It is that time of the year when brown leaves carpet morning walks, making us ponder on the fragility of life. Longer nights mean more time with one’s self and dark hours of contemplation in the undisturbed company of memory. Autumn is upon us and we sit surrounded by its moods. Vikram Seth’s poetry collection ‘Summer Requiem’ is not just a seasonally suitable book to read but one which makes the reader find herself somewhere within its folds of poetic musing, watching the orange dusk. Because ‘sombre thoughts become this hour, Hour of red copper, rust, dark iron’ (from ‘Summer Requiem’).
The overarching idea in Vikram Seth’s poetry is that of transience – of seasons, of love in relationships and of life itself. We see the poet, at home or in the world, looking around at shifting scenes and poring within with thoughts of change, and even death. Observation and contemplation unite to create vivid visuals which add profundity even to the usual. And the poet? A man whose streams of thought, whether flowing backwards in time or surging ahead, seem poignantly lonely in a crowd. However, the low notes of remembrance of things gone by are in peaceful symphony with those positive ones reflective of acceptance of this very impermanence around; a flux which impresses itself upon the poet’s mind as he bids adieu to summer.
Outside the great world’s gifts and harms
There must be somewhere I can go
To rest within a lover’s arms,
At ease with the impending snow.
(From ‘Late Light’)
In the poem ‘Summer Requiem’, the poet knows that ‘I must forsake attachment.’ We wonder why. We see the world around him gradually turning leaden from rust, bringing ‘everything to a close’. It’s a closure to the day or to the season. And it seems the poet too has reached a finale in his life. He’s looking to be detached because ‘where the lock of longing was opened, There there will be a perpetual wound.’
A love lost, or one never found?
I love you more than I can say.
Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.
I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
Someday, I’m sure, it will.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?
(From ‘What’s in it?’)
A lover lost it is, then. Though not the love. How so?
‘Caged’ describes the torment of the poet feeling ‘dispossessed’ with the partner while being still in love. A relationship bitter and ‘bent on staggering on’ with a perpetual question in the estranged poet’s head – ‘Why could this not wait till our love could die?’ Togetherness is not equal to happiness, and a string of communication lies snapped in ‘A Winter Room’ too. Reminds the reader of modern, urban relationships.
It is this that makes you sense the poet’s loneliness even in moments of richly described solitude.
My friends have left, and I can see
No one, and no one will appear.
This must be happiness, to be
Sitting alone with birds and beer.
(From ‘Evening Scene from my Table’)
The ‘must be’ in the third line marks a tentative insistence on being happy. He seems unsure if he prefers the company of solitude, even though this theme is recurrent. Is that why many poems contain references to muses, friends, lovers and memories, ‘gathered and scattered’? And, is that why there is a turning to Nature, a calming company to his musing soul, though reminding him continuously of his waning life?
Vikram Seth is not a Romantic poet. While his sense of ‘I’ is remarkably real, divinity is not what he sees when he views trees and beaches, birds and sunsets. However, faint strokes of similarity can be seen between the poet’s and William Wordsworth’s relationship with nature. They both drew solace in its lap; learnt to value it when they were away from it. And as a result of this reminiscing, they both learnt to appreciate the role of memory.
When, sniveling on my grieving knees,
I’d feed the College tortoise peas,
The torpid glutton, on the whole,
Poured balm on my afflicted soul.
(From ‘Fellows’ Garden’)
Just what a beautifully visual ‘One Morning’ reveals how ‘as I breathed the callous air, I lost the drift of my despair.’ ‘Red Rock’ describes that beach’s scene, the waves and toddlers and ‘Three dolphins ballet in the din, In bottle-nosed felicity.’ The poet wishes it would always be like this. But it cannot be this warm forever, can it?
‘Next year I’ll freeze, though God knows where.
In Shimla, fingernumbed and scowling,
In New York on a chilblained street,
In London with the North wind howling
Or vile Vienna in the sleet.
Yet I’ll be warm wherever I go
If Red Rock burns beneath the snow.’
And that is the role of memory in ‘Summer Requiem’. It is ‘a poison’ that reminds the poet of the absences yet at the same time it makes him remember warmer, joyful times. Both triggered by Nature and calmed by it too. It is this theme that lends the book lush visuals, giving its readers ‘The sense of privilege’ that the poet himself felt in ‘Suzhou Canal on a June Night’.
Nature does another thing, as summer bids adieu. It becomes a personification of the poet’s own being. Of a man believing he stands in his twilight, already. These collected poems thus become a continuous, and rather personal, contemplation of life and death.
Ageing … and beyond
There is a heavy note that lines the poet’s voice (say in the poem ‘Summer Requiem’) born out of a realization that ‘everything learnt has been trivial’. There is a coming to terms with the truth of life, that ‘Perpetual replacement is the only song of the world’. Of waking up one morning to see how …
My joints have rusted and my brain is lead.
I drank too much last night …
My love has gone. What do I have instead? –
Hot-water bottle, God and teddy bear.
I find I simply cannot get out of bed.’
As summer makes way for autumn, ‘The Yellow Leaves’ glint, making the poet wonder ‘What is this heaviness that won’t unclench my heart, My work by day, my spirit nightly?’. Life is ‘this ungiving game that waits till it or I am finished.’ The mood is somber, and death a constant unnamed refrain.
‘Alone, I wander where I choose,
And soon there will not be a me to lose.’
(From ‘Which Way?’)
The pathetic fallacy of watching summer turn to bitterness in his own being is unmistakable.
But a sense of hope twinkles …
In the ‘Summer Requiem’, you cannot separate the art from the artist. The poet is a part of his surroundings, almost one with them with his moods and memories. Like one organic whole.
Bright darkness is my comfort,
Dark daylight is my friend
And even I can’t reckon
Where I subsist or end.
(From ‘Bright Darkness’)
While there is a proclivity to harp on loss and disintegration, the reader cannot see the poet as separate from his landscape – and cannot see him dead and gone. Because that would mean the world collapsing too. Perhaps, the poet knows that. He wants to be. His memories of the summers gone fill his eyes, make faces appear, make him confess ‘To the Moon’ how ‘it gives me pleasure to remember and to count the stages of my sorrow.’ The voices in his head whisper in ‘Late at Night’ how ‘Live you must, for we must too, And we have no home but you.’ And he wants to house them. Resolves with ‘I must’ are oft repeated in his poems, even if it is that ‘I simply must get out of bed, And press that reset button in my head’ (from ‘Can’t’).
Shakespeare knew ‘The Readiness is all’. In the poet’s mind this idea resides, with the wish to ‘sleep dreamlessly’. This acceptance of change, of life’s flux by the poet adds serenity to his thoughts, even if a feeling of pure contentment seems to evade him, as yet. That there is a world beyond this empty one is what he wants to believe. And love in that world is what he is hopeful about. Death, then, is but one stop in the full circle of life. But till then, like in the ‘Parrots at Sunset’, he does 'give uncertain thanks, For the one world I’ll get.’ This book can thus be seen as Vikram Seth’s attempt to simply ‘turn the hourglass to re-sieve its sands, a fragile monument half-built by hands.’
A letting go and yet holding on…but not a swan song. No.
Somewhere in the valleys of interpretation that ‘Summer Requiem’ creates we find the poet wandering, and us readers wondering alongside. Thus luring us into shared intimacy with his mind, Vikram Seth in his latest collection of poetry traverses moods with soulful ease and unreels panoramas of landscapes – of change in both the outside world and the labyrinths within. While each poem stands apart from the other (and not just in rhyme scheme) one can choose to view them as a continuous contemplation of life and its vagaries, connecting birds with stars and themes with dreams as one reads on.
Timeless poetry that you can turn to, again and again, to see something anew every time you do.
'Summer Requiem' by Vikram Seth is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015.
[Review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]