The title of Vijay Seshadri’s latest collection, That Was Now, This Is Then, lets readers know before we read the first poem that we’ll be working against the expected. That’s what good poetry can do; it denies us the logical epiphany and instead provides a twist or changed perspective, or even denies us any closure at all. It feels a little unusual to me for a book to announce these kinds of intentions so loudly from the start, and I don’t know how its doing so may have affected the way I read, but I came away from this collection fascinated by the way Seshadri kept me, as a reader, questioning who this speaker was and how much I could trust them.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of That Was Now, This Is Then, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Vijay Seshadri, you’ll need to subscribe by August 15!
That questioning I mentioned occurs because Seshadri’s poems continually wind in on themselves and often make use of qualifiers and suggestions. In the poem “Enlightenment,” for instance, the subject seems to be a man who is situated in a position of power or privilege and has a sense that he needs to fix the world. “So he went down into the world to exercise his virtue, // thinking maybe that would help,” Seshadri writes, and the next stanzas are filled with examples of how he brings what seem to be good things into the world. But there’s a brief moment that feels like foreshadowing that not all his actions are good or even benign: “He found a cure, / and then he found a cure, // for his cure.” And see how Seshadri closes the poem:
The world happens, the world changes,
the world, it is written here,
in the next line,
is only its own membrane—
and, oh yes, your compassionate nature,
your compassion for our kind.
The first part of that suggests to me the idea that the world’s inertia is so powerful that even well-meaning people with their own power can’t do much to shift it. But the idea of the world as not just a membrane, but as its own membrane, that the world is only a selective barrier between what, other worlds? Planes of existence? And then the shift to the second-person to end the poem, the direct address that makes me as a reader ask, where I am situated in this poem? Am I the person who feels the need to make the world better, who might even improve the lives of some small number of people but in the end not change much about the world, which is a gateway between lives anyhow? What does that separation of the reader from the people of the world in that last line suggest, with “your compassion for our kind”? Is the reader a god-like creature now? The poem doesn’t settle any of this, of course, which I think is the point. Maybe the poem is a description of what it means to try to gain a deeper understanding of the universe and our position within it.
Each of the poems in this collection rewards this kind of close reading, and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to talk about them in our online Poetry Book Club as well as in our exclusive chat with Vijay Seshadri at the end of the month. If you subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by August 15, you’ll receive your early copy of That Was Now, This Is Then and will be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Vijay Seshadri in early September. I hope you’ll join us!