Friday, March 5, 2010

Srikanth Reddy and the "It" in Po-it-try.

Yes, that's the title.

Here's a poem I read this morning and thought I could write about. It is from Srikanth Reddy's first book, Facts for Visitors.

"Evening with Stars"

It was light. Whoever it was
who left it under the gumtree last night
forgot to close the gate. This morning when I stepped
out on the breezeway I had to shoo off a she-pig
& three rag-pickers before I could tell
what it was they were carting away
through the leaves. I had the houseboy bear it
into the sunroom. After attending to my & my employer's
business, I returned sometime after midnight
to examine it. A pair of monkeys
were hoisting it over the threshold
toward a courtyard of fireflies. When I shook my fist
they dropped it & I settled down at last.
It was gilt. It was evening with stars.
Where a latch should have been, a latch
was painted on. Over the lid, a procession.
Chariot. Splintered tree. Chariot. Chariot.
In the lamplight the hollows
of the footsoldiers' eyes were guttering.
I'd say they looked happy.
Tired & happy. Their soil-flecked boots
sank down to the buckle in weeds
& lacquered nettles, six men to a burden.
It was light. I could see
in the middle distance a bone priest
picking his way through crop rows
toward the wreckage of an iron temple.
Scarlet clouds moving out. Jasper clouds moving in.
Here, on a cistern, a woman
keeps nursing her infant.
She is unwell.
The workmanship is astonishing.
You can pick out ever lesion on her breast.

Mostly, I am alone.

Twice in the poem the clause "it was light," is written. When we set down to read the poem, we imagine that "it was light" refers to the day - just becoming light, or near dawn. However, the second sentence throws us off. There is a neutral subject and object in the second sentence "whoever it was / who left it under the gumtree . . ." The vagueness of these objects is not without import in the poem itself. But more on that below.

By the third line we have had to adjust to a world that is perpetually without specifics. Was the "it" in "it was light" refer to the the "it" - the object in the second line? Does it really matter? Not so much. What is this object that seems to be making a fuss, not just for the speaker, but for the monkeys and rag-pickers and a pig? When the speaker finally sets down to study it, we learn "it was gilt. It was evening with stars," a beautiful line, one that could be an adjectival phrase or be the power of the object itself. While maintaining the neutral second we are torn from a reality within the poem: we may assume "it" is a box, but "it" could be anything and therefore "it" takes on the reality of the universe ("evening with stars").

Note how we have had until the speaker sits down with the poem no real focused understanding of the situation. The speaker is somebody's employee, but what he does, we're not sure. The monkeys are absurd and the image of them carrying the object out is startling only in its absurdity. Then, however, we have a scene melt before us, giving way to a scene painted on the whole of the box. It's beauty is what is painted on, not what is inside (the "it was light" may also refer to the box being empty - after all, there are no latches, only painted on latches).

What is even more startling, is that the scene painted on the box moves. The images are given movement through the participle phrases (the soldiers eyes' "guttering," the priest "picking his way," the woman "nursing") and a sort of moral judgment being made on the part of the speaker that we as readers trust.

This is ekphrasis, the dramatic description of a visual work. Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and the chapter in The Iliad of Achilles' shield are famous for their ekphrasis (the description in Homer is amazing). It is when the piece of art (that is still) is given dramatic life (and even consequence) as it is being described through words. What I enjoy most about "Evening with Stars" is how dull and two dimensional the world is before the speaker enters into the artwork surrounding this box and escapes into it. There is a history at work in the art that the speaker sees for himself and draws consequences about. There is also a history in the speaker's real world, but one he is less willing to see (to callously call most things with the neutral second is to not pay attention to life), and one renewed by this mystical workmanship.

It is easy to find a copy of Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and here is a link to the part of chapter XVIII of the Iliad that refers to the making of Achilles' shield.

Enjoy it! It's beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe I don't need a poetry class, maybe I just need to regularly read your blog. P.L.