A Poet Who Mesmerizes by Zigs and Zags, Hopping From Idea to Idea

THAT WAS NOW, THIS IS THEN
Poems
By Vijay Seshadri

Poetry has a long, proud history of acting as if readers don’t exist. Often this is a good thing. When Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus,” “I eat men like air,” we don’t feel that she has much interest in our reaction. We’re simply being allowed to witness, which is enjoyable because spectacles — fires, lightning storms, flesh-eating zombie women — are fascinating to watch. But, of course, to act as if the reader doesn’t exist is exactly that: to act. Every good poet knows she’s performing for an audience, whether she acknowledges it or not.

The contrary approach is to turn toward the reader, to involve her directly in whatever the poem is up to. Often this is a subtle matter of convincing readers that they’re part of a “we.” When Bishop writes in “Poem” about “the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust,” that “we” is us. But readers can also be straightforwardly summoned: “You come too,” Frost says in “The Pasture.” Either way, the idea is to take advantage of the uncertainty over who’s doing what as a poem is read; not only to break the fourth wall, but to leave us unsure who exactly is onstage, to make us wonder if the stage even exists.

Vijay Seshadri is this latter, very curious sort of poet. Seshadri’s poems are testily smart, often funny, conceptually intricate and so chock-full of irony that it’s hard to avoid making a pun here involving magnets or multivitamins. Seshadri’s latest book — his fifth, and his first since he won the Pulitzer for “3 Sections” in 2014 — is called “That Was Now, This Is Then.”

The essence of Seshadri’s writing is conversation, and that conversation is coiling and liquid, not diffident. Seshadri is fluent in an unusually wide range of forms — he ranges here from rhymed quatrains to fat blocks of prose — and his voice is typically chatty, probing, importuning, self-mocking. As in the beginning of “Meeting (Thick)”:

I’ll meet if you really want to meet.
I’ll even meet in some small café or some
park across the way. But I won’t meet for long,
and not for a minute will I look at you in your isolation,
your human isolation. Looking at yours makes me look at mine —
transparencies of each other are they, yours and mine —
and I don’t have time for mine, so how could I have time for yours?

He’s a poet who mesmerizes not by stillness but by zigs and zags, and he very much wants to take the reader with him as he island hops from idea to idea. Here’s the beginning of “To the Reader,” which seems fair to take as a statement of his poetics:

I’m writing this so I can tell you that what you’re thinking
about me is exactly what I’m thinking
about you.

What you’re reading is exactly what you’re writing,
by the light of a taper, deep inside yourself,
at your walnut secretary.

Seshadri goes on to compare this intertwining to “spooky action at a distance,” which is Einstein’s somewhat skeptical description of quantum entanglement (basically, the idea that in certain systems, changing one particle will change its counterpart, even at vast distances). The suggestion is that the reader-writer-poem relationship is similarly entangled — and since this idea is being expressed in a poem itself, the result is something like a ball of yarn inside a ball of yarn.

Seshadri relishes this kind of complexity, whether it means extending a conceit or changing the scale of a poem like a detective zooming in on surveillance footage. Consider “Birding,” which begins with the simple image of “A gray bird with a crest and a black mask” that expands to “a large wader, gimlet-eyed, under / the sun’s gimlet eye.” And then this happens:

The sun itself a larger bird,
its wings manufacturing
the solar wind

that devours, that is what can devour a person —
floating in the vacuum
of perpetual space,
which is what there is and also is

itself a bird, a blackbird,
its black eye, black in black,
its sidewise look that makes you
look back.

When you can shift from a blackbird to the solar wind to the blackness of space, which is looking at you even as you are yourself engaged in looking, there is very little you can’t bring into the conversation.

Seshadri’s prickly inventiveness serves him especially well when he writes about gender. “Man and Woman Talking” is exactly that, a dialogue premised on the assertion by “Man” that “we built the world,” which proceeds through both the obvious problems with this claim and questions about what, in any case, has been built. The poem ends by quoting Henry Vaughan’s “The World” in an acid rain of irony. There is a similarly uncomfortable yet fitting sense of doubling and reversal in “Marriage” (a companion, it seems to me, of an earlier poem called “Family Happiness”), which pictures the male speaker as having “two people inside me,” one adult and capable, the other consumed by infant ego. The speaker doesn’t want these identities resolved; rather, “I want them to be inseparable, inevitable. / I don’t want the children to suffer.”

To write as an ironist, especially today, is to risk that the reader loses patience with hedging, backtracking, spirals of cleverness. But sometimes the layers of the onion ensure the purity of the tears. “That Was Now, This Is Then” is anchored by “Collins Ferry Landing,” an elegy for the poet’s father. Its middle section, in prose, begins by addressing Seshadri’s father in the self-amused voice that is typical for this writer: “I have a friend. (You’ll be glad to know.) She and I work together. (You’ll be glad to know I still have a job.) She’s an ally. She’s sympathetic.” But it turns out that this sympathetic ally has done something terrible. The poet had been speaking about his loss (“I was telling her about you”) and then shied away from it into a galaxy of other subjects (“I was describing cultures of shame evolving across millennia; economies of scarcity versus economies of surplus. … Deep India, strewn with elephants and cobras”). And then the woman does this: “She put her right hand on my left arm and said, ‘He’ll always be with you. In your heart.’”

This “idiotic outburst” causes the poet to shuffle almost manically through the selves that his father’s death has torn through like a stone through paper (“I was seeing myself as the star of my loss, its protagonist, treading the boards”), leaving him with a terrible knowledge that is “unendurable.” The sentences seethe across the page. “This is why I kept talking and talking, whenever I could, climbing hand over hand up the rope of words.” He arrives at last at the simple, excruciating, pedestrian realization that all he wants is “to be sitting on the living-room couch, watching ‘Jeopardy!’ with you.” The poet is there, his father is there, we are there. Each one of us is there, before the flickering screen, and so none of us are there, and so all of us are there. How high that highest candle lights the dark.

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