Sept 9/11…..the day when the images of two towers caving into their own emptiness along with thousands of precious lives floated into one’s eye and remained to stun him into numbed shock and disbelief. It was the day when the onlooker was forced to question the core of truth if it existed and wonder at the existential meaning. And then the rest is history. It was also a throwback to the chain of whys and how the defining disaster came about, the rationale.
But a poet looks at it, stripped of the trappings of a historian or political analyst, with the emotional strength of a commoner and a philosopher’s deep insight into the core of truth. Vijay Seshadri, the Indian American with a recent Pulitzer prize to add to his halo, dons the role with a degree of sensitivity that makes his poetry unusually stinging. His poem Disappearances written in 2007 – was about the defining moment of the 21st century and restructuring the event with a biting blend of wit, irony and agonized cynicism.
Seshadri begins with a poser “Where was it when one first heard of the truth” and meanders down a trajectory of descriptive images which suggest that the event itself was the high point of human disengagement or estrangement from truth. Disappearances is not about Sept 9/11 alone but also about JFK’s assassination and the two were perhaps the major turnarounds in American history, barring of course the War of Independence. The former at the beginning of the 21st century opened the window to what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq now though the latter could have rung up the curtain on Cold War much before the collapse of the Soviet Union actually did.
But Seshadri’s stupefaction was not just a consequence of what he along with millions witnessed that day. With it he happened to witness the demise of cardinal truths that were alive on the street every day but were not taken cognizance of. The poem contemplates devastation in its full intensity but these lines are as evocative the rest.
The wheels of the upside-down tricycle are spinning.
The swings are empty but swinging.
And the shadow is still there…..
With it was buried deep the “corrosive human element “ encapsulated in the scores of memories that would come back to burn one’s throat. His poem was the repository of only those meanings which disappeared that day, not the political myths that would reason it out for history.
His second volume “The Long Meadow”, winner of the James Laughlin award in 2003, is more engaged with cosmic questions – the predicament of evil, individual in a mob and the ethics of existence – and the titular poem “Long Meadow” is as vacuous and nebulous as in Disappearances. In exploring King Yudhishtra’s last pilgrimage into the realm of God with a faithful dog as his companion Seshadri is as befuddled as the King on sighting Duryodhana enjoying all blessings while his brothers and loyal fighters were thrown into the valley of fire. If the epitome of evil was lionized for being true to his nature was all that Yudhishtra fought for really just or unreal? Is this the Final Illusion that the King was destined to go through after all that tumult?
Seshadri is noncommittal on the siege of uncertainty that Yudhishtra finally faces as the normal experience of an individual. These lines are telling and forthright.
“Who has not felt a little of the despair the son of righteousness now feels,
staring wildly around him?
The god watches, not without compassion and a certain wonder.
This is the final illusion,
the one to which all the others lead.”
The Pulitzer citation says of Seshadri’s 3 Sections a "compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless." One cannot trapeze over the compelling tone of indictment in his poems that flow with felicitous ease of words and transparency of meanings. Seshadri seems to have all his themes – be it mythical, cultural or otherwise – firmly grounded, unembellished by allusions. His Long Meadow would be enough to adduce to the fact that Yudhishtra was essentially seen as human, in all dimensions. He was not the one to scamper into the safety of allusions and classical anecdotes as Elliot did in his Wasteland.
He comes out as an unabashed sceptic on elevation of soul or any branch of philosophy designed to that search. His poems Imaginary Number and Sequence are farsighted refutation of any illusions one could nurse on that score. The rounding off of Imaginary Number would speak for it.
“The soul, like the square root of one, is an
impossibility that has its uses.”