Example poetry

How a Book of Poetry Navigates the Vocabulary of Silence

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, asks us to imagine someone pointing their cheek with an expression of pain and saying “Abracadabra”! We ask “What do you mean?”. And he replies, “I meant toothache.”

Wittgenstein suggests that there are things we should understand with silence – yet the words cause us to ask for the obvious. It has been theorized that for communication, words are often superfluous. Yet in their use, one feels the pleasure of speaking and carrying on a conversation.

‘Hesitations: Poems’, Sanjeev Sethi, Classix, 2021.

Sanjeev Sethi’s poems in Hesitations (Classix, 2021) talk about this pleasure. In his poems, mysterious and unfamiliar words appear in the familiar, as in the poem Coitus:

The hesitations compelled us

surrender our shields. We lost the link

smiles and all that. Sitzkrieg appeared as

our channel to continuity. Between the thighs

are carte blanche and incarceration.

Right here before the word Sitzkrieg appears, we have been led by the poet to its meaning – of calm. But more than that, it is as if the poet had extracted the word from a thesaurus and offered it to readers.

The poet, here, is a practitioner of words – unusual, unheard of.

In Postil, the poet says:

The urge to intercalate is an offshoot of exaltation.

Intercalation is more commonly known to a chemist than to ordinary people, but reading the verse one feels how comfortably the word fits into the context, as if it were truly “interspersed”.

Sethi’s poems in Hesitations bravely freeing words from their specialized domains and offering them to the plebeian.

We often look to our poets as people who possess a healing touch for words, as people who renew, refresh everyday frayed words, infusing them with meaning. The poems in Hesitations reverse this perception. The poet brings unfamiliar words and offers them for readers to savor.

For example in Information document on the barracks, we read darkness and smells the bite associated with luscious and chewy chole bhatoorea well-known North Indian breakfast dish, mentioned in the next line:

In the darkness she offered

bhatooras but no chole. We have grokked aunt

had gone wrong, in a silence whiz gagged us.

Poetry is an act of intimacy. What is personal, deeply felt, a poet tries to transform into language, like an irreducible art. Many poems in the collection echo the poet’s intimacy, highlighting what Alberto Caeiro (one of the heteronyms of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa) once wrote about writing poems as his way of being alone.

…When my poems

globetrotting, part of my longtime love affair

with myself, travel with them. They carry my

flavors, my failures.

Writing poetry is therefore a belief that a poet’s experiences are not his or hers alone, but somehow a metaphor for all. However, the poems of Hesitationswhile attempting to act as such, also point out the limitation or impossibility of sharing its core.

…Now when intimacy

encourages us to undress,

we cover our feelings.

The we in the poem could very well be the poems themselves. This failure of sharing is not necessarily the hesitations of the poet, but of the language itself. The poet suggests:

Words embroider; they cannot change.

Grief in any text is grief.

We feel that the poet has wandered in the desert of his language, where no vegetation exists; it fixes its periphery where the foliage of its vocabulary is barely visible. He spoke but something still remains in him, lingers. The pain therefore, it may not be the grief of his experiences but of the language itself.

Words are the first indicators of mismatch.

The poet in Xeriscaping set his poem in this very arid landscape.

In the aridity, I planted grass and greenery.

Thicket and some trees. He rushes my rotation.

Here the poet is hopeful and excited about the task of creating pastures of language in his wilderness. However, a sense of Sisyphean punishment permeates as one reaches the end of the poem, as if the only reward for such a task was the work itself.

In front of the tangible, the eyes mature

to wet deposits. There is a proof as in

perdition. I stew in a sheaf of papers.

Writing about family, relationships is a way to know yourself; exploration is often difficult. However, in Hesitations, we discover that the poetic voice navigates here with the most eloquence between the sweet and the bitter. The collection opens with a tribute to Mother as the sower of dreams in the fibrous mind of her child:

On the edge of my mind

you set up kiosks

sale items

allowing joyful journeys.

The poem also alludes to Father perhaps, when he asks:

We must not forget

the care of another mentor,

you have edified me.

Interestingly, the poet writes don’t remember instead of Forget, warning not of memory loss but possibly remembering in a “wrong” way. In On Father’s 69th Birthdaywe see a father as a creator of civilization for his children.

Everyone has a father –

but only some fathers

sow the seed

for their sons

go into song.

The poem here juxtaposes the image of a father with that of a civilization, finding a similar gradient in their decline.

chronicle of historians

the collapse of civilizations.

I can see your decline –

see it with precision and pain.

More than physical, the father is a psychological construct, even perhaps a spiritual one. The poem ends by suggesting that the construct is falling apart. The poem asks us to consider that if a father makes a civilization for his children, are they not – the children – in turn chroniclers of this civilization, and indeed of their fathers? This reversal of roles between father and child is perhaps captured in the anguish expressed as a question in the last stanza.

Father, do you want to hold

the space you held.

But, is it my fault,

than your hands

now need me?

In loose cannons, loneliness in a relationship is captured. Reading it, you feel the loss of something precious, perhaps of a freedom that leads to the atomization of being, and how worthless it is.

Seeing you tonight brings back

what we used

of our freedoms.

Even when expressing loss, the poem focuses on the utility of language as a tool to recover something of value from the waste of a relationship, as if believing that if one can express loss, everything n is not lost.

Being without ears

you helped me

with my hesitation.

However, there are poems that bow to silence, as the ultimate language of all our shortcomings:

Less questioning

calm from their itching.

Closing this conversation is ethical.

Inditing is a livelihood,

bass and the liturgy.

The swirls in her eyes pull me deeper and deeper

in connections. Not known for a heart set

stone, I agree, wishing their union

the lasting color of amaranth grains.

In these verses, moments of silence trigger an inner dialogue. In such cases, a loneliness pervades the being of the poet. He is among his people, but he is somewhere within, watching his outer world. There is an internalization, as if no one else would share his feelings until they are put on paper, in the form of poems. Is it fear or hope? Maybe a hope:

…On optimistic days, encourage yourself

generate morphs my dark hours, generosity with

which you share links to the grammar of existence.

As the poems navigate the terrain of relationships, one inevitably encounters loss in the form of death. Dealing with the loss of loved ones is varied, as the mystery around death is diverse and often rooted in spiritual, cultural, and even individual discourses. Writing, if it cannot make up for the loss, can be a way of getting through it, an act of catharsis in words. In Everywherewe witness death as an activity:

The smoke rises

of the crematorium

write the last lines

on the surface of the sky

from another loved one

which lies curdled like a corpse.

The high-ups manager

Spiraling alternative spiels in the media.

Death occurs even after death, it continues beyond that moment, in rituals, in official bureaucratic processes, in relationships; the living redo things to their respective advantage:

Does empathy block winning positions?

In Death of a friend, the bereaved does not know how to react to the death of a dear friend

The fall of the day assures you the flight towards the empyrean

a capsule of my childhood fades away. Flexibility of

the switch makes me ask: should I be sad

or appeased?

The poem then turns into a stoic meditation on the act of suffering, viewing death as a request to remember the dead for the joyful times spent together:

Amphiboles permeate your passage as you turn

motif urging us in our proudest moments to be happy

for our happiness.

In Hesitations, the words are encrypted like enigmas and invite the reader to decipher them. The minimalist nature of the poems also suggests that the poet entrusts the readers with the exploration, since the economy of words rests on a faith, that one will be understood, not only with what is expressed but with what is not. said. In this sense, poems create a vocabulary that can be said to belong to silence – the unspoken part of our language.

The style also gently covers the language above the meanings that the expressions seem to possess, trying to make it (the language) an independent individual, worthy of its own existence, echoing Andres Fava of Diary of Andrés Fava by Julio Cortazar that if you really have to suffer, let it not be for what you write but how.

Cortazar discusses this aspect of disconnection between language and thoughts that any form of communication struggles to negotiate, and asserts that it is only among poets that this gap is bridged, because for them words and thoughts are one and the same thing. We find this unity in the poems of Sanjeev Sethi.

Tabish Nawaz teaches Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay.


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