Thursday, August 18, 2005

On Srikanth Reddy's "Burial Practice"

There are some poems that one wants to avoid. Srikanth Reddy e-mailed me a copy of "Burial Practice," from Facts for Visitors (2004), about a couple months ago, and I must confess that I have been avoiding it. The poem invites avoidance, because it is a highly intellectual, poised, somber piece that meditates on death in an unsentimental way, meaning that it bears a much closer resemblance to an Ingmar Bergman film than "Garfield: The Movie." But maybe if you squint your eyes and pretend that "gravely wounded" Prince Theodore is really Nermal the World's Cutest Kitty Cat...

As the title and first stanza of "Burial Practice" suggest, the piece concerns death, and the rest of the poem takes place after what is at least an initial death. It is not the death of your pet goldfish but an impersonal death. There are no characters with whom we should empathize. There is purposefully no "I" or "you" in the poem, which is a relatively commonplace technique in avant-garde poetry that by itself does not make a poem effective.

I think that the effectiveness of the poem primarily lies in its intriguing phrases, as in the lines, "Then sadness without reason," "Then the removal of the ceiling by hand," "Then the page where the serfs reach the ocean," "Then the page with the curious helmet," and "Interpretation, then harvest," and "Then & only then the violet agenda." The unique use of language, coupled with the poet's strong use of anaphora, is what keeps you reading, and if you don't read a poem for its language, you likely will be turned off by the end of the second stanza. But if you do, then reading this poem can become a hypnotic, almost mystical passage through an odd, inspired, strikingly surreal yet familiar world.

The poem is also wildly ambitious, attempting to cover philosophical, literary, historical, and futuristic terrain with one grand swoop of the pen (or keyboard). To take one example, there are no particular wars mentioned, only "the same war by a different name."An American reader of today would probably, at least subsconsciously, be thinking of the war in Iraq, but that is not what the poet appears to be getting at here. The war in Iraq is too particular, intimate, and human, and the poet is instead aiming to say something profound about the general human condition.

In the sense of not having personal specificity, the poem ironically resembles the "I love you-you love me" poems that some junior high poets scribble in their diaries (and which they should be encouraged to keep on doing despite warnings that that kind of habit won't lead to steady paychecks), except that this poem is what one would call "high art." The abstractness is not an accident but a motif. How can I put this delicately? -- the poet did not write this poem for lemon-flavored dum-dums. You can deduce this fact by observing the references to Prince Theodore and Masha, the line, "Then the page scribbled in dactyls," and most importantly, the overall tone of the poem. This poem is intended for a coterie of relatively educated readers, many of whom might not get it but probably won't publicly admit to not getting it. This poem is not intended for well-oiled hunks and hotties who like to party on a Jamaican beach with Tara Reid. Sorry. I'm not sure who comes out ahead, but I'd rather not be keeping score.

And since this blog is entitled "Asian-American Poetry," I should note that this poem, as has been the case of at least the previous few poems on this blog, is not one that inherently lends itself to identification of the poet as Asian-American. Breaking away from race, ethnicity, and identity (along with breaking away from the "I" and the "you") is part of what makes this poem ambitious. And the poem's ambition manifests itself in a certain level of elegance, style, and grace.

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