Sudeep Sen’s Fractals: New & Selected Poems |Translations 1980-2015 covers no less than thirty-five years of his work. With over three hundred poems and a selection of his translations, there’s mileage to cover. Helpfully, Fractals is divided into three sections: Newer Poems, Selected Earlier Poems and Translations. The newer and selected poems are divided into subsections arranged according to earlier publication.
The scope of work on offer is impressive and a celebration of a complex and beautiful oeuvre. Fractals includes lyric, free verse, haiku, ekphrastic poems, elegies, sonnets, micro-fiction and prose/(poems) that read part travel-log, part diary-like entries. The poems explore illness, death, sex, love, religion, loneliness, and loss, and he has a particular fascination for terrain in its broadest sense: the topography of landscape, of cityscape, of skin, and of consciousness.
Fractals in this context is a useful title. The scientific definition provided at the front of this omnibus is given as, “a complex geometric pattern exhibiting self-similarity in that small details of its structure viewed at any scale repeat elements of the overall pattern.” This complex patterning of repeat elements is precisely what makes it challenging to speak cohesively about an oeuvre that is terrifically diverse. I will attempt to investigate some of the repeat elements that echo throughout.
Sen is interested in architecture and in light. In ‘Dungeon’ for instance, a tentative ghost-like cadence morphs textures and shapes from one (art)form into another, and reminds us that poetry can be writing as well as a scoring, both musically and physically:
... I could feel I had crushed a femur accidentally, as its texture
changed from brittle to powder against the rough granite of the floor.
I had come looking for a holograph of Cézanne’s will and skulls, but what I
found instead was a score – an opera with the aria highlighted.”
In the poem, Sen’s poetic persona visits a dungeon in the hope of finding Cézanne’s bones. A quest highly unlikely to be successful, but nevertheless, he lowers himself down a ladder where he stops to allow for his eyes to adjust to the dark, the cobwebs, the dust and the dank, low ceilings. The poet then freeze-frames this singular moment, and as associations, memories and sensory impressions flood in, explodes the poem into an experience of self that many of Sen’s poems capture so well.
Sen’s writing intends the reader to inhabit his poems as if they are buildings – whether they be crypts, caves, dungeons, libraries, hospital rooms, an artist’s studio or the Escher-like structures of the poet’s imagination. As Sen observes in ‘Odissi’:
Architectural love and body love are one for me – my love for stone and
love for the female body are one and the same. There are no hierarchies
for me – if temple art is elevated, the dancer’s art is sublime; if idols are
timeless, the dancer is immortal – but she lives,
lives through my passion as long as passion lives in my body...
Sen is interested in the topography and boundaries of canvas. At the heart of this omnibus stands the Blue Nude sequence, a set of poems inspired by modernist painters such as Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne and Chagall. What appears to be at play in many of these poems is Sen’s passionate curiosity for how observation of simple phenomena merges with the imagination to transgress the boundaries of canvas in order to create word paintings:
Your desire – to move, to explore,
to connect as a child –
was unmatched by your filial military alignments.
Instead martial arts
turned to skating
forming beautiful figures,
fingers tracing arcs to make art
on paper made of rice,
calligraphy in wild cursives. ‘Dedication’
Sen possesses in spades the unique poetic ability to create a space on the page where the conventional definitions of genre evaporate. Literature, music, mythology, art, music, cinema and photography all serve as inspirational sources. ‘Bharatanatyam Dancer’, for instance has a line-end rhyme scheme that maps and mirrors the dance step-pattern and beat of this Indian classical dance.
Another one of Sen’s interests is in the exact sciences. In the BodyText section images from physics, biology and chemistry fuse with themes of illness and beauty to render startling yet calibrated metaphors. In the diptych ‘Anish Kapoor’, for instance, Sen describes in filigree detail how the physics of light conspires with sculpture to create its visual effect:
pushed to its limit.
A narrative of possibilities
in metal-glass globes
to deceive horizon’s balance.
Imagine blue –
Deepest blues folding inward –
in womb-like convolutions
where life’s emergence and extinction
are a science and an art,
engineering subtle miniature compositions.
In the second part of the diptych, this “narrative of possibilities” is laid out:
The void, the crack, the flesh
has no place in the oval pavilion –
landscape [a] void –
Cloud gate – kissing bridge –
draws us in to the navel
imagining Naples Subway leading
to similar spaces.
An oval transposed
As Fiona Sampson remarks in her introduction, it is a combination of momentum and Sen’s thinking-in-pictures that keeps the fluency and connectedness of the poems going. Sen turns his images over faster than a formula one racing driver caught in a tight bend yet his deft arrangement of a complex network of images through synaesthetic-like associations keeps his poems from flying off the back seat. It makes Sen’s poetry uniquely vivid and accessible. Elsewhere, for instance, and more quietly,
silence has it’s own / subtle colour. ‘Silence’
Sen’s interest in landscape is particularly evident in the sections Geographies, Sexless like Alphabets and BodyText. Take for example, ‘Ledig Notes’ from Geographies, a beautifully crafted poem where rhythm, the passage of time, loneliness and the surveying of the inner and the outer landscape fall together as steadily as footfall:
In the bright red silos, empty of their corn, rice and art,
I hear New Bamboo notes –
its registers soothe my veins –
melodic strains whisper elegantly like memory,
like fragments from an old letter –
bird sounds, distant illusions of passing traffic and airplanes,
baritone elegies in haiku
All these are my constant friends – people come and go –
Yet there are plenty of chance encounters too, real and bookish: with Joseph Brodsky in The Village; with Tomas Transtomer and Bei Dao in Macedonia; with pilgrims on the way to Mathura; Derek Walcott in Granada and St Lucia; with Irish Murdoch, Rabindranath Tagore, Franz Kafka; and many others.
Sen is interested in translation. As a leading Indian poet with a distinguished international reputation, his work is published across the world. A lesser-known fact about him is that Sen himself is a fine literary translator. The concluding section of Fractals features a selection of his translations of poems from a wide-ranging spectrum of languages and language-families, including Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Macedonian, Danish and Spanish. They are an indication of the wide scope of contemporary poetry movements that Sen draws from, and is a part of:
My wordsmith is a miniature painter, a quiet artist. She is an incessant lover, she is obsessive, she is relentless. ‘Carole’
Which brings me, in closing, to what I believe to be Sen’s overriding interest: connections. Sen’s work displays a deep love of finding and exploring connections. Between art forms, between images from the sciences and poetic expression, and between people and landscape: terrains where boundaries demarcate and separate, but equally offer up new ways to connect. This exploration of connections, by one of India’s leading poets, has resulted in a mature volume of highly inventive poems.
Astrid Alben is a poet, editor and translator. Her collection Ai! Ai! Pianissimo was published by Arc Publications (2011). To hear her poems visit www.astridalben.com. Alben is the artistic director of PARS, www.parsfoundation.com.