Until Vijay Seshadri won the Pulitzer for poetry earlier this year for his book 3 Sections, I had never heard of him before. Born in Bangalore, India in 1954, he came to the United States when he was five. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. He teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. I am really glad he won the Pulitzer because otherwise I might never have heard of him and his book, 3 Sections is well worth reading.
It is not a mystery why the book is called 3 Sections because it actually has three sections. The first and longest section is poetry, mostly one to at most two pages long. The second section is a prose essay about salmon fishing called “Pacific Fishes of Canada.” The third section is one long poem called “Personal Essay” which is, perhaps, an essay in the form of a poem. The Pulitzer committee describes the book as a “collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia.” They make it sound as though the book has a progression of some kind beginning with birth and ending with dementia. But this is not the case. I am certain there is some kind of logic behind the arrangement of all the pieces in the book, there generally always is, but it is not something I found especially noticeable. I just liked the poems a lot.
I also like Seshadri’s voice. It is firm, assured, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. His lines have a pleasant pacing, slow, but not so slow they become plodding. The slow movement of his lines serves to soften the firmness of his voice. He is not melodic but he is at times soothing. Seshadri’s language is straightforward, everyday. Though this does not mean that he doesn’t have some fantastic and startling images:
Therefore is he choked in the coils
of his being’s enormous Ponzi scheme
(Yet Another Scandal)
Self-esteem is leaking and oozing
over the concrete floor to pool around the feet.
Its color is the pink color of anti-freeze. The air is stringent
with the smell of anti-freeze.
(The People I Know)
And while Seshadri’s voice is firm and his language plain, one could even say grounded, he manages to write a number of poems that approach the spiritual. Here is the entirety of a short one, “Imaginary Number,” to give you an idea:
The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
is not big and is not small.
Big and small are
comparative categories, and to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.
One of my favorites in the collection is called “Memoir.” Here is a taste:
Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.
Humiliated by joy. But isn’t it true? Those moments of pure joy when we are and aren’t ourselves, should someone see us in such a moment, we are so very embarrassed by it. I wonder why that is?
I am not quite sure how the second prose section fits into the book. The narrator gets a job on a fishing boat during salmon fishing season. There is one sentence that really stood out for me:
my duties were light enough to give me plenty of time to indulge my invented self, my sea-going fictional self, and wallow in my version of the well-documented affliction that causes people to live in literature rather than life.
And the final section, “Personal Essay,” is a marvelous, somewhat meditative poem on consciousness, identity, and reality. One of my favorite lines in the poem is this:
Clouds oversized, exaggerated in the pale sky, drawn with a crayon by a kid,
which confirms that we are in a fabrication, maybe even in a mistake,
maybe even in a cartoon.
There is a wonderful poem called “Rereading” in which David Copperfield is taken to task for dismantling the lives of the Peggotys in their cozy beached boat upon the strand. And I was also pleased about “Three Urdu Poems.” I love ghazals, a poetic form in which the couplets tend almost towards aphorism at times. I love trying to puzzle out how the seemingly unrelated lines actually do relate and form a whole. It is not a form that those who write in English use very often so they always get my attention when they turn up.
3 Sections is a great collection, full of all sorts of gems. And for those who don’t really consider themselves poetry readers but would like to read poetry now and then, I bet you’d like this one too.