Traversing geography, emotion and form with felicity.
Fractals brings together over 300 new and select earlier poems from Sudeep Sen’s internationally acclaimed oeuvre spanning thirty-five years, 1978 to 2013, as well as some of his translations.
The title has been chosen with care. Earlier collections built around themes such as Rain, Ladakh, Blue Nude, Geographies, Postmarked India, when combined with his latest work reveal elements which recur. Equally, the term fractals defined variously in science and mathematics and general terms, highlights Sen’s own interest in art, science and patterns scattered through nature.
The central ‘self’-similarity, or fractal, of course is the poet’s own sensibility. In a fine early poem, ‘Inside Closed Eyes…’, describing a woman at a graveyard ‘With eyes closed, hands clasped, body wrapped in dark linen/kneeling, she prays long, silently, alone’ Sen creates the impression of an incorporeal presence observing the scene, by slipping in the words ‘no one else alive’. And it is this presence, even when burdened with the body’s physicality, illness—as in the later prose-poems of ‘BodyText’, that imbibes the poetic sap nourishing all life, rejoicing always in the power of words to become poetry.
The observing mind finds potential for poetry everywhere. Hospital—‘illness radiating inner beauty…dancing in secret helixes’, ship-breaking yard—‘the ships stand, rain-soaked, statuesque’, marketplace—‘dead bodies lay, ripe-pink, charred’, or cathedral where in Chagall’s stained glass ‘heat is coolly perserved/a quintet of translucent flutes’. Having registered their impress, the poet then crafts a poem which is ‘a sum/of distilled parts, parts one chooses/to explore carefully like raw stock’.
Travelling across continents, mapping terrains as vastly different as the Sahara—‘sand feels/like water water sand/ sand, paper-thin and gossamer-strung/a camel coloured canvas’; Zoji La Pass—‘breathtaking breathlessness’; the Wailing Wall—‘the gleaming hand-worn/shine on Jerusalem stone/where the public merges/with the private/where prayer and passion/collide and unite’; the seashore in Durban—‘bare feet eventually bleeding like the weeping sea’; the adobes of New Mexico—‘the still sky shimmers clear turquoise/while the air travels clean and light dazzles/in a shifting pattern of shadow’, Sen’s poems ‘tell a story/ that is both/apparent and hidden/to an everyday eye’.
And if home is the locus from where these flights of distance are marked ‘I meticulously stitch time through the embroidered sky’, then the return ‘I/am going home once again from another/home, escaping the weave of reality into another’ is equally cause for pain and dislocation.
All of these experiences are felt, absorbed, until ‘delirious with words’ the poet finds that ‘it is a tactile act, writing’. The universe then is rendered vastly sensual, every surface inviting inscription. ‘Writing on skin, on paper, on pillows, on bedsheets, on stone, on wood, on metal—there are no constraints, no medium is unsuitable, not even water.’
If this is his normal state of being, in ‘BodyText’ we are allowed a glimpse of experiences that might in fact impede poetry: disease, distress—‘I feel trapped in my own body’, hospitalisation. What happens when poetry does not emerge, when life is suspended? What happens when the observer—connected to ‘multi-sized screens populated with cursors and graphs whose night-jive are determined by every move I make’— is observed in quarantine? Here, Sen gives us ‘early sketches’ in prose—‘the bare-bone draft of my metered text’.
Another fractal is the duality offered between white and colour, not the cliched black. Colour, to Sen, is not something that opposes white but is in fact held captive within—‘compressed colours giving warmth/that only pure white can hope to contain’. If white is lost, frozen memory, it ‘melts colour’ when revived. If white shrouds a dead father’s ‘gauze-bandaged, mummified body’, then colour is ‘unspent passion’. Prayer flags of ‘five colours implode/mix/then white’ against the ice-capped mountains. In the midst of ‘beautiful blinding snow’, the poet finds a way to resolve quandries by embracing them.
Closely allied are images of tabula rasa, ‘stark white sheets’ waiting to be marked or filled or overlaid but with ink that is either invisible, or white, thereby ‘concealing text’. But the creative act may imply destruction: ‘Underneath the permanent scar/of jet-black fluid and heat/is pulp, half-dead./Beneath the persistent hoarse-/drone of metal-scratching/is bleached pulp, half-alive/its cotton laid sheets/carefully encoded with/the magic arc of a gold-tip’, leading sometimes to hubris, ‘oppression of ambition and intellect’, thereby ‘questioning the whole point/the nib of writing itself’.
While Sen’s insights along the path of life are ‘fresh, untrammelled and personal’ there is resonance to be found through inter-texuality, for he adheres to Hamann’s belief that ‘poetry is the mother tongue of the human race’. Poets from across centuries and countries—Milton, Shakespeare, Walcott, Barthes, Browning, Heaney to name a few—may preface a segment, a poem or find themselves held within Sen’s own lines. Most poignant perhaps is Sen taking solace in Neruda’s words ‘tonight I can write the saddest lines’ to describe his own heart-break.
Sudeep Sen’s aesthetic response also extends to artists whose mode of expression is either the dancing body: ‘architectural love and body love are one for me’, film: ‘silent tunes are loud, melody quiet/and crackle-charged/as sheet music melts hot current’, architecture: ‘etched in the instant/of a grand plan/everything meets, collides, and forms’ or installations: ‘inverting mirror-lines/to deceive horizon’s balance’. My own favourite among these is the poem ‘Freehold|Leasehold’, on beholding the bronzes of Radhakrishnan: ‘metal flying in perpetual motion’. Sen’s chief achievement is the Blue Nude set inspired by Dali, Picasso, Cezanne, but mainly, Matisse’s Nu Bleu series—‘The right limb, outstretched/free, over her head, welcomes the fresh/warm penetrating sun, as she allows it to stroke her/body lavishly after the long winter’—proving true Simonides’ observation ‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech’.
However, not every reader might be enthused by modern European art, nor particularly interested in the locales of certain poems. Some of Sen’s poems, dedicated to a specific person, coding secrets only they were privy to, might render the reader an eavesdropper, forever excluded. But his erotic poems, ‘feverish and woman-soaked’, with ‘recipes of hunger and passion’ compel one to ‘demand more,/more, more’.
Emotion in its spontaneous source, fluid, often inchoate, is unshaped poetry and Sen’s most moving work stems from deeply private moments laid bare. A lifeless embryo—‘I stared at an ultrasound monitor/in sheer disbelief, looking/desperately, for signs of life/Only the womb/with neuchal folds, and/an invisible embryonic heart/remained, still—without any beat’, his son’s first footprint—‘Then you came along/your new body/new fingers, new feet/tracing their outline /on white margin-spaces/of my unruled page’, the end of a marriage—‘As you left today, your piercingly guarded words/were so beautifully raucous that it pierced/open my blood vessels in bulbous dirge-like patterns/Blood spots appeared on my arms and palms/exactly where had first held me twenty years ago’, or death of a parent—‘Your ashes have now been scattered/on River Yamuna’s lap/Ganga’s own having accepted/one of her sons back again, weeps/But the fire within me, still burns’, these are situations that any reader can empathize with.
Supremely gifted in his felicity with words—‘new blooms, tiny, delicate, arched:/ green sulphur on match-heads/ glowing at the very first hint of light’, Sen uses them with precision. His choice of words is usually faultless, therefore one must quibble with him on the rare occasion he errs. In ‘Villanelle for Shiva’ the word ‘wig’ to describe Shiva’s matted hair ‘in a great wig of ancient hair’, while unusual and conveying a visual image of his hair, is incorrect. Reading ‘New Public Library’, ‘I feel the tactility of a book from the 1500s’, one would suggest that ‘tactility’ seems utilitarian here, whereas the poet really means to evoke the sense of gently handling that weathered manual.
Sen is also skilled in craft, marrying content and form together in a way that appears effortless, born of the moment. Structure and appearance matter greatly to him, as does the spoken word, poetry as song. If it is the play of 5 and 7 syllables across Japanese forms—‘mustard blooms swaying/under the sharp winter sun/shed pollen—yellow/rain’, it is an attempt to capture the Manhattan skyline sideways in ‘New York Times’. If a single sentence traces whisky searing his throat in ‘Single Malt’, then sentences in ‘Banyan’ are arranged like aerial roots. Intensely aware in his pacing of ‘time and its own presence of metre’, his voice is ‘measured and understated’.
To read Sen’s poems, written over years of dedication to this one deity—poetry, is to encounter pure moments of consciousness, of existence stripped of inessentials, affording ‘a subtle peek into soul’s eye’. Here, after ‘distressing iambs of food-shopping, dishwashing’ have been accounted for, we are offered the essence of a life lived, distilled as is perfume, the scent of moments captured for long after they have bloomed.
From ‘Sixteen Movements on Erotica’
Under the soft translucent linen,
the ridges around your nipples
harden at the thought of my tongue.
You — lying inverted like the letter ‘c’ —
arch yourself deliberately
wanting the warm press of my lips,
it’s wet to coat the skin
that is bristling, burning,
breaking into sweats of desire —
sweet juices of imagination.
But in fact, I haven’t even touched
you. At least, not yet.
of a rose-
a languorous kiss —
the faintest smell of ocean —
salt-lipped breeze, pleading —
The very last drop of rain
perched on the edge
of her navel —
the last bead of sweat
balanced on the feather
of her eye-lash —
the last long-wet
of my kiss on her skin —
all these demand more,
more, more —
more wet, more wet —
yearning for more rain,
fire, desire, moisture —
and the cool chill of
saliva, longing, rain.