Reviewed: The Long Meadow by Vijay Seshadri. Graywolf Press, 2005.
“Moving on to the next slide,” says Seshadri, in a put-on lecture about a genius painter done in by his own powers of self-abnegation:
we can see, twisted and deliberately coarsened as it is,
the exact same theme,
revisited now with an
ambition and gigantism made all the more monstrous
by the still soaring line,
instinct with delicacy and intelligence,
by the palette still fresh and strange,
the siennas and umbers
and crimsons and yellows seasoned
with the crushed carapaces of iridescent damselflies.
We aren’t told what the theme is, but we do gather that the artist is driving towards some monism even as the lecturer moves in the opposite direction, reducing the painting to its constituent insect carapaces. The more freakish and distracting the artist’s gestures, the clearer his motives become:
The anatomical tenderness is apparent still in the rendering of
the sexual disjecta membra,
which serve at the same time
both the impulse to drama and the need for structure.
Seshadri himself has an impulse to drama and a need for structure, the former prodding him towards the colloquial and contingent—pop culture, doggerel, spoken idiom—and the latter towards big, timeless issues where his ambition and gigantism lurk: the reverberations of history, the individual in the mob, cognizance of evil, and existential anxiety. The two tendencies balance in the sense that each keeps the other from becoming embrittled and narrow, but the pairing of them in The Long Meadow is, like the sexual disjecta membra, something outlandish and arresting in itself.
Seshadri’s 1996 debut Wild Kingdom was extraordinarily accomplished, and with each reading its profligate imagination, human warmth, and verbal acuity strike me more clearly. The predicaments that Seshadri brings into The Long Meadow are already at play there; dominantly, a conflict between the imperative of understanding, which is to disperse and wander off in search of first causes, and the imperative of love, which is to concentrate on the matter at hand. He is fascinated by the inadequacy and inevitability of reductive thinking, and also by the city’s opportunities for and frustrations of intimacy. He juggles summary explanations and grand, annihilating forces, asking, in effect, with respect to what a representation of experience (in a fable, say) may be said to be distorted. The poems are full of giddy changes of gestalt and scope, and traverse the mirror, the yard, the park, the globe, deep space. Seshadri’s pitch of voice and conceits of indirection (like the art history lecture) are largely driven by these dynamics, and because he mediates between very antagonistic principles he tends to move briskly. This makes him come off as a wit—his impulse to drama strikes you before his need for structure. A poem begins
Arriving early at the limit of understanding,
I managed to find a good seat
But the joke dissipates as it sinks in that the concert (at which Nothing happens) is a metaphor more apt than clever for our limited (but real) ability to apprehend the infinite. The effect is not terminally wiseass in the sense that Paul Muldoon and Frederick Seidel are, often, terminally wiseass; the poem has in fact been rescued from the self-seriousness that one might have thought was inevitable given the abstractness of its subject. If I said that poems on similarly large themes contained cameos by Rocky and Bullwinkle, Superman, Drambuie ads, and Dr. Dre, you might conclude that Seshadri had given himself over to trivia, but he has only done so in calculated ways. Many poets are interested in the problem of the general cacophony and what to do with it, but rarely does a solution strike me as truly buoyant, and not a peevish response to an imposition. Seshadri successfully subordinates the trivia to artistic intention; as with Picasso’s recycling of bicycle parts into a bull’s head, the junk, qua junk, recedes, its existence neither denied nor worshiped.
Seshadri has other habits to bring his poems down to earth: he uses a sort of wakka-wakka sing-song, ironic inversions and archaisms (“Older than the rocks is she”), and tongue-in-cheek spoken American (“I messed up my leg something fierce,” “excuse me for living”). These do not result in sarcasm because sarcasm is an affliction of the laconic, and Seshadri is incorrigibly excited. These do not result in overwrought monotony because they are not expected to hold interest in themselves—they are deployed in the service of a well-disguised but old-fashioned quest for meaning and the resolution of doubt. They mitigate, and are mitigated by, kernels of mystery in his narratives, which often take the form of alien myths set imperfectly on the template of familiar ones (an “encryption” is what he calls his version of “The Three Little Pigs”). It is strange and somewhat winning to so consistently find his poems susceptible, crudely speaking, to paraphrase, but to find them resistant to interpretation at certain points, to find certain metaphorical details hovering between allegorically significant and not. The taste of wolf is “unguent, farinaceous, brittle, and serene.” “Witch Elegy,” a pretty clear meditation on the extent to which one is able to empathize with evil, begins
Over at the battlements of this misshapen edifice,
part skyscraper and part ziggurat, I can hear them singing,
“Ding dong, the witch is dead.” They’re dancing
the dances they danced before she got here from
who knows where, and feeding a two-story bonfire
with her inflammable detergents and salves, her furs
skinned from extinct, mythical, and unheard-of animals,
her ivory-inlaid teak credenzas and chiffoniers.
The poet proves to have been her assistant, and the edifice, I think, her dwelling; what is one to make, precisely, of its resemblance at once to structures of commerce and worship? That both spheres of human activity are implicated? What about her taste in furniture? In “Baby Baby,” Seshadri tries to explain to his infant son that human mortality was not his idea: “Death has been served tea and fresh figs. / I was not present in that room, / at the table polished with citron oil.” The citron oil is allegorically questionable but sensually indispensable, and turns something close to a commonplace or convention into a minor feat of invention.
Wild Kingdom contains two long poems (“The Lump” and “Lifeline”) that perform, in that collection, an important role: by requiring Seshadri’s talent to operate at the level of meat-and-potatoes narrative, they show his irrepressibility and baroqueness are not compulsions, but are introduced as necessary to demonstrate and solve particular problems. In The Long Meadow this role is filled by “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” a prose memoir of Seshadri’s father: particularly, his immigration from India, his salvation by science (physical chemistry, in the event), and his obsessive interest in the US Civil War. The piece whittles away to find the causes of the father’s apparent quirkiness, and Seshadri realizes very young the appeal that the normative, amoral interpretation of the war, such as you find on roadside information kiosks and in visitor center literature, has for his father. This nonpartisan narrative
gave scope to his instinctive empiricism and his discomfort with generalities, which were suspicious with hidden and untenable assumptions. The Civil War was as fundamental, as immutable, as the submolecular realm, a modernist war made for the modernist he was then, and still is, as clear and impenetrable as a line by Wallace Stevens or a Calder mobile. It referred to nothing but itself. Wrapped in its structures, though, was a human heroism pure and appalling and desperate, so pure and appalling and desperate that it, too, seems immutable.
The father does his best to pique the boy’s interest, but Seshadri is busy imagining Robin Hood and submarines and has no interest in the stories—as he puts it, “Their ontology was all wrong.” Well into adulthood their ontology was all wrong for me too, and although Seshadri is right about the hermetic quality of the official history, I am still not entirely sure why, as a well for the popular imagination, hero-thirst, and moral orientation, the Civil War is not gone to more often. That is, I am not sure what makes one become a modernist—what causes that immutable, appalling, and desperate heroism to go from blankly meaningless to grievously beautiful. I was teaching at the time I came across this piece and, by way of approaching these questions, showed it to my students. They were inclined to see the father’s interest in terms of peculiarity or weakness and, like the young Seshadri, were embarrassed for him and “the drunkenness of his intellectual obsessions.” They were less able to appreciate the subtleties where I think the piece’s achievement lies—its eventual insight into the father’s considerable resources, the steadiness and intellectual generosity behind his psychological transparency.
In the memoir Seshadri comes as close as he does to using a lyrical I, and the prose expands the rhetorical capacity of the collection in the one direction, perhaps, that poetry couldn’t take it. Both “A Fable” and “The Long Meadow,” narrative poems closing the book, employ Seshadri’s dexterity with the notional and the actual to achieve sharp and emotive turns, bringing myth into contact with our fallen outward circumstances in a way it seems many contemporary poets have failed at, like the Union soldiers throwing themselves against the revetments at Cold Harbor, or given up on in favor of an aggressive profaneness. Seshadri finds in The Long Meadow a supple and lyrically plausible voice for the most serious things it is possible to think about, and this voice does not deny itself any of the luxuries modern poetry has accumulated—its capacity for digression and variance of register, its plastic logic and metaphorical license. With respect to this achievement the book seems to me superlative—but I’ll wait for his next one before I say for certain.