site map
Book Review Matthew Miller

Facts for Visitors
Srikanth Reddy
University of California Press

In his first volume of poetry, Facts for Visitors, Srikanth Reddy accomplishes a goal that is usually only achieved by 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 thrilling debut.

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 the layered 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 and writing 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.