That Was Now, This Is Then
“We are obsessed with ourselves,” wrote theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli in his book, Reality Is Not What It Seems. “We study our history, our psychology, our gods. Much of our knowledge revolves around ourselves as if it were the most important thing in the universe.” Rovelli thinks physics can teach us better, and in Vijay Seshadri’s new collection That was Now, This Is Then (Graywolf Press, 2020), the poet, like the physicist, toils over language in order to relay the unsayable realities that go beyond the basic human experience.
Now is then, now happened then,
and then again, and it is going to happen again,
and then again.
The knowledge though—
exactly, but the superimposed echo,
the afterimage of
what happens again, again—changes,
or, at least, fills and backfills,
the ghost we call meaning…
As a book title, That Was Now, This Is Then, Seshadri already sets the expectation that the reader is going to embark on a mind-bending journey. Seshadri is a master of balancing both intellect and humility, the literal with the metaphorical, blunt honesty with intricate hyperbole, all as a modality to point to something beyond our intellectual reach. The gap between matter and the mind is a language-less mystery, and Seshadri suggests it isn’t a learned science, but rather a “super imposed echo” that continues through the arrow of time.
In a simple sense, poems can be viewed as the “afterimages” of everyday experience, but the intuition of knowing when to embellish language, when to strip it down, or when to surrender completely to an abstract “Truth” beyond articulation, is where Seshadri really excels. Metaphor can center the chaos of a very scientific world, but language also has its limits, like the poet declares in his opening poem “Road Trip” when he says, “I won’t dim with words the radiance of my gesture.”
There is a subtle melancholy that lingers from poem to poem—a speaker who has reached a crux in his life marked by the death of loved ones and finding himself in “the crossroads of time and space.” When an “Angel of Death” visits the speaker’s dying mother and says, “Beauty and sadness are never far apart,” it echoes Rilke’s “First Elegy” when he writes, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” Rilke’s concept of time as an “eternal current,” in which “we are not really at home” rings true throughout Seshadri’s collection. Time feels infinite until the finite state of human death occurs. “The world is only its own membrane,” Seshadri writes. For as long as we exist within the world, there will always be a thin veil between the basic living of life and the “entire appalling universe.”
“Collins Ferry Landing” is arguably the most powerful poem in the collection as not only an elegy to the speaker’s father, but a candid, coming to terms on the matters of life and death, and time and space. The speaker describes his profound grief as “a separation of self from self.”
I was seeing myself as / the star of my loss, its protagonist, treading the boards, pacing under the proscenium arch of bereavement. / Some part of me was saying, “Finally, reality. I’ve heard so much about it.” That wasn’t the real / strangeness, though. It was this: this sin of self-awareness, this dramatization of the self, this / consequentiality of consciousness, this aestheticization, this the most pathetic of all the assertions / of the self as it stumbles across its blasted heath of existence was leading to a separation of self / from self that was making apparent another person underneath. Another person suddenly arrived / inside me. Another person, as real as the person typing this, but detached, outside the world itself / and growing huge in relation to it. Another person was standing at the crossroads of time and space, shirtless, shoeless, but dressed in a nice suit, on the outside looking in, curious but / indifferent to being and not being, both of which he understood as accidental and impossible. / The free person, the truly free, free from time, space, the world.
The speaker describes this experience as “unendurable” and mourns for the practicality of thinking dialectically and to return to “ordinary, unenlightened life.” He says plainly to his father, “I wanted to be sitting on the living-room / couch watching Jeopardy! with you.”
Like the poem “Cross Ferry Landing”, many poems in this collection are conversational, and it is often a conversation the reader is in on, suggesting an understanding and acknowledgement of the universality of the themes with which the poet is struggling. In the final poem, “To the Reader” Seshadri addresses us point blank:
I’m writing this so I can tell you that what you’re thinking
about me is exactly what I’m thinking
What you’re reading is exactly what you’re writing,
by the light of the taper, deep inside yourself,
at your walnut secretary.
These words are saying
what those words say, and these and those
and those and these, mine and yours, and have no meaning,
Seshadri works hard to belabor the point of anti-meaning, a fantasy of nothingness, and ambivalence to the desire for deeper understanding of life. But the irony is not lost on the reader, that even in the poet’s open rejection of “consciousnesses surplus” Seshadri is still attempting to articulate a fundamental truth. We as poets, physicists, or philosophers will always wander the gap between science and metaphor and language will always have its limits. All we can hope for is what Seshadri calls the “penultimate moment”:
…And the moment inside the penultimate moment,
And the moment inside that and that and that . . .
I have heard it said, and I have heard it is written,
I have read of it, and I have understood
by reason’s light within me,
that the moment I am speaking of
stretches across eternity…
Who wouldn’t jump for a chance at that?