Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene
By Sudeep Sen
Salt Desert Media Group Ltd.
Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE
Sudeep Sen, the poet, is in his study — where he can usually be found when in Delhi, sequestered, engaged with the world. His companion is the neem tree, light refracting through the pattern of its leaves. The tree, provider of shade and solace, is now under duress itself. The climate, once providing a reliable indicator of the passing seasons (as in ‘Climate Change 1. Yesterday’ (29)) is now registering an unseasonal pattern. Experiences of extremes of heat and cold, sometimes unexpected torrential rain or no rain at all, flood the senses, and from left field, another crisis emerges, attaching itself to this disequilibrium. Contagion threatens everyone, disrupts the political landscape and the wherewithal of the populace; the body isolates, the body succumbs, the poet rallies.
Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene is a stellar example of what poetry can be in a time of crisis. The poet achieves this quality through his control of the essential poetic elements of image, argument and sound, underpinned by a sense of structure seemingly rooted in a consciousness of form and its possibilities. Sen’s awareness of form, the measure of the voice, is tied to a sense of design encompassing his facility with traditional poetic forms and their connectivity to other art forms, such as architecture, photography and classical Indian dance. It can also be seen in the design of the book, including its typography, undertaken by the poet himself. The depth of this attention enables Sen to successfully vary the form of the poems, opening up to the white space of the page to create a sense of variety, a kind of musical progression throughout the book, while the poems themselves resonate with the clarity of a bell. A variety of tone in the book is accentuated by its division into nine sections, including one devoted to a series of Sen’s own photographs, taken from his terrace at the same time of day. Throughout Anthropocene, there is a sense of the writing being done, of the scratch of the pen or pencil upon the page. ‘Fountain Pen’ (149), for example, effects the tactile pleasure of a nib slowly caressing the skin of a page, while what is at stake hovers, enacting crisis and on occasion, hope.
In the Introduction to the collection in Section 1, ‘The Role of the Artist is Not to Look Away’, Sen notes that:
I spend most of my waking hours in the day (and night) in my book-lined study. The panoramic picture window across my desk is the lens through which I view the changing of seasons imprinted on the magnificent wide-topped neem tree. The bough’s intricate armature, the leaves’ serrated floret-pattern, the tree’s broccoli-shaped structure — all provide an exo-skeleton for my canvas — and the constantly-altering skyscape, provide a sideshow cyclorama. (19)
In Section 2, ‘Anthropocene | Climate Change’, Sen acknowledges his debt to Amitav Ghosh, and his work on climate change, particularly in The Great Derangement, in the poem Disembodied. Here, the body registers a vivid exposition of connection and disconnection to the world:
My body carved from the abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
from minaret-shards of an old mosque,
from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
from soil tilled by my ancestors.
My bones don’t fit together correctly as they should —
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
patches and etch-corrects my orientation —
magnetic pulses prove potent.
My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by brown bark of Indian teak.
My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
Echo asthmatic sounds, a new vinyl dub-remix.
while the earth itself buckles under the strain:
Ice-caps are rapidly melting — too fast to arrest the glacial slide.
In the near future — there will be no water left
or too much water that is undrinkable,
excess water that will drown us all.
The declamatory tone here is replaced by a number of short, sharp impressionistic poems in dense couplets, such as ‘Pollution’:
Neem’s serrated leaves
outside my study
wear season’s toxicity
on their exposed skin —
Neem, once acted as
a filter for us,
now needs one herself.
In a small counter-move, in ‘The Third Pole’ (42) a trip to the mountains near to the home in exile of the Dalai Lama presents a sliver of hope, an awareness of possibility:
Dharamshala is a few hours away
on foot, through pine wood paths.
Prayer chants waft. In this thin air
floats an immutable magic — a hope,
perhaps, to arrest the glacial slide.
Section 3, ‘Pandemic’, opens up to a further variety of form, embracing visual poetry, prose poems, the haiku, and even features an imagined play script. It begins with ‘Asthma’ (51), presenting an onomatopoetic exposition of bodily malady: ‘Wheeze whistles — piercing shrill pan-flute notes … My rib-cage tangled in its brutalist architecture’ and progresses to the global, to couched politics, in Anthropocene’s signature poem, riffing off Marquez, ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ (52):
In thousands, migrant workers march home —
hungry footsteps on empty highways
accentuate an irony – ‘social distancing’,
a privilege only powerful can afford.
Toward the end of the ‘Pandemic’ section, ‘Corona Haiku’ (62/63) extends this theme:
Fighter jets shower
flower-petals on the poor —
why not food, money?
migrants chew dry leaves
off the streets — no food, water —
‘Obituary’ (55) sits between images of the widely published pages from The New York Times, with the epigraph ‘They were not simply names on a list. / They were us’. The sense of the global continues in the fine poem dedicated to Fiona Sampson, ‘Speaking in Silence’ (58), at once a celebration of and lament to the absence of friendship:
We speak in poetic phrases, punctuated by dactyls
and trochees, inundating line-breaks with half-rhymes —
this is the only language left, our private renga —
ancient codes dictating our syntax, not our accent.
This sense of connection through the modus operandi of poetry, and through a shared exploration of the natural world suggests a symbiosis of form
It was centuries ago, yet I know this place well —
we have walked together in this slurry and squelch.
In the coppice, I picked a driftwood piece —
sculpt-etched by wind-water — a paleolithic
talisman I left on your rustic kitchen window.
Section 4, ‘Contagion | Corona Red’, consists principally of prose poems, plus a photograph of a still life, fine in composition. This section in the collection is intense, heart-breaking, and resplendent in a plethora of original imagery. A distillation of illness, mortality, hones in on what could be termed the structure of what is illuminated. In ‘Implosion’, the poet, desperately ill, writes:
On my bedside table, even the electric
bulb under the lamp’s hood cannot hold
its wattage steady with all the fluctuations
inside me – mirroring only mildly, the
I need to call an ambulance, but I hesitate.
More eucalyptus steam inhalation, Ventolin
sprays, mixed concoctions of ginger, black
pepper, turmeric and organic honey,
provide only a temporary respite.
In ‘Fever Pitch’, a hospital story is measured in terms of glass, test tubes, thermometers, of assisted breathing:
This is the third thermometer I have
bought in a day, and yet I cannot trust it.
Twice before, the reading shot out beyond
the graduated scale itself, hinting either i
was heated to the point of insanity or it was
a case of the glass’s own neutral impotence.
‘Icarus’ (92) and ‘The Legacy of Bones’ (94) are two of the most spectacular poems in Anthropocene, and both are deserving of a lengthy close reading. ‘The Legacy of Bones’ delves deep into form, into bone and blood, into writing itself, where ‘the singing of the eternal purity of bone music’ seeks to reside; there is a hard-won sense of release, from death and tragedy, a propulsion to universal song, a nod to Apollinaire: “It’s high time the stars were re-lit.”
In a master-stroke of design, and one of the pleasures of reading this book, is coming upon a series of photographs, taken from Sen’s terrace. Section 5, ‘Atmosphere | Skyscrapes’ opens up to an ethereal set of images, tethered to the accompanying snippets of verse from various poems in the collection. Section 6, ‘Holocene | Geographies’ takes on a global reach, reflecting the poet’s cosmopolitan positioning of his poetics. In ‘Driftwood’ (118), Derek Walcott’s home in St Lucia is celebrated, as is visiting friends in Herefordshire, immersed in a different climate, in ‘Witherstone’ (122):
Traversing a four-acre fenced land in borrowed Wellies,
my pugmarks leave a foreign imprint on this soil.
I find among the muddy squelch,
a piece of dead bark.
Haiku is an exceptionally difficult poetic form, and Sen’s Irish-based ‘Undercurrents: 20 Lake Haiku’, are a personal favourite, with precision of language suggesting consciousness’ sheen:
lake’s blue-black ink
runs deep, piercing sinews —
leaving scars, unseen
The sequence suggests what is to come in Section 7. ‘Consolation | Hope’, where images of renewal produce a sense of joy and inner peace. In ‘The Gift of Light’, Sen writes:
The gift of light
is life’s benediction
in these dark times —
no matter what or where,
there is always light.
Forest fires conflagrate,
but cannot raze
the incandescent love
for my beloved
and ‘Corona: Elliptical Light’ celebrates the perfection of form in the neem tree:
Falling on new buds, the ray’s glare
splits open their perfect coronas —
pollen shower-burst, an ochre flare,
In Section 8. ‘Lockdown: Reading | Writing’, Anthropocene returns, after all this, to the act of writing. There is a pen in the hand, a sense of the bloom of writing, in ‘Handwriting’ (155), dedicated to Michael Ondaatje. In fact, inter-textuality is a delicate thread running through the book, with references to Brecht, Celan, Eliot, and others. Photographic images of paper, books, merge into statements on poetics and reading, of being at home in the world, Sen compares his sense of himself to the banyan tree with its ‘tertiary trunks and branches resembling fused stalactites and stalagmites’. (150)
Section 9, ‘Epilogue | Prayer’ concludes the collection with three short poems, ‘Meditation’, ‘Prayer’ and ‘Chant’. Perhaps if Sudeep Sen’s method could be couched in a few words, then these few from ‘Prayer’ (172) could suggest it:
I try to catch
their flight —
their song, their words,
Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge, 2020), a homage to the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.