Vijay Seshadri on "The Descent of Man"
The Descent of Man
My failure to evolve has been causing me a lot of grief lately.
I can't walk on my knuckles through the acres of shattered glass in the streets.
I get lost in the arcades. My feet stink at the soirees.
The hills have been bulldozed from whence cameth my help.
The halfway houses where I met my kind dreaming of flickering lights in the woods
are shuttered I don't know why.
"Try," say the good people who bring me my food,
"to make your secret anguish your secret weapon.
Otherwise, your immortality will be
an exhibit in a vitrine at the local museum, a picture in a book."
But I can't get the hang of it. The heavy instructions fall from my hands.
It takes so long for the human to become a human!
He affrights civilizations with his cry. At his approach,
the mountains retreat. A great wind crashes the garden party.
Manipulate singly neither his consummation nor his despair
but the two together like curettes
and peel back the pitch-black integuments
to discover the penciled-in figure on the painted-over mural of time,
sitting on the sketch of a boulder below
his aching sunrise, his moody, disappointed sunset.
On "The Descent of Man
I wrote "The Descent of Man" after a long layoff from writing—or, to be more accurate, from trying to write, which is largely what I do. Poems written after a long layoff in my case usually turn out baroque, or more baroque than ones that are the result of working habitually. Not writing can be writing, too, but if it isn't the internal pressure that builds up in a real layoff, the fancy ideas that come from reading too much, and the overreaching resulting from all the built-up energies spilling over can create artifacts that are supersaturated, conceptually overdetermined. Thinking too much about writing while not doing it for many months has consequences, and those consequences have to be purged somehow. I've heard baseball pitchers and quarterbacks say that their arms are too strong after a layoff, that they throw too hard, that they have to acquire a little exhaustion before they can regain their steadiness.
So "The Descent of Man" is conscious of itself, baroque, deliberately unbalanced. It's embellished (Biblical pastiche; elaborate syntax in places). It's at least as much about its own technique and manner as it is about its subject. The rhetorical exaggerations and ironies were as important to me as what they were exaggerating, because of the scope they gave to the impulse to decorate and satirize. Also, I'd been reading a lot of classical Urdu poetry before I wrote the poem, and had even translated a few ghazals. Something of the self-dramatizing flavor of that tradition informs the beginning and end of the poem—and actually takes the poem over at the line "It takes so long for the human to become a human," which is my mistranslation of a famous line by the greatest classical Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. The turn that follows that line, though, is where the conceptually overdetermined quality of the poem really makes itself apparent. Before I had a single idea or image, I had decided to write a poem (why I can't remember) in which I changed the grammatical person midstream (in this case from first to third). The poem is built to make that shift possible. I was walking around my apartment saying, "Refraction, refraction"—the change in the direction of a light wave caused by a change in the medium through which the wave passes—and dazzled by the image of a glass rod half in and half out of a clear beaker of water, which looked, because of the phenomenon of refraction, broken in two at the point at which it left one medium and entered the other.