Bound For Other Shores: An Exploration into the poetry of Sanjeev Sethi

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy


‘Magician of Words’, ‘Urban Poet’, ‘Poet of a new Genre’. Any three of these epithets together can identify Sanjeev Sethi, the writer who wins the heart of his readers through a magic weave of words. In November 2019 he jointly won the Full Fat Competition-Deux (2019) organised by Hedgehog Poetry Press UK for his poetry book, Wrappings in Bespoke. The book will be released in 2020. His work also includes well-received volumes, Suddenly For Someone, Nine Summers Later, This Summer and That Summer, (Bloomsbury). His poems have found a home in The London Magazine, The Sunday Tribune, The Fortnightly Review, 3:AM Magazine, London Grip, Morphrog 14, The Poetry Village, The Cabinet of Heed, Talking Poetry, Hamilton Stone Review, Peacock Journal, Packingtown Review, The Sandy River Review, Poydras Review, The Ofi Press Literary Magazine, Postcolonial Text, Transnational Literature, and Otoliths..

His poetry is sometimes lyrical, sometimes strident record of a poet’s slide from a lyrical to a personal identity laced with black humour (albeit philosophical) to an urban poet with metro-centric faith. It is also a record of a journey from his childhood to a mature poetic persona. And seeping, leaking, lurching through every page is his intrepid poetry. He is but a visionary in whom is melded a fearless poetical imagination and an instinctive understanding of the underbelly of a monstrously threatened urban landscape, who wields a pen that races ahead—even of him—most of the time.

Two of his poetry books begin with “Summer”. This speaks of the sunny side in the poet. “Summer” came from the Old English name for that time of year, sumor. This, in turn, came from the Proto-Indo-European root sam (sam seems to be a variant of the Proto-Indo-European sem, meaning “together/one”). Summer in India speaks of hardships, parched lands, parched tongues, parched minds. Only the very doughty can withstand it; and the incandescent Sethi glares among them, having two ‘summers’ in the title of the books –Nine Summers Later(1997) and This Summer and That Summer(2015).The poet it seems, has a way and will to curve and darn any summer to his liking. Summer speaks in his poems with a different connotation which is as inevitable and necessary, and as disruptive and difficult to accept, for anyone who wishes to float on a sense of well-being about the development of his poetic self into a ‘global’ presence through the so-called poetic persona. He thus writes,
Sanjeev Sethi

Anonymity has its advantages.
One can continue
To be on the coast:
Seeing, Savouring. Sharing.
When the spotlight
is on you, one is compelled
by either choice or circumstance
to maintain the status quo. (‘Anonymity’, Nine Summers Later, 13).
Sethi’s wealth of ideas and argument continually challenge the moribund state of the claustrophobic urbanscape which has been crumbling in modern times, His rhetoric is grounded in research. In “Death In A Metropolis” he speaks with his signature style dark humour,
Corpses carve a logo
a philosophy
Have you ever lived
close to a burning ghat?
I have. And noticed
there is a corpse each day.
Sometimes, there is more than one dead march,
crawling through the lanes and bylanes,
recording each dead person’s
last signature  on the street. (Nine Summers Later, 20)
But does Sethi provide solutions to escape the moribund state of things in a city? Mostly not, Sethi asks questions that chew our brains, and he can do that in a language that exhilarates and chokes at once.

My eyes are calloused with the curse
of not being able to get your glimpse.
My irises are templates of yearning
I have decided to be in control-
like how the handbooks,
expect of us, when we seek oneness.
I will be earnest about my etiquettes,
Follow the grammar of successful regimes.

Please vote me in. (“Suffrage”, This Summer and That Summer15).
Sethi thus creates a hurly-burly and when the hurly-burly’s done, he returns (us) to the sense of who is and what he possesses---a magician of words, and an imagination that leaps and soars with a poetic imagination.

In my world
There is no valley,
No rivulet nearby.
Mind is the landscape. (‘Metropolis’, This Summer and That Summer, 19).

He allows himself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a civic howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. At their best moments, his verses sound  that civic howl and touch, however fleetingly, the power and precision of poetry.

There is some comfort
in speaking negatively
about one’s strength,
The wealthy often say:
“I am broke”.
The good fuckers:
“I can’t get it up, man!” (‘Philosophy’,This Summer and That Summer, 41).
His poems are astonishing in it’s rapidity of pace as well as its casual refusal to follow convention.
In hush of the gloaming hours when I wish to be myself
and cannot, I cry. This sob is another sort. Skin ruddles
when my salve is another’s snack. (‘Afterlight’, This Summer and That Summer, 8).

Some of Sethi’s poems are interior monologues that modulate into stream-of-consciousness, almost surreal changes of points of view and sudden introductions of sharply critical commentary, images that bloom and fade, dreams that get mixed up with moods and action-holds the reader in a relentless grip. Sethi seems to be pushing the possibilities of poetry past their bounds, beyond narration.

I have accepted incarcerations in my mind
as injunctions of a worthy gravel. I have briefed
myself to breathe crisp air but tendrils of uncertain
brumal exhalations twine with my today. It pushes
me to believe we are a sum total of our cantles. I wonder
why we assign significance to some sections? (‘Winters’, This Summer and That Summer, 42).

Sethi experiments with modernist techniques—assonances meddled with unexpected alliterations although the imaginative affinities are sometimes uncanny.Multifarious contours are explored in the context of writing poetry and interplay with the form.  However his poems are not an easy read. The vocabulary is too elitist, the humour is too dark. However pairing up an unparalleled vocabulary with dark humour can conjure up a magic that breathes life into poetry where words fall short.

Grief, like one’s private parts,
is best shared with a few.
Emotional Aids is just as bad.
Let us not consider
a heart-to-heart chat.
Even if they do,
would I, if I care,
Want to hear it? (“A Statement”, Nine Summers Later, 48.)


Sethi’s poetry thus presents another language,  it is a mark of both his courage and his interest in poetry. His poetry is set apart by its unique use of a language that triumphantly restores the poet’s voice, and memory. His language is bound for other shores. As one reads his poetry from Suddenly For Someone, Nine Summers Later, and comes to This Summer and That Summer they briefly bring into mind an established senior but, pronouncedly, a younger contemporary who’s been wandering in this denuded terrain in his art for a few years now. But that terrain is not the private kingdom of just the poet himself, it has come to inhabit the consciousness of many creative minds for the human situation itself is perceived as inhuman, besieged with acts of unkindness, lack of sympathy, modern chaotic life and progress that sacrifices human wholeness to blind, mechanistic operations often under the control of a super-state. Sethi thus writes,

Seasoned advocates of statecraft
with fluent tones and fixed turns.
They can be quiet or clamorous.(“Panelists”, This Summer and That Summer, 37).
In a poem he calls“Fingerprint”, he writes,
Wind on edge of an embankment
has the urge to swallow me up.
The celestial sphere sutures me to its stole,
Will this improve with the lee of another?
In the evenness of my energy, ideas interface
without an additional channel unsettling me.
In this home throbs an unusual tune.(This Summer and That Summer, 53).

The poet’s creative eye is thus alert at all times. He emerges as a commanding presence of immense charm, grace, wit and power. A few lines with a Sethisque blend of tones with short, quick strokes have a poetic appeal.

For insects, various repellents
are available.
But is there a pesticide
for the past? (“Nocturnal Activity”,This Summer and That Summer, 3).
An urban poet Sethi has turned out some noticeable cityscapes with flat tidy lines. They also form important connections between his poetic entries that describe the musings separated by time and space. In fact, his treatment of space within the modern city (Mumbai) reveals a sharp eye.
Pigeons have no tenancy laws.
She placed her squabs on my sill.
…Soon I decided-to be kind to myself,
I had to be cruel.
I opted to evict them.
But there are no courts for this.
No legal machinery. (This Summer and That Summer,  1).
This knowledge of the urban cityscape has remained central to his poetry designs that have been instrumental in shaping the discourse of ‘modern urban Indian English poetry’. The concept of space is invaluable when it comes to fleshing out his reclusive self, it adds to his oeuvre. Pigeon is presented as a metaphor for the growth and maturity of theurban poet.It speaks of the emergence of a complete performer, a consummate poet. The strength of Sethi’s text sparkles intermittently.
Watchfully divinity unwraps its bounties and
blows
Like a bystander at another’s setback I calm
Myself.
When legacy of loss is your fiefdom, fist
pumps are
alien. Possibilities beckon me to the tarmac
Symbols
of the universe warn and warm me in
strange but
wonted territories, some offshore.  (“Explorations”, Wrappings in Bespoke, to be published in 2020 by Hedgehog Poetry Press).
His poetry embodies the power, dynamism and grace of self-awareness with controlled sentimentality. In “Apophasis he writes,
Vaunts of venery are not
woven into my vocabulary,
Am I being a bluenose?
Who can ever control
swirls of a comber?
Weighed in with self-denial
and not swagger. (This Summer And That Summer, 38).
His poetry is at times welded with its layered stories, which are intensely personal, dark and painful like the poem“Sunny Chacha”. The poet crafts his pain in a way that his readers are pained, the language is terse,
You were gentle. “Beta, don’t worry. You are the son
I never had. We are a family”.
Perhaps, saying it more to yourself, than me.
“I’m not used to families,” I cried. (This Summer And That Summer, 6)
The poem ends up providing readers with valuable insight into the poet’s formative years and how his  experiences went on to inform his aesthetics of poetry. The poet is diverse, often uses conventional themes like spirituality ( I run from myself, winded I return, debunking/the illusion, (“Stour”, This Summer And That Summer, 48) and unconventional themes like urban estrangement that are still relevant and pulsating with poetic  imagination.
In a private hell with no public face
I am capable of making love to myself. (“Fingerprint”, This Summer and That Summer,53).
Ideologically, ‘introspection’ may be said to be Sethi’s avowed response to the world in these perilous times. His flamboyant rhetoric is girded by intense vocabulary that holds the rest of the edifice of his poetry together. His poetic wardrobe mirrors his own poetic persona. He strikes and shifts the ground we stand upon: Sethi’s prowess is in the poetical.

Works Cited:
Sethi, Sanjeev. Nine Summers Later. Har-Anand  Publications Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. India.1997. Print.
Sethi, Sanjeev. This Summer and That Summer. Bloomsbury. 2015. India. Print.

5 comments :

  1. Brilliant! It has unraveled for me my favorite poet.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oops, I forget to mention my name, the first comment is by me, Vibha Singh.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sutanuka Ghosh Roy is an accomplished critic, I really enjoyed reading the article, thanks SETU.

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  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  5. Two years ago I bought Sanjeev Sethi's This summer and That summer. I adore his poem. It is an awesome write-up__Sahil Chawla.

    ReplyDelete

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