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An American master

Pulitzer-winner Vijay Seshadri is a worthy intellectual and artistic descendant of Melville.

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Updated: November 4, 2014 3:41:10 am
Vijay Seshadri Vijay Seshadri

Prizes are universally looked down upon by those who have a self-imposed sense of intellectual arrogance. After all, Orwell or Auden never got the Nobel — the best argument in our armoury. But I am now retracting a bit. Prizes do have their uses. I would never have heard of Vijay Seshadri had he not won a Pulitzer for poetry. And, of course, as soon as anyone with an Indian name gets recognition, we are busy claiming him or her as one of our own. Seshadri was born in Bangalore; for that matter, I too was born in Bangalore two years before him! That is where the similarity ends.

Despite our claims on him, let there be no mistake: Seshadri is an American. But given his name, given our chauvinism and xenophobia, it was inevitable that HarperCollins India should quickly reprint Seshadri’s 2013 anthology, 3 Sections. So one gets to read this poet. And what a poet he turns out to be! I read his anthology and re-read it a couple of times in one day, and promptly sent e-mails to many of my friends that Seshadri’s poem “Personal Essay” merits being in the same league as T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. As one of my friends pointed out, such praise should be doled out sparingly. But trust me, the praise is well deserved.

Seshadri handles language with felicity and aplomb. He not only inhabits his couch in vacant and pensive moods, but he also walks around with awesome verbs in his pockets and he drops them with panache as he seeks the objective correlates of emotions. He is an American master in the tradition of Whitman, Melville and Eliot. His prose poem “Pacific Fishes of Canada” is almost self-consciously modelled after Melville. To use his words, he wallows in his “version of the well-documented affliction that causes people to live in literature rather than life”. His self-deprecating modesty, which is part of his general style, is a trifle misplaced. Reading this composition, which is set in the Pacific, mostly in the Bering Sea, one is forced to fall back on the half-forgotten images of the Atlantic coast of New England, of harpoons and, of course, of Ishmael the narrator. For the record, Melville was not only the author of Moby Dick, he was also an accomplished poet. Seshadri is a worthy intellectual and artistic descendant of the master.

His shorter poems combine wit, a sense of poignancy and an uncanny ability to drop a phrase or two that lodges in the interstices that seem to exist between the reader’s neural synapses — a description that I feel Seshadri would concur with — for that seems to be his intent. The intertwining of the physical and the mental, which gains traction in our contemporary world, is something that Seshadri is acutely aware of; he grapples with it extensively, repeatedly and with a febrile level of intensity. Two centuries ago, one could talk of the body and the mind as distinct objects; some even talked of the soul. Today, we have to face up to the fact that chemical and micro-electrical impulses inside a small organ encased by the skull, in fact, may be the only soul we have. Sanskrit poets felt that a heightened sense of discrimination — which they referred to as “viveka”, separated humans from other life forms. Seshadri is wryly aware that these divisions may be artificial. After all, consciousness may just be visible on a brain scan in one’s “perisylvian pathways and declivities”. Our earlier consensus clearly stands “startled”.

The piece de resistance of the anthology is the longish “Personal Essay”. Unlike Eliot, who makes a separation between Little Gidding and Burnt Norton, Seshadri writes his poem in one continuous stanza with no breaks whatsoever. He seems to be making the point that in the 21st century, we live in parallel time, not in sequential space. We are simultaneously aware of the screen on which we are writing, the music that filters in through our earphones, our non-conversations with neighbours, our electrical connections to the outer universe and so much more. And in the midst of it all, each of us remains “a face astonished by itself in the mirror”. He has already told us elsewhere that he is a man trapped in a man’s body. Now he goes on to tell us that our “identities are either accidents or conspiracies, which are the same”. The poem is a long meditation on the human predicament, not only in this universe of infinite spaces, but entirely simultaneously in Brooklyn and JFK airport, very tangible immediate physical neighbourhoods. Seshadri’s use of the figure of speech of repetition, repeating himself once, twice and then repeating himself in yet another way, is brilliant to the point of out-Elioting Eliot. His ability to relate the physical to the personal trances each of us has to live with sets him apart as one of the poets of the English language who will, over the years, grow in stature.

Let me end with two quotes from the poem “Personal Essay” with every hope that readers will buy his book (the price at Rs 299 is paltry, as the poet himself would in probability say!):

l “Look at an old man on a street with fixed concentration and he resolves/ Into his colours and shapes and durations./ He’s arbitrary. He’s accidental./ He could have been put together in a number of ways./ Why this instead of that? He could be a toy. He is a toy, but whose?/ Look at his neighbourhood with the concentration of an eight-year-old/ and slowly it resolves to a composition comprising/ rectangles, triangles, boxes, lines, polygons, convex polygons,/ parallelograms, rhomboids, quadrilaterals, pyramids, dodecagons, hexagons, octagons,/ stars of Lakshmi, arbelos,deltoids, Archimedean spirals,/ magatamas, triquetras, Yin-Yangs.”

l “Stare at a word in a book long enough and that word/ slowly uncouples itself from what it means./ The meaning backs away./ The meaning is being evicted from/ The structure of glyphs that it has rented.”

I rest my case.

The writer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur

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