With the disconcerting title, That Was Now, This Is Then, acclaimed American poet Vijay Seshadri’s fifth collection of poetry takes us on a precarious journey between being and becoming, recollection and speculation, playful irony and deepest pathos. Like much of Seshadri’s poetry, this book is a philosophical exploration of humanity’s big questions: Who am I? Who are you? Why is there something rather than nothing at all? However, what differentiates this collection from others by Seshadri is the deeply personal nature of these investigations, which stem from the author’s experience of loss and grief.
Like Seshadri’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Sections, this succinct collection follows a tripartite structure. The book opens with a desire for escape: “I’m just going to drive away down the coast / and not come back,” declares the speaker of the poem “Road Trip.” “I haven’t told anyone, and I won’t / I won’t dim with words the radiance of my gesture / And besides, the ones who care have guessed already” (5). In a characteristic Seshadri move, the speaker’s humor is juxtaposed to poignant emotion when, at the end of the poem, he expresses the desire to “just be there, in the sunset’s coppery sheen, / in the dawn pearled by discrete, oblong, intimate clouds / that move without desire or motive” (6).
This desire for pure being – elusive if not impossible to find – grounds the book’s first section. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” Augustine of Hippo famously stated in his Confessions. The speakers of these poems move restlessly through complex realities, yearning for a place to lay a weary head. After being dismissed from jury duty, a New Yorker going home on the subway is struck by “a tall, sweet-looking, willowy violinist” who comfortingly sings Etta James: “I’d rather, I’d rather, I’d rather go blind than / to walk away from you child” (10).
In the book’s second section, however, this realm of pure being becomes less an object of desire than of fear and aversion, as it is intimately bound up with suffering and death. “They wheeled you, your caregivers did, to the picture window,” states Seshadri in the poem “Your Living Eyes.” “A thousand years later, the Angel of Death sidled in, / disguised as a little girl, […] She said, ‘Beauty and sadness are never far apart.’ / You said, ‘Bullshit’” (21).
In this poem the speaker yearns for the impossible: to keep a dying elder present in this life: “The world your eyes see is the world as it really is, / and you and I are going to live in it forever, / and we will hitchhike to the Painted Hills together / and hop a freight back home” (21). This particular longing for escape forms a contrast to the one in “Road Trip”: the desire is not for stasis but for ongoing motion, for continued becoming rather than a return to pure being.
Yet being – what Jacques Lacan famously described as “the Real” – is ultimately inescapable, in its horrifying manifestations as much as its beautiful ones. In “Night City,” a poem that evokes the Syrian Civil War, the humanitarian disaster at the US-Mexico border, and so many other harsh realities of our time, a city wraps “the complicated sleepers in / simple suffering, the sleepers / huddling in their dreams, / muffled by their longings, their ears / muffled, while mobs with torches / rage on the rubble” (34). Violence, suffering and death are inescapable components of being that inevitably touch us all.
Taken out of context, some of Seshadri’s poems might seem morbidly stark in their evocation of the world’s harshness. And yet, a move toward redemption can be found in his constant playfulness and irony. Humor is arguably one of our best human defenses against despair and also one of our least problematic vehicles toward transcendence. For me, the humor in this book conjures images of a delightfully curmudgeonly professor coming to terms with the passage of time by laughing at it. Perhaps my particular reading is influenced by the fact that Seshadri was once my delightfully curmudgeonly professor who, on the first day of a freshman poetry workshop, declared, “This is not going to be one of those writing workshops where talk about our feelings and hug each other.” For our first assignment, he made us memorize Emily Dickinson’s haunting “I shall know why / when times if over” poem. “Some day when you’re stuck in traffic you’ll be grateful for this,” he replied to our protests. Indeed I have been, time and time again.
Though speckled throughout the book, Seshadri’s humor comes to the forefront in the third section. In “Marriage,” the speaker addresses a “you” who complains that “there are two people inside me – / the one confident, decisive, ironic; / the other a raging cripple / who never took to the nipple / whose life has been one long / episode of colic” (42). The speaker’s efforts to reconcile these two sides of his personality and maintain their “marriage” humorously mirror the constant negotiation needed for two people to maintain an actual marriage: “I want them to be inseparable, inevitable. / I don’t want the children to suffer” (42).
In “North American Sequence,” Seshadri declares, “what a relief that no one / in the public sphere cares, / really, who or what you are; […] the thinkers of the public sphere / now say there is no inner life. / The inner life was a big misunderstanding / with unfortunate historical consequences” (47). This poem explores a recurring theme in Seshadri’s work: the mixture of the sublime and absurd in US culture, a reality that Seshadri has experienced both as an insider and outsider who migrated to this country at the age of five.
All in all, this powerful collection is an artifact of grief but, more significantly, an exploration of the ways in which humans process that grief. The gut-wrenching centerpiece of this book is most certainly “Collins Ferry Landing,” dedicated to the poet’s recently deceased father, in which the speaker experiences grief not through the “five stages” described by pop psychology but by completely unpredictable fits and starts. There are moments when the speaker feels ashamed to realize that he is seeing himself “as the star of my loss, its protagonist, treading the boards, pacing under the proscenium arch of bereavement” (24). Through the “sin of self-awareness,” the speaker temporarily floats above the pain before unexpectedly being immersed right back into it: “I wanted to be sitting on the living-room couch, watching Jeopardy! with you” (an even more poignant move now that since the book’s publication, the much-beloved host of that game show has also died).
Of many memorable moments from my time as a student in Seshadri’s introductory poetry class twenty years ago, one that particularly stands out is when we read Elizabeth Bishop’s classic “In the Waiting Room.” We puzzled over the moment where the child speaker, on hearing her aunt cry out from the dentist’s chair, cries out, “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” When Seshadri informed us that this was the most essential subject Bishop could have written about – or indeed, that anyone could have written about – I was initially puzzled. But today I understand that our own human subjectivity – our experience of consciousness – is the foundation of all other knowledge and experience. Though scientists have striven to understand it, this subjectivity remains a mystery that, when we give it thought, is nothing short of astonishing.
The poems in this collection were written before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, they are all too appropriate for the juncture we are living through. Though written in other contexts, the poems seem like a meditation on our disjointed experience of time (with some moments from eighteen months ago feeling as recent as the events of last week), our grief at individual and collective loss, and our sense of uncertainty as we in the US return to some kind of “normal” while the pandemic continues to spread across the world and new variants emerge.
Though the pandemic’s painful effects have been unequally distributed across the world, one common reality we’ve shared is the sense of restriction. How I yearned, in March 2020, to run away from the frightening realities unfolding on the daily news, to flee to a place where I and my loved ones might be safe from the unknown, scary virus taking hold. Unfortunately, though, there was no place to run; I alongside billions of others had to seek peace under lockdown.
This, I would argue, is a major theme of Seshadri’s poetry: the struggle to accept being’s elusiveness as well as its inevitability, to remain suspended when we can neither take refuge in stillness nor distract ourselves with constant motion. In a poem called “Cliffhanging,” an elegy for Seshadri’s friend and mentor Thomas Lux, the speaker describes “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 now / I’m ambivalent forever now” (30).
If this states seems like a torment straight out of Hades or Dante’s Inferno, Seshadri offers a possible redemption through the imagination: “But if you were here, looking down on me and saying, / ‘Grab my hand, grab my hand,’” I would, I know, I surely would” (31). These poems offer us a hand to grab on to.
Seshadri, Vijay, That Was Now, This Is Then, Graywolf, 2021
Jeannine M. Pitas is the author of Things Seen and Unseen, a book of poems published by Mosaic Press in 2019, and the translator of work by many Latin American poets, most recently Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa di Giorgio (Cardboard House 2020) and We Do Not Live In Vain by Selva Casal (Veliz Books 2020). She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.
Vijay Seshadri is the author of five collections of poems: “Wild Kingdom,” “The Long Meadow,” “The Disappearances,” “3 Sections,” and “That Was Now, This Is Then”; and many essays, reviews, and memoir fragments. His work has been recognized with a number of honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.