What’s the bare minimum it takes to turn everyday, humdrum, seen-it-all-before language into something you could call poetry? Maybe it’s the verbal switcheroo in the title of Vijay Seshadri’s fourth collection, That Was Now, This Is Then (2020). Take the cliché that was then, this is now, swap two words, and suddenly you have a phrase flickering between nonsense and insight, between a loopy spoonerism and a koan about time’s fleeting nows and recurrent thens. But maybe poetry happens on some level beneath words: maybe it’s a matter of time-keeping markings as minute as “Commas, Dashes, Ellipses, Full Stops, Question Marks” (a recent Seshadri poem title). Or maybe poetry comes down to inarticulable variances of shape and silence, as Seshadri suggests with two poems, “Meeting (Thick)” and “Meeting (Thin),” which are made up of almost all the same words but differ drastically in their line breaks. If Seshadri’s latest poetry sweats the small stuff, agonizing about every tiny difference, it’s largely because he feels powerless before all the Big Differences of midlife—the differences between spouses, between generations, between our self-images and how others categorize us, between the continuous now of life and the impending then of death. “Nothing worked,” opens one deflated stanza. “The world happens, the world changes, / the world, it is written here, / in the next line, / is only its own membrane.” It’s up to Seshadri where that “next line” begins and ends, but what difference could it make to our indifferent and unsolvable world?
That question sets the baffling, stifling terms for Seshadri’s fourth book, the mazey strictures from which he needs to invent new ways out. But as devoted readers know, the unfamiliar is familiar ground for Seshadri, who has made a career out of never doing the same thing twice. His four books—all of them short, free of notes, and consistently excellent—have arrived every eight or so years, rarely and dependably as comets. Like his début Wild Kingdom (1996) and his next book The Long Meadow (2004), That Was Now, This Is Then collects precisely twenty-six poems, as though each book endeavored to do it all in poetry, from A to Z, and do it exactly once: one dramatic monologue, one prose poem, one verse-play, one ars poetica. Seshadri’s third book, the first by an Asian American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, has the teasing title 3 Sections (2013)—suggesting, perhaps, finding multiplicity in unity, or making out of many, one. Yet the book had no section breaks; it’s up to you, the reader, to stroll through its zoo of dissimilar poems and group them into sensible wholes. Should you come to no conclusions, that’s right in line with Seshadri’s temperament, which thrives on wayward digressions and fruitful self-contradiction. “The indecision is delicious,” he writes in a 460-line “Personal Essay,” possibly a whole section unto itself. “Meanwhile, a thought is forming.”
If, amid all his one-off experiments and unrepeatable oddities, there’s any gesture that’s distinctively Seshadri’s, it’s his tendency to change genres mid-poem, and to find himself as surprised as his readers by his unannounced detours and emergency landings. He is a poet of the scenic route, the evasive maneuver, or—as in the book’s opening poem—a “Road Trip” that more closely resembles a getaway from one’s sorry self. “I could complain. I’ve done it before,” the book begins. “I could explain,” but Seshadri refuses; rather than channeling unspecified woes into poetry, “I’m keeping quiet, and maybe tomorrow / or maybe the day after or maybe the day after that / I’m going to drive away down the coast / and not come back.” (This speaker, like many in Seshadri’s poetry, is an unreliable eyewitness of his own psyche. “I haven’t told anyone, and I won’t,” he professes, and he sure wants you to hear it.) Commonly, we think of a poem’s turn, its volta, as a change of heart or swerving thought, but Seshadri’s whiplash turns are more like on-the-spot conversions to entirely different ways of viewing the world. “The Estuary” begins fully immersed in the titular terrain, perhaps in the Pacific Northwest, and boasts ultra-high-definition descriptions to rival any nature documentary:
the ambidextrous bear,
furred like the forest from which he emerged,
waddling into the unteachable waters
to swat the salmon out the fast-running tide
and catch the red salmon in his mouth
and toss and juggle the sockeye salmon
thrashing and drowning in the air…
A page later, that estuary is miles away, distantly past. Somehow, Seshadri’s voice has modulated into an impersonal loudspeaker, barking out the rules for a crushing metropolitan existence: “Stay down, supine. Stay down, / and let the giant buildings loom over you.” Where, in retrospect, could we see ourselves in that vividly descriptive opening scene? Seshadri is genuinely curious:
Stay down, stay down, and ask yourself:
“Could I be the bear in this fable?”
“Could I be the fish?”
“Could I be whoever is imagining all this?”
These questions, in context, amount to a terrifying self-interrogation, without clear answers. Out of context, they offer a lesson in how to approach Seshadri’s many-voiced, multiple-perspective poems. “I think of myself, to a certain extent, as a poet who does voices,” he claimed in a 2004 interview, noting that “it’s interesting how many voices are within us, and how many different kinds of personalities we can actually inhabit. Art seems to be the only place we can liberate our many selves.” Sometimes Seshadri’s polyphonic lines remind me of New York School poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, whose motormouthed sentences could run through almost any register of American vernacular—tall tales, pop-song snippets, breathless philosophizing—all the while maintaining a crystalline sense of syntax. But Seshadri sounds even more like an actual New Yorker—sarcastic by default, adept at code-switching and eye-rolling, adding life to his long list of minor inconveniences: “Another day ruined by the question of being.”
More than anything, with his chronic hesitations and shy deflections, Seshadri sounds ambivalent about it all, ambivalent even about his meticulously arranged words. His fill-in-the-scare-quotes poems never mean everything they say, and mean all the more for it. Irony, especially as a kneejerk response to the pretentious or sublime, is Seshadri’s sixth sense, and it makes him a vigilant skeptic of the spoken and written word, including his own—indeed, he may be one of contemporary poetry’s most talented self-saboteurs. When so-called revelation appears in this book, it takes the form of a divine “robocall,” “the 1-800 voice of the One” leaving a prerecorded message: “I was thinking of you this morning, but why you? / Para español oprima número tres.” Or else wisdom is served at a Chinese restaurant in the Milwaukee airport, folded inside “an arresting fortune cookie”: “It read, ‘Life cries out Be.’ / O ancient sages of the Middle Kingdom, / of course, of course…” (Seshadri, who was born in Bangalore, India, and grew up in Ohio, rarely foregrounds his ethnicity, but as “a poet who does voices” he’s a hilarious ventriloquist of racist attitudes—here, one white man’s reverence for some prepackaged, nonexistent East.)
Ambivalence meets its ultimate test in the extraordinary elegies at the book’s center, where Seshadri mourns friends and family while staying true to his mixed-as-always feelings and readily sidetracked mind. His most memorable image for a bereft life—for its emotional stasis, for its all-or-nothing stakes—may be the activity described in “Cliffhanging,” an elegy cartoonish in imagery but sapped in spirit. The poet Tom Lux, the poem’s “you,” was never one to sugarcoat loss, and even cautioned that well-meaning friends, “bubbling with remedies,” would be their own nightmare: “The forces out to kill us with their benevolence / are more crazed now than they were when you were alive.” But “you” never warned Seshadri that loss would get this bad, worse than anything our Hollywood-steeped minds could ever imagine—that “our phantom selves” would crawl “out of the poems we made,” like zombies surfacing from graves (“They’ve cut the phone lines, / and are chain-sawing the front door”), or that the tides of grief would pack an apocalyptic wallop:
The great wave that breaks through the crust of the world
is rising and rising and lifting me far inland,
only to suck me back and drop me dangling by one arm
on the edge of the half-eaten cliff.
I won’t let myself fall, but I don’t want to pull myself up.
I’m ambivalent. I’m ambivalent forever now.
Here Seshadri’s litany of worst-case scenarios ends, with an existential stalemate worthy of Beckett. His two options are submitting to gravity or struggling for a worn-down life; each seems equally dismal. The only way out of the dilemma is a comforting fiction, the counterfactual universe that still has “you” in it: “But if you were here, looking down on me and saying, / ‘Grab my hand, grab my hand,’ I would, I know, I surely would.”
The inverse of someone so constitutionally ambivalent, of a poet with the big-budget imagination to adapt that ambivalence into outlandish scenes, would be a straight-talker, a science-minded literalist, a “fatalist” whose “favorite sentence” was “It is what it is.” That man is Seshadri’s late father, whom he addresses in the book’s longest, most astounding poem, “Collins Ferry Landing.” It arrives midway through That Was Now, This Is Then, but it feels like an endpoint for Seshadri, who assigns himself the paradoxical task of embodying love and longing for a father whose mental motions were entirely unlike his son’s. “Nothing to allegorize or ring changes on / with you,” Seshadri recalls. “Nothing with which / to make analogies or metaphors. / Never not meaning what you said, never not transparent.” Yet all Seshadri can find to fill in his father’s absence comes straight from the poetic toolbox of allegory, analogy, and metaphor—or else faulty analogies, anti-metaphors, like the gulf between his inflexible father and the “supple, reconciled, patient” waters pinpointed in his poem’s title. Trying any form that might fit—searching free verse, unfiltered prose—Seshadri ends by remembering his father in chastened, cadenced quatrains. They’re the perfect containers for isolating “those few piercing moments / in all our interactions,” where “what we call our selves / traded places,” father and son mirroring one another. The final such moment is that rarest of occurrences in Seshadri’s poetry, where the simplest words do the job just right. For once, it was what it was, and being there together was enough:
And then, the two of us
looking down at our four feet
on the frozen Middle American street—
on our way
to the Saturday premiere matinee
of How the West Was Won.
I’m matching you stride for stride.
Our four feet are moving like two feet,
and we are alive.