endangered languages merges / with the sound of water running and scoring grooves in the damp, / lithic, adhesive interiors". The third poem returns to the openly non-poetic complaining and explaining: "I’m fine with hatred. Pure, precise, self-modulating. / Waxing while the world wanes."

So, as my mother would say - if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything. The fourth and fifth poem are fun reads. Unlike most poets, who "pretend" that haphazard line breaks have deep symbolic meaning, Vijay openly plays with the same words in two different line breaks to prove neither change the meaning. This "playing" with the minds of poetry readers is exactly what we need. Someone willing to put together an essay of the meaninglessness of the way poets "pretend" they are saying something special. One only needs to listen to a poet read aloud their own words to discover they didn't really mean the line breaks to be there. They simply put them there so someone reading the work in the magazine thinks - it looks like a poem, so it must be a poem. I admire Vijay for taking the initiative to demonstrate how utterly meaningless the line breaks are. The poem (both poems are the same, one "thick", one "thin") is just as world-weary and pessimistic as the others: "I’ll meet if you really want to meet." It's the risk that he takes with form that I admire. 

Poem seven has form and rhyme & as such make the poetry of the poem stand up and say: "I've been composed as a poem".  Even so, the playful language keeps the book as dark as Vijay intends:

"He wants his mind relieved of you.
He wants his gun to talk to you,

embracing the murderous dialogue.
He doesn’t care that you’re just a dog."

Once in awhile Vijay creates a work that - while keeping the pessimism alive, at least raises a giggle:

"Marriage

You keep complaining that there are two people inside me—

the one confident, decisive, ironic;
the other a raging cripple
who never took to the nipple,
whose life has been one long
episode of colic.

Just admit you don’t know which one you like better,
which one rings your bell.

I happen to like them both."

I hope I've given you enough to decide for yourself if this is a book for you. I can picture certain stages of my life when I would have enjoyed this volume. For myself, in October 2020, when this book was released, it's not a book I'd give to a friend. I don't regret reading it - it is a quick read, and doesn't pretend to be a book you'd want to return to many times. I do appreciate it when a poet lets it be known - I'm getting this out of my system, and if you have any of it in your system, I hope my words will help you purge too. There is value in that for the folks who need it. 

The final poem includes this:

"Talk about
being one with others!

We correspond 1 to 1, and there is a grandeur in this."

Click here to purchase this book.


No comments:

Post a Comment