In a lecture he delivered in 2005, ((“Branching Out: Vijay Seshadri on Elizabeth Bishop (Fresno, CA),” Fresno County Library, Poets House, 2005)) Vijay Seshadri, commenting on Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” referred to “the radical disassociation of the self” in the poem, “by which consciousness tends to understand itself as consciousness.” “How had I come to be here,” asks Bishop’s not-quite-seven-year-old speaker, “like them[?]” In 3 Sections (Graywolf Press, 2013), Seshadri’s third and most recent collection, his speakers find themselves, like Bishop’s, in situations that compel them—even as they remain inevitably attached to reality—to grapple with the domain of their disassociated selves. Their minds strained—by art, by nature, by substance, by illness, by stress (mental or physical), or by thought, dream, or vision—to the margins of the rational, they straddle worlds tangible and intangible, knowable and unknowable, possible and impossible.
The margins are familiar ones: we frequent them, wittingly and unwittingly, and peer into the inscrutable, the mysterious, that lies beyond our mundane urban and suburban lives. We function not only as consumers of the mysteries, but also as their Machiavellian manufacturers and purveyors. In the dramatic monologue “Script Meeting,” a veteran film executive (“Remember / our reputation as a studio is built not on suspense / but on horror”), addresses the screenwriter about the script’s protagonist (“You have his eyeballs / twitching out of their sockets right here”): “Don’t leave him feeling like that. Stick with your guy.”
He’s his own zombie.
He haunts his own nights.
Not in this life will he tear himself from the bank of the burning river,
hotfooting it on the radiating marl
as his arrow of longing seeks the other shore.
The executive is certain of the protagonist’s “longing” resonating with the audience’s own pining for “the other shore,” even as the audience can’t leave its “bank of the burning river,” to which it is tragically, and mortally, bound. This is the impossibility in life, beyond the experience of transcendental moments, of complete transcendence. In some form or another, we’re caged, even as we would be, or feel we are, something other than ourselves: “On our first date,” begins the tongue-in-cheek “Family Happiness,” “I told my wife / I was a lesbian trapped in the body of a man”; it concludes, “I’m a man trapped in the body of a man.”
This yearning for “the other shore,” the impulse to seek it out, is instinctive, hardwired into human makeup—or, broadly, into animal makeup, as in “Heaven,” where “There’s drought on the mountain. / Wildfires scour the hills. / So the mammal crawls down the desiccated rills / searching for the fountain.” The mammal encounters a “thin silver sliver” of water. Having approached its sought-for shore, it can’t but drink, “but it has first / to stop and think / its reflexive, impeccable thought:”
that thinking comes down to this—
mystery, longing, thirst.
The “longing,” a “mystery” as it is, is also an inescapable and ultimately unquenchable “thirst.”
Seshadri’s scrutinizing speaker in “New Media, unlike the animal and unlike most people, is articulate enough to elaborate on this “longing”: “Why I wanted to escape experience is nobody’s business but my own,” he says, before realizing he can’t escape it. “I always believed I could,” “if I could / put experience into words.” He contemplates text streaming across the Internet: a Web browser is the threshold across which he peers into whatever lies beyond. Snippets or fragments of language—hyperlinks, if you will—open into larger worlds, often constituted of more words: a line of verse leads to Shakespeare’s sonnet 44 or the subject of an email leads to its content. Instead of escaping experience, he finds himself increasingly entangled in it. “Now I know words are experience,” he concludes, and “there’s nothing but what’s said about the thing, / there are no things but words / about the things.” This is the poet making a case, obliquely though it may be, for the challenging premise of his own enterprise, for the use of poetry to address the experience of the disassociated self.
Not all encounters with the arcane are necessarily induced on verbal or visual (or cinematic, as in “Script Meeting”) frontiers, defined exclusively through words or images. They can be induced imaginatively, as in “Purgatory, the Film,” and even intellectually, expressed in esoteric script, as in “Imaginary Number,” the poem that opens the book. The encounters may be evasive, as in the former (and as in “New Media”), where they befuddle, or apprehensible, as in the latter (and as in “Heaven”), where they gratify.
In “Imaginary Number,” titled after a theoretical abstraction that extends mathematics to a “complex” realm (parallel to a “real” one) that accommodates impossible numbers (a realm replete, as any mathematician knows, with profoundly beautiful geometric patterns), “The soul scrambles across the scree”:
like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.
Consciousness has caught up with the impossible soul on “the other shore,” the shore that permits, and legitimizes, the imagination, the vehicle of consciousness. Seshadri’s metaphor is doubly apt (if not multiply complex): improbable as it may seem, the imaginary number (i or √−1) regularly surfaces in science and engineering; it is present in the formalisms underlying modern technologies. Its “uses” include almost any contraption we take for granted in our daily lives—anything that uses electricity, for example—keeping us, paradoxically, rooted in the “real” world we inhabit, the real world to which, after our brief sojourns to the other, unreal one, we must predictably return.
Our evolving technologies define and redefine the modes by which we indulge our unyielding impulse for “the other shore,” which is always but never quite within reach, even as “consciousness leaks from the broken seals, / the busted drumcases, the cracks in the housings, the fissures” (“A School Day in October”). It “teems viscously across the surfaces of the world”— of this world, we might note—as “the soul scrambles across the scree” of that world. We might in this world just have to accept, in the face of the unfathomable, the limitations of our consciousness, to reconcile ourselves to a few chance flights to that world. “Consciousness observes and is appeased,” notes Seshadri in “Imaginary Number.”
But is it? In “Purgatory, the Film,” a man imagines being watched by his wife’s estranged twin sister, the family black sheep, “while they made love or slept.” In that state—in sleep or after lovemaking—when “the mind is relaxed in its nest, / so the self that is and is not / itself rises and leaves / to peek over the horizon,” he sees the sister in “all the [mind’s] psychokinetic possibilities,” as “brave, nurturing, kind,” as “evil” and “out of her mind.”
She was a junkie trading sex for a fix,
a chief executive, an aviatrix.
She was an angel
to the blind and the lamed,
the less-than-upright, the infra dig.
A sliver of water is “heaven” for a thirsty animal on a scorched landscape; the imaginary plane is beautiful for a mathematician. They may in fact be more than appeased: they may even be exhilarated. But in its encounter with a horror film or a voyeuristic vixen, consciousness, in addition to being befuddled, may also be potentially at least a tad discomfited. The sister in “Purgatory, the Film” is possibly all or some or none of these things the husband imagines: anything is possible in such an adventure of consciousness as his, where the self (unshackled in sleep, and not the same rational chained and static self of wakefulness) “peeks over the horizon.” In other words, nothing is impossible for the unshackled self.
“How strange would it be,” imagines the speaker of “Thought Problem,” “if you met yourself on the street?” Such an encounter might lead to your falling in love with yourself and populating the world with clones “propagated by techniques known only to you.” This would, indeed, be “strange,” but perhaps only because the manacled, modern consciousness is conditioned to deny, conditioned not to conjure (or, if “words are experience,” conditioned not to express), the impossible, the subliminal, experience. “‘I’ve experienced that feeling. I’ve felt that feeling too,’ / the people I know want to say,”
but too long have distance, decorum, and self-consciousness governed
the interactions they have…
(“The People I Know”)
We have no benchmark of a contemporary volume that wittingly, and obsessively, evokes the metaphysical. 3 Sections does so ingeniously, without the poet lapsing into didacticism or invoking philosophical rhetoric, through an array of characters and personas engaged in whatever it is that engages them: idleness, crime, filmmaking, mathematics, radio talk show hosting. The speakers, even as they wrestle with impossibilities—though, ironically, they don’t always seem aware of themselves as such grapplers—are accessible and amiable; any one of them could be your hapless next-door neighbor, to whom your FedEx package is delivered in your absence, as in “This Morning,” which begins, “First I had three / apocalyptic visions, each more terrible than the last.”
What emerges from the book is a rich spectrum of facets by which we can, through others’ words—or, equivalently, experiences—consider the escapades of our own occasionally disassociated selves. But even as the self might strain toward the other shore, the other shore might creep onto the self. It does so in one poem in the form of a “Secret Police” bringing with it a clue about the true character of our seemingly arbitrary existence: “The evidentiary… / nature of our experience… / …is making itself apparent / in a series of incidents the naïve would call accidental….”
Who else would make the timelines intersect
and riddle them with emphasis and coincidence?
Who else but the omniscient secret police? We’re misguided in thinking of their premeditated plots—what we perceive as chance and coincidence—as “accidental.”
Could there be a place where we could dodge the police? Perhaps. If so, would we, unreceptive to the encroaching mysteries beyond, still be human in that place? If we’ve followed Seshadri’s reasoning, perhaps not.
A consideration of this can be found in another poem, “Surveillance Report,” that indulges and playfully treats the metaphor of “Secret Police,” some overarching, prying force penetrating our lives: “The omni-directional mike and the video camera, both tiny, / hidden in the bonsai cypress / are picking up my sunrise self-help talk show….” Cameras, which he occasionally evades (“for reasons I don’t understand”), follow the radio talk show host through the afternoon until he finds himself in a filthy, dilapidated public restroom. It is only in such a subhuman place—a place “abandoned by humankind”—that the speaker is unreachable by, and hence unreceptive to, anything beyond. “The pipes are hissing. / The concrete floor is littered with syringes and treacherous / with pools of chill and fetid standing water. / The mirrors are shattered, and the sinks and urinals are shattered. This is the restroom nobody”—not the secret police, not the lens of the camera—“ever visits”
in the park abandoned by humankind,
the dead zone where the transducer and the infrared lens quail.
Such a “dead zone” is also found in “Hell,” which resonates—as do “Secret Police” and “Surveillance Report”—with post-9/11 political rhetoric, evoking images of torture and black sites. In fact, snapshots of our political landscape permeate poems across the book. The protagonist in “Script Meeting,” for example, has “flashbacks to black ops.” Immigration and the patrolling of US borders—“the men with the binoculars, / elbows resting on the roll bars of jeeps, / peering into the desert”—are evoked in “Trailing Clouds of Glory”: “yesterday, I sat across / from a family threesome Guatemalan by the look of them— / delicate and archaic and Mayan— / and obviously undocumented to the bone.” Social disenfranchisement, crime, and incarceration inform “Life of Savage”: “In and out of juvy, jacking cars at fifteen, / snorting lines of Adderal, his nostrils stained blue, / kicked out, taken back, kicked out, / busted, paroled, busted again,”
straining to reach the shiny object fallen through the grate,
tantalizing, just beyond his fingers,
finding and losing God…
Unlike Savage, the official in “Yet Another Scandal” is groomed early on, “caressed for his plasticity,” for a career on Wall Street or in a state capitol. But he, too, is in a way incarcerated, “choked in the coils / of his being’s enormous Ponzi scheme.”
In his engagement with the political, Seshadri is reminiscent of both Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden, the latter especially because of his own recipe of wit, satire, and gravity, his precise admixture of the exalted and the colloquial: “Night-visiting revenants, clerks of the underworld, / gnawing the half-buried roots of being, / spirits of the burning trees, kiss me goodbye,” says the radio talk show of “Surveillance Report” as he prepares to leave his apartment in the morning.
Discernible also is Bishop’s shadow, not only because of the meticulous consideration of detail (as, for example, in Seshadri’s “Guide to the Perplexed”) but also because of the unimposing, take-it-or-leave-it attitude that seems to underlie Bishop’s poems. This is manifest in 3 Sections—as it is in some of Bishop’s poems—by a kind of dismissive, self-censuring twist at some poems’ endings, as if everything so far contemplated, uncanny as it might be, might amount to nothing of any significance after all. “Suveillance Report,” after the radio talk show has found himself in the godforsaken restroom, ends with “Or, alternatively, I could be on a beach somewhere.” In “The Dream I Didn’t Have,” a patient seemingly resurrected from death awakens to find a cop and a coroner above himself (or herself) as he (or she) gains consciousness. “I felt along my length his long riverine incision.” Then: “Outside it was Chicago—
city of world-class museums,
handsome architecture, marvelous elevated trains—
rising from the plains
by the impossibly flat lake.
Still these endings cannot be summarily reduced to lines aligning to the fingerprints of a taciturn Bishop or a comic Auden. In Seshadri’s world of 3 Sections, the possibility of a radio talk show host being simultaneously in an abandoned restroom in a city’s public park and on a remote beach somewhere else does exist! And the patient who opens his or her eyes after returning from God-knows-where and finds Chicago, unchanged, outside is not unlike Bishop’s speaker of “In the Waiting Room” who, after her disassociated self’s journey, observes, “Outside, / in Worcester, Massachusetts, / were night and slush and cold, / and it was still the fifth / of February, 1918,” lines to which Seshadri draws our attention in the aforementioned lecture.
Two salient features of this book are a prose sequence—echoing the architecture of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and Seshadri’s own preceding volume, The Long Meadow—and a long poem, “Personal Essay,” recalling in its scope and its relentless exploration—in this case of the elusive fabric of reality—the excursions of T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets, of Hart Crane in The Bridge, and of A. R. Ammons in Sphere.
“Personal Essay” surveys the binary nature of “experience”: the conjured, imagined, and created experience and its antithetical experience of reality (as we know it), “the experience by which we become aware that what we see, smell, hear, feel, taste” is, simply—like an inanimate object, a person, or a shadow—what it is, and “doesn’t resemble anything,” “correspond / to anything,” “symbolize anything, allegorize anything.” Its inquiring speaker, keenly tuned to everything around him, considers what he sees, recalls, and perceives, his only resource being his ensnaring words: “The streetlight behind me throws my shadow in front of me,” he says:
I’m suddenly—what’s the word?—bemused.
I’m bemused because I think I’m not what I think I am—
whatever I think I am—
but am in fact an object, a thing,
one more thing that throws a shadow, and has
extension, dimension, limitation.
He is unnerved by the existential realization of himself as a solitary “object, a thing” in the Cartesian universe, somehow here in the midst of a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by people with their individual lives, each life unique and a kind of supernatural accident: “Who are these people, really, / and how could I have taken them for granted?” “Their identities,” he notes, “are either accidents or conspiracies.”
“Personal Essay” is anticipated by much of the poetry in 3 Sections that precedes it, particularly by “New Media” and “Secret Police.” The disassociated self emerges as
Slowly consciousness estranges itself from those with whom
proximity, if not propinquity, has caused it to
identify, and slowly the consciousness estranges itself
from everything else that identified it—
the place it lives, or at least tries to live.
This self, by turns, re-associates and disassociates, scrutinizing and fragmenting in the process what the speaker has observed. “Stare at a word in a book long enough,” notes the speaker, “and that word / slowly uncouples itself from what it means.” The essential components that emerge are like the Blakean “prismatic fracturings in a drop of dew” (“Purgatory, the Sequel”). The speaker’s questioning, shifting gaze as his mind’s pupils constrict and dilate (“Slowly the mind finds itself in a cab, / slowly the mind finds itself in a cab on Atlantic Avenue”) echoes that of the speaker in the ekphrastic “Mixed-Media Botanical Drawing,” earlier in the volume: “periwinkles, peonies—
why them? Why them instead of
nothing at all?…
“Mixed-Media” ends with a rose, “a face, just one face, / in the middle of all the faces,” not unlike the face of the speaker of “Personal Essay.”
The relative scarcity of long poems being published today alone makes “Personal Essay” (which is anything but a personal essay in the sense of contemporary usage of the term) and 3 Sections unique (though two long poems can also be found in Wild Kingdom, Seshadri’s first volume). The poem is sustained through its almost five hundred lines by an array of prosodic conceits (evident throughout the book) characterized by contiguous lines of varying lengths, anaphora, rhyme and off-rhyme, and ingenious line breaks with controlled enjambment (the first sentence of “Personal Essay” is woven across thirty lines), not to mention inventive use of metaphor. For example, well into “Personal Essay,”
On the great ball rolling back and forth between waking and sleeping,
I am balancing,
backpedaling when it rolls forward, running in place when it rolls back.
Here we have a five-syllable line “balancing” between two lines of sixteen and seventeen syllables, respectively with eight and nine stressed syllables. The verb that opens the third line—pushed “back” to the left margin as it were after the action in the preceding line—propels it forward, though only so much: a stressed syllable (“back”) is followed by a dactyl (“pedaling”), which is followed by an anapest (“when it rolls”); the four enclosed unstressed syllables act to retard the line’s motion. But the line again picks up momentum with the spondee (the double heartbeat of “forward”), only to again be slowed down by two dactyls (“running in place when it”). The doubly stressed end-stopped line, ending with the word that opened it, though only a part of what we might be anticipating (“backward,” corresponding to “forward”), cuts it short for the clause’s treadmill’s next rotation.
Seshadri’s resourcefulness is evident in other ways. Interrogatives are interspersed in poems, soliciting the reader’s engagement. In “Personal Essay,” they effectively punctuate the somnambulant meditation: “Does he,” an old man walking into a dialysis clinic in Brooklyn, “the only person on the street,” “live alone, or with family? / Does he get Social Security? Medicare?”
Minutiae aside, the volume itself is punctuated by surprises, among them translations and other genres. In “Three Urdu Poems,” two of mystic Mirza Ghalib and one of Momin Khan Momin, nineteenth century Indian contemporaries, Seshadri continues an emerging tradition of translation of Indian poetry into colloquial English (typically American) evident in the works of the late Arun Kolatkar ((Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna, ed., Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, Bloodaxe Books, 2010)) and of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra ((Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna, Songs of Kabir, New York Review Books Classics, 2011)): “I want my friends to heal me, succor me,” in the first Ghalib translation. “Instead, I get analysis.” And, in love, “Momin, you’re really a piece of work. / Is she God that you should kiss the hem of her garment?”
In “Nursing Home,” where we encounter a woman with dementia-like symptoms, a verse opening (“Brain scans on her show // her perisylvian pathways and declivities / choked by cities”) is followed by a prose piece, which reads as an extract from an academic paper. It is rendered chilling by the contrast of its clinical idiom with its unsettling empirical references. The prose piece is followed by a brief sequence of Beckett-like dialogue, where the characters—at least one of them ostensibly a patient and one of them a clinician—are unidentified.
The longer prose piece, “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” more personal essay than “Personal Essay,” is set off the northwestern American shores. It is, in the manner of John McPhee’s works, informative, at least as much a rich and rewarding treatise on marine life as it is on the commercial fishing enterprise—the business and the politics of it—in the 1970s and 1980s. In this youthful adventure gone awry, the self, rather than embarking on its customary disassociation, descends to mortal hell in the form of chronic seasickness. Its journey continues through devastating storms. “The sea or the great waters,” wrote Auden, ((Auden, W. H., The Enchafèd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, University of Virginia Press, 1979)) “are the symbol of the primordial undifferentiated flux”— the uncharted territory of consciousness itself—which transforms a protagonist. “Pacific Fishes” culminates in an epiphany, a self-realization that leaves the protagonist, or speaker—the discombobulated Seshadri—for once uncharacteristically without the requisite words to describe its profundity.