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image of book The Long Meadow
Vijay Seshadri
Graywolf Press
72 pages, Cloth $20.00

Reviewed by: Amy Unsworth
Book rating: 7.75 out of 10 stars

View three poems from The Long Meadow here


The Long Meadow by Vijay Seshadri arrived on my desktop highly recom-
mended. A panel comprised of Mary Jo Bang, Thom Gunn, and Campbell McGrath awarded this book the 2003 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Thomas Lux describes the poems as "brilliantly crafted" and "The New Yorker" says they resound "with the high-frequency channels of consciousness and the jazz of spoken language."

Seshadri has an affinity for Latinate vocabulary and the scholarly atmosphere it evokes. In his poems, this intelligent language bumps, in a sometimes discomfiting manner, into everyday vernacular. Occasionally, this combination feels strained, as if the poet was attempting to "talk down" to communicate with a "man-on-the-street" audience. However, when the poet achieves a balance between the Latinate and every day speech, the results can be delightful. His "Aphasia", for instance, celebrates the beauty of complicated words while lamenting the speaker's loss of ability to use them. "Lecture" is an interesting immersion in the specific language of art. "Baby Baby" shows the poet in full control of the language, in turn playful or suggestive and certainly precise. He also makes good use of lists, as in these lines from "Baby Baby":
    I was saying how difficult it is to be
    courteous, loyal, thrifty,
    brave, cheerful, obedient, and wise
    separately, let alone all at once.
These poems are intelligent and well crafted, but at times seem to lack the musicality that I find appealing. While there is no doubt that the poet enjoys language, the poems seems to reflect more a love for the intrinsic meaning of words than regard for the subtlety of sound. A few of the poems tend to wander away from the central concept in a way that distracts. In "Wolf Soup," as the speaker retells the Three Little Pigs story, he explores tangentially the extermination of wolves and refers in passing to "the Last Judgment of the Zoroastrians" in a section that does little to propel the narrative.

He does employ other devices to good effect. In "Visiting Russia" phrasal repetitions, similar to repotia, acts as a framework for the poem. The structure is loosely reminiscent of a pantoum and, like a pantoum, the individual phrases take a slightly different import when repeated. The book also includes several poems that utilize end-rhyme schemes. Worth particular note is "Tree," a poem written in rhyming couplets that employs pacing eloquently suited to the subject.

This is a collection without any discernable cohesive thread. The book contains poems that deal with childhood stories (fables, fairytales, superheroes and cartoon characters) mixed with dramatic monologues, free verse and formal, longer poems and even a 10-page prose selection that I interpret as memoir.

I thoroughly enjoyed the prose piece "The Nature of the Chemical Bond", which is a witty look at a family coping with the intersection of Indian and American lifestyles and the generational gaps caused by the family members' differing responses to these two cultures.

"We were strange. We were doubly strange: strange because Indians are strange even in India, having been exiled from time and history by an overdeveloped, supersaturated civilization, and strange also because no one remotely resembling us had ever before lived where we lived. But I was the only person in my family beset and burdened by this strangeness"
    —from "The Nature of the Chemical Bond"
Utilizing a style that, at times, seems unable to cohere in some poems, his prose allows room for digression; he ties together seemingly disparate threads in such a way that each informs the others. The selection covers diverse subjects such as the American Civil War, the chemical bond of the title, travel, Indian religious festivals, and even a list of Indian groceries, all which come together to make this selection worth slating for re-reading.

Surprisingly, there are a mere 25 poems in this book, which comprise 40 pages. With so few poems included in the book, the failures and successes of individual poems are magnified, perhaps disproportionately, making this selection less appealing than a longer book might have been. Yet, with a suitably impressive vita that includes publications in "The New Yorker", "The Paris Review", "The Best American Poetry 2003", and as recipient of the prestigious James Laughlin Award, Vijay Sheshadri has certainly made his voice heard in the clamorous landscape of American poetry.

View three poems from The Long Meadow here

Poet's Biography:
  Vijay Seshadri is the author of Wild Kingdom. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and in Best American Poetry. He was born in India and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.