Facts for Visitors
University of California
In his first volume of poetry, Facts for Visitors,
Srikanth Reddy accomplishes a goal that is usually only achieved
much older writers working at the peak of their powers: he
evokes a world that seems full and coherent in its scope—a
world that is at once the world we recognize and one that,
because fully and truly inhabited by his imagination, is also
completely the author’s own. We recognize the details,
but discover them within startling landscapes and voicings
that shake us from the banalities encrusted around everyday
perceptions. The book’s cosmopolitan vistas vacillate
between global perspectives. Reddy’s gravitational center
is southern India, but the poet’s collecting gaze circles
out to Europe and further west, involving a host of references
from “a bone priest / picking his way through crop rows
/ toward the wreckage of an iron temple,” to “Soviet-bloc
comics,” to a speaker who in complete sincerity regrets
never having “rested on a Sunday / with a beer on the
deck … / listening to Styx.” Balancing the quotidian
with the mystical without recourse to irony is no easy feat,
and that is only one of the delights awaiting readers of this
These poems leave the impression that Reddy
is a kind of collector of the world’s abstract detritus and ephemera, similar
to an artist like Joseph Cornell sifting through the thrift
stores of Queens. Reddy, like Cornell, is an archivist of the
abstract as well as the tangible. He is as much an encyclopedist
as a collagist, defining, often with frightening detachment,
an emotional palette that ranges from epiphany to disembodiment,
tenderness to tragic despair. His writing precise, almost ‘miniaturist,’ in
its reverence for detail; it arrives at a stringent process
of selection that magnifies as it exacts. Thus in the drolly-titled “Jungle
Book,” the speaker describes how “a steady stream
of green ants carried a moth wing / across the footpath. It
passed like a sail or a fin”; or in “Scarecrow
Eclogue” we witness “sickles surfacing / like the
silver backs of dolphins / up above the green crop-rows into
view, then down from view.”
Reddy’s imagistic capabilities are
held in tension with his penchant for linguistic simplicity and
understatement. Even at his most musical and
lyrical, as in the poems in the collection in perfect or near-perfect terza
rima, we find dazzling imagery and fabulist parable articulated with only the
barest linguistic flourish. The effect is one of naturalness and ease, which
in less capable hands might come off as mere flatness, but Reddy mines these
deceptively neutral, tonal surfaces for gems of tragic understatement:
Then the same war by a different name.
Wine splashing in a bucket.
The erection, the era.
Then exit Reason.
Then sadness without reason.
Then the removal of the ceiling by hand.
This, Reddy’s initial poem, “Burial Practice,” enacts
a series of “removals” that strip away the grand
opiates of Western culture—reason, beauty, desire—leaving
a hauntingly hollowed-out voice that recurs and underpins the
book’s various other speaking voices. There are many
speakers in Facts for Visitors, but the effect is
more artful ventriloquism than dramatic monologue. Through
deployment of these multiple voicings, Reddy manifests the
alterities intrinsic to a complex subjectivity, without ever “throwing
his voice” so far away from himself that it ceases to
be his own.
The poet’s elastic formal capabilities further inflect Reddy’s
expressive range. From the stark, sentence-by-sentence lineation of the opening
poem, to the formal rigors of rhyme and meter, to the severe, almost mechanical
pressures of syllabic verse, Reddy masterfully weds form to purpose in a range
that seems limited more by the poet’s will than by his capabilities.
Although consistently adept, Reddy’s numerous prose poems are perhaps
the most striking and original of his formal typology. In declining the prerogatives
of lyric, the poet’s thinking reaches its most supple heights, as he
discovers startling meditative conclusions. Recalling the prose of W. G. Sebald,
the advance of Reddy’s thought is neither linear nor disjunct, but proceeds,
rather, by a kind of calm—sometimes grave—reflective digression.
In the book’s subtle ars poetica, “Corruption,” for example,
the speaker frames the poem (and by implication, the book) as a kind of “psalm,” only
to advance the very un-psalmlike, detached, almost clinical speaking voice
into a meditation on ink (and by implication, writing). “The psalm is
written in India ink,” this voice informs us, wryly acknowledging the
author’s ethnicity and the book’s geographical haunting place,
but rather than dwell directly on these implications, the speaker digresses
into a scientific definition of ink that links ink with life itself: “With
India ink, the color is carbon & the vehicle, water. Life on our planet
is also composed of carbon & water.” Then the thinking digresses
again, into “the history of ink, which is rapidly coming to an end”—a
grim pronouncement, given the context already established—and into another
chapter in the history of ink, in which “the ancient world turns from
the use of India ink to adopt sepia.” Then the speaker pivots once
more, reaching its startling, suggestive, and conceptually-circular conclusion:
Sepia is made from the octopus, the squid & cuttlefish.
Once curious property of the cuttlefish is that, once dead,
its body begins to glow. This mild phosphorescence reaches
its greatest intensity a few days after death, then ebbs
away as the body decays. You can read by this light.
To be able to read by the light of the creature
that produces ink is to suggest a world where the acts of reading
seem intrinsic to the world’s design. Pronounced in the
calmest of tones, it is both to naturalize the poetic enterprise
and to contextualize it as an expression of graceful design.
In the tradition of Emerson, the work can
be read as an autobiography of the spirit, but only obliquely
an autobiography of one’s
life story. Although the speaker in these poems occupies many
subject positions (soft-spoken fabulist, village story teller,
wounded ghost …), and his descriptive mode is ultimately
more fantastic than it is realist, a reader of these poems
will, I believe, come away with the sense of a relatively coherent,
living-and-breathing selfhood authorizing the world evoked.
There is a modesty in Reddy’s restrained eclecticism
of descriptive details, as well as a transparency that perhaps
permits the most suggestive glimpses of the author’s
actual mind at work. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman
shows how the details of his (and our?) world are “furnished
toward the soul.” The strange, eroded landscapes or Reddy’s
poems are likewise furnished.