Affirmations Amidst Adversity: Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene

‘In this blackness, lives matter‘.

Hope: Light Leaks, p.57

         In a world ravaged by climate disasters, refugee crises, regional conflicts, mass migrations, rise of authoritarian regimes, and a raging (and refusing to recede) pandemic, the role of art is becoming ever-urgent, given that unlike the terse newspaper headline, art has the capacity to lend voice to our anxieties, tragedies, triumphs, and hopes. It also has the power to articulate our fears, map our consolations, and sketch our many tribulations. Sudeep Sen’s latest book, Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation stands as one such work of art and literature, which gives voice to a time when the very foundations of our existence seem shaken up by various challenges and adversities, by positioning itself simultaneously as a secular prayer-book of hope, a live historical document, and a book of poetry/prose/photography.

         Sen is one of the most widely acclaimed and versatile poets in India and the English-speaking world today. As seen in his previous book, Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015, a staggering collection of over three hundred new and selected poems, written over thirty-five years, Sen’s poetic oeuvre is as vast as it is deep, subsuming in its fold elegies, sonnets, free verse, the lyric, haiku, ekphrastic poems [my personal favourite], prose-poems, meditations, and prose. His themes are equally diverse — religion, illness, death, love, sensuality, the body, travel, relationships, politics, geographies —both physical and psychological— and you have a daunting, exciting range one finds here.

         Anthropocene, one could argue, is special in more ways than one. On one hand, it exudes Sen’s signature technical finesse, his acute sense of craft, and his surgical precision with sound, rhythm and line length. On the other, it is profoundly ambitious in its scope and desire to deal with, and address a number of issues/challenges which demand our attention today.

         In this sense, the entire collection becomes, in Aristotelian terms, ‘an active metaphor’— skyscapes, banister-railings, smoke-filled cities, neem leaves — are lent an urgency and empathy that reflect the poet’s deep concern for and connection with his surroundings, both immediate and afar. Thus, one can find these pages throbbing with images of “lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air”  (‘Disembodied’, p.28), “rain where there never was,/ no rain where there was” (‘Global Warming’, p.30), “Italicised epitaphs in multilingual scripts” (‘Obituary 2: Nine Pins’, p.61), and “Neem, once acted as/ a filter for us, / now needs one herself” (‘Pollution,’ p.36). These images, shake us, stun us, and move us.

         The book, divided into nine sections —Prologue, Anthropocene, Pandemic, Contagion, Atmosphere, Holocene, Consolation, Lockdown, and Epilogue — structurally resembles a body’s journey from sickness to health — physically, psychologically and spiritually. It also reads like a manifesto of a poet who is deeply affected by, and vociferously engages with the world outside (and whatever is ailing it) through his art.

         While the overarching themes of the collection are universal, many of the poems seem densely rooted in, and derive their emotional pivot from Sen’s hometown, Delhi. Delhi takes form of a modern-day Wasteland in Sen’s vision, akin to Eliot’s Unreal City, i.e. London. In ‘Asphyxia’ (p.37), Sen asks,

How many masks

do you need to mask the bloated AQI scale?
Callousness breed calluses in our lungs,

pollutants lacerate our larynx, breathlessness
wheeze. This deathly gas chamber…

These lines, urgent in their helpless pathos, straightaway take us into Delhi’s smoggy haze and dense air, wherein wheezy breathlessness, lacerated larynx and calluses in lungs bred by callousness and apathy [presumably of the authorities] are all that is to be had and struggled against. Sen’s word-play, of placing complimenting sounds adjacent to each other (callousness breeding calluses, lacerated larynx; and [wi:] of wheeze, with [b] of breathlessness; emphasis mine), heightens the helplessness embodied in these lines.  

         The summer months of Delhi’s dry heat find articulation in the hopelessness that comes from witnessing “just a solitary cloud wafting perilously…it is too far in the distance for any real hope”  (‘Drought, Cloud’, p.35), or watching our

modest umbrellas fray,
flounder under the sun’s ruthless exposure.
Sky burns, heat spikes — life forms impaled.

‘Afternoon Meltdown’, p.41

         Sen’s poems which respond to ‘climate change’ are some of the most evocative and visceral. In page after page, there is so much heat, so much violence, that there is bound to be a meltdown. In ‘Disembodied’(p.27), dedicated to Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Sen converses with Ghosh, extending Ghosh’s argument, and painting a vast canvas, akin to Picasso’s Guernica, which lays bare, questions, and excoriates, the politics of mindless, soulless progress, and the costs – human, moral and psychological – that it entails. The poem’s universe is one, “where radiation germinates from human follies…where pleasures of sex are merely a sport”; here too “ice-caps are rapidly melting”, and in the future, “maps with empty grids and names of places that might exist”, will be all that’s left, submerged under the unstoppable “glacial slide”. Like Guernica, the poem shocks its reader into awareness, and pushes us to question, and more importantly recalibrate our positions in this great derangement.

         Sen’s pitch-perfect lines are as technically restrained, as they are thematically expansive in the bleakness they embody and invoke. Perhaps, this, and the peculiar strategy— of mixing a documentary’s objectivity, with emotive subjectivities in a cauldron of irony and synecdoche, is what heightens the effect of the poems. For instance, these lines from ‘Newsreel’ (p.66),

2pm Afternoon Bulletin

Trees uprooted, electric poles down, cars
submerged, shanties washed away. In
Kolkata’s College Street, soaked pages
of books float in anguish.

provide a portrait of Kolkata’s famous College Street after it was ravaged by Cyclone Amphan in May 2020. College Street is known for its numerous first and second-hand bookshops, frequented by students, academics and the general public. In these lines, while trees lie uprooted, electric poles are down, and cars lie submerged in the aftermath of the cyclone, the image, “of soaked pages of books floating in anguish”, becomes a subtle, yet, powerful metaphor either of the self-destructive potential of (mindless) knowledge/progress (which has brought about Climate Change), or of the redeeming self-knowledge that comes after having survived (the aftermath of such progress). These soaked pages floating in anguish could be us, grappling with the aftermath of the mess that we have made in the name of progress. It could also serve as a forewarning of what Climate Change is capable of heralding upon our most beautiful possessions, and cities.     

In ‘Endless Rain’ (pp.44-45), everything is wet, and yet, the poet tells us,

Time will gather all rainwater,
harness its overflow, freeze
prism-droplets, so a new rainbow
refracts. But it’s too wet – still

While someday in the future, perhaps, we will be pleasantly taken-in by time’s gathering of rainwater, freezing it in prism-droplets, thereby giving rise to a new rainbow (ergo, the future holding a semblance of hope), it is “too wet – still”. In this context, it will be significant to recall that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its August 2021 report indicated that in the coming decades, impacts of climate change will be ubiquitous in all regions; as an off-shoot of this development, the report further red-flagged the increase of extreme weather events, such as concurrent heat-waves and droughts, and compound flooding (extreme rainfall in combination with storm surges). While the present (and the future) seem bleak, Sen’s lines implore us to believe in a future where a new rainbow refracts.  

         Sen also uses his signature preoccupations with light, colours, sound and silence, to make ‘word-paintings’ which come alive, often to haunt, often to delight. In ‘Amaltas’, (presumably Delhi’s) heat has turned an otherwise beautiful tree into a “burning, / yellow amaltas pyre” (p.39).

         In fact, the section titled, ‘Skyscapes’ has photographs that Sen had taken from his rooftop during the lockdown. Each image, serving as an ekphrastic inspiration, is accompanied by lines from poems in the book, which adds to, and expands the visual emotion of the image. For instance, a picture of a sky flamed with an evening (or morning) Sun, while the silhouette of trees looks-on, is accompanied by

flames forming huge flares,
fragmented waves of golden-amber spark
electrifying helical fire-flurries.

p. 109

         I refer to this book as a historical document because fifteen, twenty years from now, when cultural historians scour libraries to reconstruct the life of ordinary people in Delhi, circa 2020 during the Pandemic Second Wave, this document will serve as a primary source. Having lived through and lost a loved one (my mother-in-law) during the Second Wave of COVID-19 in Delhi, it is easy to discern that the emotional fulcrum of the collection is located within the poems which directly, or indirectly talk about the pandemic.

         Lines such as, “merely nonchalant breathing is a blessing” (‘Asthma’, p.51), and “breathtaking weather surrounds us in these dark times” (‘Speaking in Silence’, p.58), are eternal, heart-breaking ensembles of what Delhi had become, in those terrible months. Here, it will be important to recollect, Sen’s lines from ‘Obituary’ (p.55),

Our lives – micro point-size fonts
on an ever inflating pandemic list –

black specks, fugitively lonely numbers –

wherein he compares human lives (of Delhites, presumably) to ‘micro point-size fonts’ – insignificant, indiscernible black specks, steadily growing in numbers on the list of deceased. Here, the mention of term, ‘lonely’, though not surprising, aptly captures what each and every death would have meant, not only for the ones dying (alone, in the isolation of COVID ICUs), but for the respective families, left alone to grieve and mourn their loss. Furthermore, what is startling is the juxtaposition of ‘lonely’ on the term, ‘fugitive’, which literally makes such a death seem like a (lonely) escape from the acutely hopeless, and distressful Pandemic second wave. The irony of such a predicament cuts through bone. 

         The poems are also receptive to the social and political realities of its time. Sen’s social conscientiousness as an artist is most reflective in his poems that concern or describe migrant workers’ experiences during the pandemic. By end-2020, almost 200 million migrant workers in India had been rendered unemployed, or homeless, or both.

         When Sen writes,

migrants chew dry leaves
off the street — no food, water —  
national disgrace

‘Corona Haiku’, p.66


In thousands, migrant workers march home —
hungry footsteps on empty highways

‘Love in the Time of Corona’, p.52

he has immortalised the suffering of millions of migrant workers who were helplessly left to fend for themselves with imposition of multiple lockdowns. Likewise, his prophesy, that, “tomorrow, we’ll forget the migrant’s faces, their lives balanced on destruction’s edge” (‘May Day’, p.98), comes as much from a space of contemplative intention, as it comes from empathy and the conviction to — to use Stephen Ross’s term —“un-forget”.

         Perhaps, Sen is aware that while poetry cannot provide a tangible, scientific cure, it has the spiritual power to heal (as opposed to cure), console, and serve as an emotional repository of these extraordinary times. Therefore, he leaves us with hope. Hope, in the form of an image of the poet clutching fistfuls of shuili flowers, which leave “patterns on my palms/ inked in floral-blood —/ a chrysalis, a poem” (‘Shuili| Harasingara’, p.140-141)— or in form of a tenderly-etched poem, ‘Aspen’(p.139), perhaps dedicated to his beloved.

         He also leaves us with hope in the form of a young Sufi singer’s song, which is

Spartan, simple, secular,
spiritual — a deep sonar
healing — its soul sombre,
magical, meditative.

‘Consolation’, p.148-149

In these lines, the mention of ‘sonar healing’ evokes a deep, psychological process brought about by a simple, secular art. The repetition of the [s] sound, in the first three lines of the verse, bring to mind a chant or a prayer. He also leaves us with hope, as the speaker in ‘Air: Pankha Pattachitra’ (p.151) is distracted by a modest handmade pankha [hand-fan], and how

its intricate thread-work,
its simple woven stories  
in natural organic dye,

take him back to his childhood days, resplendent with “the spare simplicity / of pure, clean air”.

         Perhaps, these poems tell us that not all is lost, not all man-made things herald destruction. One can still find hope, solace and consolation in song, in handicraft, in love, and in poetry.

         Jane Hirshfeld writes, while discussing Milosz’s poems, “in dark times, separation, isolation, and immobility cannot help. What restores the capacity for humanness is the realignment that comes from finding ourselves simply, decently, moved”.

         Perhaps, as we sit far apart, masked, sanitised, and socially-distanced, poems such as Sen’s tells us that, “in its temporary finery, at least the moment is living” (‘Abandoned Gods’, p.117).

Ankush Banerjee’s debut volume of poetry, An Essence of Eternity was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2016. His poem, ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ won the third prize at the 2019 All India Poetry Competition. His poems appear in Indian Literature, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Eclectica, Cha, Jaggery Lit, Dissonance Magazine and elsewhere. He is currently working on a his second collection of poetry. Banerjee is a serving Naval officer and researcher, currently based at New Delhi.