Literary Review

The square root of minus one

3 Sections; Vijay Seshadri, HarperCollins India, Rs.299.  

Vijay Seshadri is an Indian-born U.S. poet in his early sixties. After spending his first five years in Bangalore, he moved to the U.S. and grew up in the Midwest, largely in Columbus, Ohio. He has worked variously as a marine hand, in the logging trade, in the copy-editing department of The New Yorker, before settling into an academic position as a teacher of poetry and non-fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and son.

Seshadri considers himself an entirely ‘American’ poet and is wholly informed by that sensibility and literary taste. One can especially trace influences of Frost, Lowell, Bishop, Ashbery, and a few other significant American poets. His own relationship with India, as evident in his first book, is conveyed both in its sense of the geographical distance from that country, as well as in the couched unobvious display of it: “ I said Rajasthan, she said Sahara,/but we knew beyond question/it was desert we were after” (‘The Lump’); or obliquely “ when Stalin’s daughter/fled to Delhi” (‘Visiting Russia’).

He published two volumes of poetry, Wild Kingdom (1996) and The Long Meadow (2004) in the U.S. In 2007, HarperCollins India brought out a local edition — a compilation of these two books under the title, The Disappearances. His latest volume, 3 Sections, was simultaneously published in the U.S. and India, and has been recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry — a literary honour meant strictly for American Citizens.

3 Sections contains 34 poems of varying lengths and uses “an array of poetic forms from the rhyming lyric to the philosophical meditation to the prose essay” and more. The poems deal with 20th century living, its lifestyle and angst, and its “wayward” histories. The poems also directly confront the topics of science, translation, film, travel, everyday objects, and issues surrounding the philosophical, “the soul”.

The volume opens with a clever philosophical poem, ‘Imaginary Number’, that fuses the worlds of geography, mathematics and uncertainty — ending enigmatically: “ The soul,/like the square root of minus 1,/is an impossibility that has its uses.” In ‘Three Urdu Poems’ (that deals with Mirza Ghalib and Momin Khan Momin), the structure and lineation used is that of co uplets alluding to the ghazal form (with the only exception of the line: “ The night is his who spends it coiled with you”). Whether it is “ a laconic marksman” who leaves “ me/not dead but perpetually dying”; or the poet’s wonderment as to “ why she still keeps my heart,/as useless to her as an unpaired sandal”; or even as the “ stars, behind the veil of day” leave “ my glittering memories of the feast of love ... warehoused in oblivion” — the lyricism, phraseology, and word-choices make this a fascinating three-part poem.

‘Secret Police’ opens startlingly, employing original and unusual imagery: The towelette flutters punctually in the window. The neighbor who never talks silently combusts on his patio in choreographed figure eights.

Poems such as ‘Hell’, ‘Purgatory, the Film’, ‘Purgatory, the sequel’ and ‘Heaven’, perhaps allude to D. Alighieri and modernity in oblique complex ways, but always using suave metropolitan wit: “ You’d have to be crazy as Dante to get those down, / the infernal hatreds.

Seshadri is obviously still partial to using his signature long lines. His prose poem ‘Pacific Fishes of Canada’ is particularly fascinating for its early autobiographical clues and insights. This is immediately followed by ‘Personal Essay’, an unsurprisingly titled long poem that uses long lines.

The poem that sums up his varied poetic forms is ‘Nursing Home’, set in “3 Sections”. Section 1 uses regular free-verse lineation, Section 2 is set in the prose-poem format, and Section 3 styled as single-long-line stanzas forming a dramatic monologue. Finally, 3 Sections concludes with an eponymous ‘Light Verse’ where: It’s just five, but it’s light as six./It’s lighter than we think./Mind and day are out of sync./The dog is restless./The dog’s owner is sleeping and dreaming of Elvis./The treetops should be dark purple,/But they’re pink.

Seshadri’s poetry is very carefully constructed, both in terms of tightness of language as well as understated lyricism. That he is able to do that without using traditional rhymes or resorting to other obvious methods, make his poems sing with an even greater flight. The Pulitzer Prize committee described 3 Sections as “a compelling collection of poems that examines human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.” I cannot disagree with those words.

The readers should dive into Vijay Seshadri’s poems and be prepared to be informed and pleasured; let the power of his words allow them to soar, to stretch out their wings, to fly, and nest beautifully anew.

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