How a Book of Poetry Navigates the Vocabulary of Silence

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

Wittgenstein suggests that there are things we should understand with silence – yet words impel us to ask the obvious. It has been theorized that for communication, words are often superfluous. Yet with their usage, we feel the pleasure of speaking and carrying out a conversation.

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

Sanjeev Sethi’s poems in hesitations (Classix, 2021) are about that pleasure. In his poems, unknown, arcane words appear in the familiar, as in the poem Coition:

Hesitations coerced us

to surrender our shields. We lost the link

to smiles and stuff. Sitzkrieg emerged as

our channel to continuity. Between thighs

are carte blanche and incarceration.

Here even before the word Sitzkrieg appears, we have been led by the poet to its meaning – of lull. But more than that, it feels as though the poet has pulled the word out of a Thesaurus and offered it to readers.

The poet, here, is a familiariser of words – uncommon, unheard.

In Postil, the poet says:

Urge for intercalation is an off-shoot of elation.

Intercalation is more commonly known to a chemist than to ordinary folk, but on reading the verse, one feels how comfortably the word sits within the context, as if truly ‘intercalated’.

Sethi’s poems in hesitations courageously liberate the words from their specialized domains and offer them to the plebeian.

We often look up to our poets as people who possess a healing touch for words, as people who renew, refresh the everyday frayed words, infusing them with meanings. The poems in hesitations turn that perception on its head. The poet brings in unfamiliar words and offers them to the readers to relish.

For example in Barrack Backgrounder, one reads tenebrosity and feels the mouthfulness associated with succulent and fluffy chole bhatoorea well-known North Indian breakfast dish, mentioned in the next line:

In tenebrosity, she offered

bhatooras but no chole. We grokked aunty

had gone wrong, in a whiz stillness gagged us.

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

…When my poems

globe-trot, apart from my longstanding love affair

with myself, travels with them. They carry me

flavors, my failures.

Writing poetry, therefore, is a conviction that a poet’s experiences are not hers or his alone, but in a way a metaphor for all. However, the poems in hesitationswhile attempting to act as such, also emphasize the limitation or the impossibility of sharing one’s core.

…Now, when intimacy

encourages you 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 embroidered; they can’t alter.

Grief in any text is grief.

It feels that the poet has wandered into the desert of his language, where no vegetation exists; he is staring at its periphery where the foliage of his vocabulary is barely visible. He has spoken but something still remains within him, lingers. The grief therefore, may not be the grief of his experiences but of the language itself.

Words are first indicators of inadequacy.

The poet in xeriscaping has located his poem in this very arid landscape.

In aridity, I have planted grass and greenery.

Thicket and some trees. It lunges my spin.

Here the poet is hopeful and enthused with the task of creating pastures of language in his desert. However, a sense of Sisyphean punishment pervades as one reaches the end of the poem, as if the only reward for such a task is the labor itself.

When faced with the palpable, eyes ripen

to moist repositories. There is proof as in

doom I stew myself in a sheaf of papers.

Writing about family, relationships is a way of knowing about oneself; the exploration is often difficult. However, in hesitations, one discovers that the poetic voice navigates the sweet with the bitter most eloquently here. The collection opens with an homage to Mother as a seeder of dreams in her child’s fibrous mind:

On the strand of my mind

you set up kiosks

selling items

enabling cheerful voyages.

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

We mustn’t disremember

ministrations of another mentor,

you edified me.

Interestingly, the poet writes disremember instead of forgot, cautioning not against a loss of memory but remembering perhaps in a ‘wrong’ way. In On Father’s 69th Birthdaywe see a father as a maker of civilization for his children.

Everyone has a father –

but only some fathers

sow the seed

for their sons

to break into song.

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

Historians chronicle

the cave-in of civilizations.

I can see your decline –

see it with precision and pain.

More than physical, father is a psychological construct, even perhaps a spiritual one. The poem ends with suggesting that the construct is coming apart. The poem asks us to consider that if a father makes a civilization for his kids, aren’t they – the kids – in turn chroniclers of that civilization, and effectively of their fathers? This role-reversal between father and child is perhaps captured in the anguish expressed as a question in the last stanza.

Father, you want to hold

the space you held.

But, is it my fault,

that your hands

now need me?

In Loose Cannons, loneliness in a relationship is captured. On reading it, one feels the loss of something precious, maybe of a freedom that leads to the atomisation of being, and how worthless it is.

Seeing you tonight brings back

what we leveraged

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 though believing that if one can express the loss, all is not lost.

By being earless

you helped me

with my hesitations.

However, there are poems that bow to silence, as an ultimate language for all our inadequacies:

less questioning,

quiet of their itches.

Closing this conversation is ethical.

Inditing is livelihood,

lown, and liturgy.

The whirlpools in her eyes draw me deeper and deeper

into connections. Not known for a heart set in

stone, I acquiesce, wishing their togetherness

the lasting tint of amaranthine grains.

In these verses, silent moments trigger a dialogue within. At such instances, a loneliness permeates the poet’s being. He is among his people, but he is somewhere within, watching his outer world. There is an interiorisation, as if no one else will share his feelings until put on paper, as poems. Is it a fear or a hope? Maybe a hope:

…On upbeat days cheer you

generate morphs my grim 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 dear ones is varied, since the mystery around death is diverse and is often rooted in spiritual, cultural and even individual discourse. Writing, although it cannot make up for the loss, can be a way of working through it, an act of catharsis in words. In all overwe witness death as an activity:

Smoke billows

from the crematorium

inscribing the last lines

on the sky’s surface

of another loved one

who lies curdled as a corpse.

The handler’s of the high-ups

spiral alternate spiels in media outlets.

Death happens even after one is dead, it continues beyond that moment, in the rituals, in the official bureaucratic processes, in the relationships; the living ones make things anew to their respective advantage:

Does empathy clamp winning positions?

In Death of a Friend, the bereaved is unsure of how to respond to a dear friend’s death

Fall of day you secure flight to the empyrean

a capsule of my childhood erases. Pliancy of

switch makes me inquire: should I be mournful

or mollified?

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

Amphiboli permeate your passage as you turn

motif urging us in our prouder moments to be happy

for our happiness.

In hesitations, words are cryptic like riddles and invite the reader to decipher them. The minimalist nature of the poems also suggests that the poet trusts the readers with exploration, since the economy of words relies on a faith, that one will be understood, not only with what is expressed but with what is left unsaid. In that sense, the poems create a vocabulary that can be said to belong to silence – the unexpressed part of our language.

The style also gently overlays language above the meanings the expressions appear to possess, trying to make it (the language) an independent individual, worthy of its own existence, echoing Andres Fava from Diary of Andres 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 disconnect between language and thoughts which every form of communication struggles to negotiate, and claims it is only among poets that this gap is bridged, for to them words and thoughts are one and the same. One finds this unity in the poems of Sanjeev Sethi.

Tabish Nawaz teaches Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay.

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