Book Review

Sanjeev Sethi is a mature and conscious poet—rare qualities among writers of contemporary Indian-English poetry. By mature, I refer to poets who know how to use syntax, metaphors, and imagery; how to transform ideas into well-blended verses. By conscious, I mean a person who is sure about what is being written, about the purpose of a particular piece. Maturity and consciousness are ubiquitous in Sethi’s fifth collection of poems, Hesitancies. In this volume, memory walks easily in the present; surrealism is blended with philosophy, and mindscape peeps through the inner door to reach out to readers in splendid ways. From the unique “dedication” poem to the last piece in this collection, Sethi’s stamp as a perfect wordsmith is everywhere. He dedicates Hesitancies to his mother—and in a seven-line, short poem, “For Ma,” talks so elaborately, so eloquently about mother:

On the strand of my mind,
you set up kiosks
vending items
enabling cheerful voyages.
We mustn’t disremember
ministrations of another mentor,
you edified me.

With these lines, we are initiated into a world of deftly chosen words and apt metaphors.

Nostalgia occupies some part of Hesitancies. The poet looks back and walks down memory lane. Gradually, we feel that this nostalgic path is decorated with tiny, illuminating lights that allow us an unhindered stroll with the poet, as found in the poem “Plumbago”: “Flashbacks convoked me to crepuscular hours / when I was about seven at gramps.” Also in “Barnacle”: “Gridiron of my growing years had you chasing epaulets. Each needs his needle. / I was given to understand I was part of your process. . . Contusions of childhood aren’t easy to elude.” Father is an inseparable part of this reminiscence, as portrayed in the poem “On Father’s 69 Birthday”: “Father, you want to hold / the space you held. But, is it my fault, / that your hands / now need me ?” Family reunions are toasted here with the fragrance of edibles, as in “Vacays”: “Before the wrap up of winter hiatus, annual / reunion with mishpocha coalesces at an / unhurried pace and place. Caterwauling by / children bonds with the aromas of edibles.” Memorabilia are very much personal, but in this anthology Sethi has shown the art of making readers journey in his days of yore, as in “Morning Walk”: “Mythology and memory brew / with breath,” and also in “College Roommate”: “Certain things don’t change: our smell and our strangeness,” or in the poem “Cake”: “Some untruths are delicate, like lace on lingerie. . . ” Here, the poet’s recollections become integral portrayals of our memories too.

“Postil” is a highlight of this collection. In nine sections—each composed of a single line—the poet has built a large canvas,  inspecting our existence: “Words are first indicators of inadequacy,” “Poetry inhales what we can’t,” “Existence is asemic: make what you will,” “Urge for intercalation is an off-shoot of elation,” and “Selfdom is its own document: linguaphiles decipher it” are lines to think on and cherish for a long time. Another poem deeply embedded in life’s music is “Loose Cannons.” Dispersed in eight short sections, this poem (much like “Postil”) exposes us to realities we know but tend to ignore. Consider these wonderful constructs: “Words embroider; they can’t alter. / Grief in any text is grief.” These lines make us revisit the sense and sensibilities of the process of survival. “When mind fleets toward your fold / whitlow on thumb of tides whimpers. . . Sometimes one is happy / being sad.”

In Hesitancies, readers also find derision of self-adulation and attempts at the fulfillment of our alter-egos in every alley of our existence. In poems such as “Betrayal,” “Web 2.0,” “Facebook, Another View,” “Civics” or “A Factory of Feelings” the poet takes a dig at our obsession with self-promotion, mainly on social media. These poems expose our implausible fads for posterity through the poet’s inimitable style and mockery of such craziness. Consider these lines from “Facebook, Another View”:

A passage
through phraseology of brochures,
not binocular view of the back street.
It is a shelf for self-adverts drafted
by dilettantes. One may parade 4999
yet be the loneliest log this side of the sky.

Or from “Web 2.0”:

In a setting where saints quarrel
there may be a play of kinesics.
But most of us are not geared
to regulate our rage.
Virtual communities register
and ricochet such vehemence.

These lines are timely reminders for all of us to look at the mirror and discover anew some hitherto (un)known social animals.

Away from “self-adverts,” Sethi turns into a “retreatant” in many poems in this book, and dwells in the inner space “soaked in sapience.” The poet is at his best when he is living in a “xeriscaping” mindscape:

In aridity, I have planted grass and greenery.
Thicket and some trees. It lunges my spin.
When faced with the palpable, eyes ripen
to moist repositories. . .

And “Palmer” visits the poet’s favorite retreat:

To be a retreatant
in one’s inner world
is the most informed
retreat from reality.

In Hesitancies we find a complete poet, whose wonderful passages frequent both the inner world and the outside one with remarkable ease. Sanjeev Sethi often uses uncommon words, not particularly palatable to people whose mother tongue is not English (like many English-knowing persons in the Indian subcontinent). But his choice of words is impeccable. His imagery is sharp, to the point, and makes his creations relevant. Brevity is his forte, but the impact of his short verses is durable. Hesitancies bears great testimony to this observation. It is a collector’s item and a must-read for all poetry lovers.

About the Reviewer

Aneek Chatterjee is a poet, literary critic, and academic from India. He has authored and edited fourteen books, including three poetry collections. He was a Fulbright visiting faculty at the University of Virginia (USA) and a recipient of the ICCR Chair to teach abroad. He has been published in literary magazines across the globe.