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Poet in a Bear Suit

Facts for Visitors (University of California Press, 62 pages)
by Srikanth Reddy 

Reviewed by Tom Haushalter

Facts for Visitors, Srikanth Reddy's first collection, thrives in exotic and surreal landscapes: footpaths with "a steady stream of green ants,"
"a crumbling aqueduct," and "the hanging gardens of sleep," to name a few; and Reddy's subject matter, diction and choices of form further the investigation his settings instigate, probing the lines between the known world and the unknown, the inherited, now-deteriorating idiom and a new kind of lyric speech, and formal and free-verse. The book is an exquisite parcel of prose-poems, villanelles and terza rima, all executed with apparent ease, snugly packaged by Reddy's eclectic imagination, apparent in the scene he terrifically details in "Thieves' Market":

     They trade under a crumbling aqueduct, under meteor showers
     the red moon wired to a bitter honeysuckle stem.
     Clematis has shot her root into the masonry.

     They wipe ricepaper flakes & charred moths from benches
     with a dripping rag; the young unpin strings of onions
     hung over their stalls. Good trade, Id say. From my lean-to

     each night I hear their songpipes drifting across the canal.
     Some nights I come closer, steaming in my bear suit.
     I made off with a spyglass once & once with these kites.

The speaker walking through this market calls on all our senses, putting our fingers to "ricepaper flakes," startling our noses with "strings of onions" and our tongues with "bitter honeysuckle stem," lending our ears "songpipes drifting across the canal," and turning our eyes to the speaker "steaming in [his] bear suit." Also in evidence here is Reddy's masterful skill in producing sonically graceful lines by means of undulating rhythms. In loose hexameter, these lines employ caesurae both for pausing and advancing the narrative:
     Tonight theyll have fish. Fish from the rust-colored sea
     hidden deep inside the jungle. Some nights they trade squid

     you can slip inside your pocket. Help me with this buckle, friend
     tonight Im going in. Theyre lighting torches with zippos
     & here come the lorries, the bullock carts. Listen.

But while Reddy pays a great deal of attention to sound, he doesnt skimp on breathtaking images. Most memorable among them is that bear suit, which makes its way also into the poem immediately following "Thieves' Market" ("Inner Life") which begins:

     The bear stopped dancing & unscrewed his head.
     He held it upside-down in the dusk.

This man in a bear suit encompasses all the tensions that define the speaker throughout the book as a person on the threshold between a masked identity and an exposed inner life, a self that stands between his own stunning significance and his heartbreaking insignificance. This fully fleshed persona is the kind that most poets under 40 could only hope to have created.

Reddy makes extensive use of form, and most often manages to have it appear completely unforced. In "Third Circle," for example, the terza rima is almost transparent:

     Along with the bitter, burnt onions,
     the glazed livers of cattle, chattel
     of whats past, we ruminated the dawn

     on that slope, blown wort rattling
     its seed under barrelsome bellies
     big with the promise of capital

     for Fall. Dapple drops to her knees
     for the very first time & lows,
     blinks & thinks moo, its blurry,

     the open, with its one-armed tree
     waving welcome to the sensorium,
     trunk sunk like a bolt in jade meadow.

While I'm delighted to see Reddy try his hand at a villanelle or two, partially resuscitating a form that plenty of poets seem all too eager to do in by beating it over the head, these are far from his most accomplished pieces. When Reddy falls more on the formless side, elegantly hewing blocks of prose-poems, his language moves more effortlessly, and his ideas are more solid. Two prose-poems titled "Corruption" and "Corruption (II)," appearing at opposite ends of the book, function as a sort of ars poetica and a discourse on how history alters the landscape of language. In the former, he describes how:
     In the history of ink, which is rapidly coming to an end, the ancient world
     turns from the use of India ink to adopt sepia. Sepia is made from
           octopus, the
     squid & cuttlefish. One curious property of the cuttlefish is that, once
          dead, its
     body begins to glow. This mild phosphorescence reaches its greatest
     a few days after death, then ebbs away as the body decays. You can
          read by
     this light.

In addition to the restrained soundplay, what gives these lines their form and weight is Reddy's subtle procession of logic. Its a lot harder than it looks to describe so smoothly how India ink leads to sepia leads to octopus leads to cuttlefish and so on, which ends with a light to read bya gradual swelling of facts for us visitors that causes the poem itself to glow.

Although a generally enchanting read, the full radiance of Facts for Visitors is in one way a little dimmed by its own density, that is, its attempt to serve as a project. To connect some or all of one's poems along a unifying theme must be what publishers have come to expect in a young poets work--a sort of narrative string on the bow of poetry's second-fiddle to popular fiction. This is especially noticeable in Reddy's sequence of Circle poems, which riff on Dante's infernal landscape. The attempt to pattern the poems along this landscape is certainly a grand and worthy attempt, but they feel more stuffed into this supposed motif than augmented by it. The poems individually are mostly good, so to link them so explicitly to a common theme is to siphon away some of the potential pleasure in reading each.

"Ninth Circle," for example, another triumph in terza rima, uses some images of an underworld--"a chapel of sand giving onto a landscape of ash" the speaker is clearly journeying through and inspecting, stating: "We took samples. The captain's boy groaned at the winch / as another black canister rose from the river." This poem, in fact, is a series in itself, divided into five sections, each of which is independently compelling, but the poem's structure as a whole is undermined by its strained connective tissue. Furthermore, Reddy could have either added or subtracted a Circle poem or two without positively or adversely affecting the sequence, or he could have renamed poems such as "Inner Life" or "Loose Strife with Apiary" (another fantastic poem) in order to fit the bill. Dante's subtitling influence on this book feels a bit like an afterthought.

Even though Facts for Visitors may take itself a tad too seriously, like a mountain range folded into a slender instruction manual, it ultimately provides a remarkable world to be explored. Reddy is a time-traveler and visionary, archaeologist and scientist, conservationist and inventor. His poems enthuse all the senses and negotiate any number of impasses between form and formlessness, inner and outer selves, old and new language, modulating their frequencies with near-perfect pitch.

Tom Haushalter hails from Ohio, was schooled at Wittenberg University, and has since moved to New York City in pursuit of poetry and posterity.


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