Reviewed by Amit Shankar Saha
by Sanjeev Sethi
CLASSIX (an imprint of Hawakal)
Paperback, July 17, 2021, 100 pages, ISBN-13 978-8195256228
The importance of having scruples can never be undermined in life. Doubt is the basis of improvement. An unscrupulous person is not only just mawkish but also irresponsible and self-destructive. The literature of the English language is replete with instances of doubt being instrumental in the plot of a narrative. In the epic poem Paradise Lost Milton puts in the speech of Satan this attribute to God who “doubted his empire” (Book 1). In Shakespeare’s Macbeth Macbeth is scrupulous at first but Lady Macbeth lacked all scruples. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a character who is filled with doubts. Such a character in modern poetry is seen in T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock. The hesitations that Prufrock has that prevents him from taking a decision stems from self-doubt, a state of uncertainty, a state of undecidability. It is this moment of hesitation, this moment of indecision which gives birth to that metaphysical instant where the world is rolled up into a ball. Each of our hesitancies in life stops time and gives us a profound experience. Thereby we live more than the time we spend on this earth. Sanjeev Sethi’s Hesitancies is a book of such latent time-capsules.
Sethi is a versatile poet. In his poem “Bloodline” written for his “only niece” he writes about her visits every two years during the late summer. He narrates about a peculiar, but unnoticeably common, incident when the two of them initially hesitate to begin a conversation often ending up talking together. Gradually the formality in their relationship eases out. And soon the uncle is affected by the energy of the niece. This ends his oblivion by gaining a soul for his silence. The whole poem is a delicate portrayal of a relationship between two individuals who are related by blood but are a generation apart. Any yet it takes just a trivial moment to connect and the energies to pass as if in a bloodline. Sethi’s achievement is to notice this moment and acknowledge it in the words of a measured poet that he is. His choice of vocabulary is immaculate – “serotinal tidings”, “our chinfests”, “launder the limbus”. He produces lines in the poem that makes the reader pause: “Even prayers need polishing”, “ensouling my omertá.” Apart from the choice of diction there is also structuring of the poem that is striking. The poem is written in quatrains with every fourth line of the stanza giving a thought slightly apart from the preceding three lines but as the poem progresses this distance decreases and in the fourth and last stanza it continues from the previous line completing the sentence. The very form of the poem conveys the message of the poem of how two people overcome their initial hesitancies and come close together and the idea of being of the same bloodline is established. This organic wholeness of the poem and the indulgence in the craft of it make Sanjeev Sethi stand out amongst contemporary poets.
Sethi talks in one more poems of his of getting energized. Characteristics of the metaphysical poets who presented intense passion in highly intellectual way, Sethi presents in “Whoop-De-Do” two lovers breaking away from propriety in lovemaking, energized by a semblance of reluctance and doubt, that has a rather transforming effect on them.
In the narrows, I unlearned
protocols of pleasure.
energized my embrace.
Under the pennons of urge
I was another me.
The poem ends with the line “My undoings lit many lyrics.” It has both figurative and literal meaning. It is not only a metaphorical reference but also a real admission if we identify the poet with the narrator, the lover. This type of highly sensual poem expressed in a rather cerebral fashion is rare. But we must not miss the keen observation that Sethi makes in the poem, something that echoes in another poem of his “Coition”: “Hesitancies coerced us/ to surrender our shields.” It is the scruples, the doubts that ironically compel a person to pursue a thing or an idea with more determination and a greater pace. It is an enlightened reflection.
In his poem “Slalom” Sethi tells us a very personal story or rather a backstory in a beautiful and yet melancholic way:
Under a brolly
akin to a boletus
we look for mislaid autumns
in the gut of primordial responses.
It almost seems that the metaphysical poet is transforming into a romantic one. But Sethi, as his protagonist in the poem, always remains “Like an obscured object/ in a painting…”. In “Proneness” he again recalls the idea of hesitation being a hook that keeps one attached, how singleness can cast a spell and propel one into short bursts of passion that provides a sense of home for the time being. It is here that Sethi’s protagonist is very much like Eliot’s Prufrock. In “seclusiveness” he treats his bones of mundane aches and fills them “with the calm of calcium.” It is this myriad understanding of human hesitancies with all its aftermaths that are grappled by Sethi in a highly intellectual manner in this magnificent collection of poems that makes this book a treasure for the connoisseurs of poetry. A reader of this volume, if he or she makes the effort to go into the interstices of Sethi’s poetry, will experience time-capsules of life and do so in a more profound way that he or she has ever imagined.
About the reviewer: Amit Shankar Saha is the author of three collections of poems titled Balconies of Time, Fugitive Words, and Illicit Poems. A Pushcart Prize, Griffin Poetry Prize, and Best of Net nominee, he has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and teaches at Seacom Skills University. His website is www.amitshankarsaha.com