August 2004

Olivia Cronk

poetry

Facts for Visitors by Srikanth Reddy

Srikanth Reddy’s strange little book Facts for Visitors is, indeed, a lovingly handled guide for the lucky visitor to the “here” of the book. And “[h]ere might be enough,” Reddy says. Particularly if one’s “here” includes an old man in a bear suit unscrewing his head as an offertory gesture in the dusk. Or “dragonflies fucking aloft.” Or a lesson in Esperanto. Reddy’s observations are a tweaked, tricked-out version of the present -- a poetry book you almost need 3-D glasses to read.

Facts for Visitors comes out of the New California Poetry series (edited by Robert Haas, Calvin Bedient, and Brenda Hillman). Their official artistic positioning is as follows: “[to] present works that help define the emerging generation of poets -- books consistent with California's commitment to the Black Mountain tradition and reflective of California literary traditions -- cosmopolitan, experimental, open, and broad-ranging in their intellectual makeup.” Harryette Mullen’s 2002 Sleeping with the Dictionary (a National Book Award Finalist) was my first exposure to this press. Their sensibility is as their statement indicates -- experimental and cosmopolitan. Mullen used some word games informed by the French group Oulipo -- just the sort of thing that drives more conservative poets and readers absolutely mad. One poem played with that long and oft-quoted Shakespearean sonnet I won’t bother to cite here. Mullen’s words: “My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon.” I was interested to see if Reddy’s book followed suit. It is my great pleasure to write that Reddy is a gifted and rowdy toy-maker of language and form.

I must admit now that I am a sucker for writers who “borrow” (also more snobbishly known as “reappropriating” or “recontextualizing”) outside language for use in/material for their poems. Reddy calls it “corrupting.” I have to applaud someone who solicits the aid of Saint Augustine and Simone Weil -- both troubled and dark -- in building reflective little pieces. “Once I have begun, the words/ I have said remove themselves from expectation & are now held in/ memory while those yet to be said remain waiting in expectation./ The present is a word for only those words which I am now saying.” (Weil says: “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.”) Reddy takes these opportunities to flex his metaphysical muscles on the page. He’s got a great mind for dealing with heady material, but these are definitely not my favorite parts of the book. These pieces tend toward melodrama. The intensity of his reflective mode is generated, seemingly, by the now passe existential abyss poets are fond of -- and this tinted with a touch of self-pity.

Suffer yourself to know beautiful women.
Suffer yourself to learn many words
for one thing. Suffer yourself

to elope like a river, suffer yourself
to remain. Are there ways to kill time
without hurting eternity?

. . . When she left me, she left me
this note on the table . . .

Rather elegant stuff. Just a bit too heartfelt for my taste. But on to the good stuff.

Where Reddy is truly superior and original is in opening unexpected windows inside of his poems. The aforementioned old man in a bear suit nearly broke my heart in the best way—weirdly and crookedly.

. . . It was ripped,
with russet handfuls of animals’ hair pasted on
& a secret eye slit recessed in its open maw.
The wild old man in the bear suit parted his lips

& out came a snatch of extinct birdsong.
The musicians clapped. He’d learned it as a boy
growing up in the mist-proud interior
where he would call & call until the violet males

in a frenzy swooped into his breathtaking nets.

When I say “windows” I mean this: Reddy can narrate a piece of absolute whimsy and give it tremendous emotional weight through unusual language choices. As a reader, I am given a window through which to view not only Reddy’s world, but my own odd world, the world at large. Reddy’s primary mode of metaphor appears to be one of juxtaposition (my favorite -- and so the thing I am most likely to notice). The way such a mode works is by putting things together to create a setting. Corrupted text, cuttlefish, a bone priest, “my salt girl,” “this ocean my inkpot.” When someone with Reddy’s obviously impressive background and heated imagination starts making up a place for readers to visit (and one can only guess the infinite bits of reality and time that go into the construction), something eerie is bound to appear in those windows. Consider this:

. . . Help me with this buckle, friend --
tonight I’m going in. They’re lighting torches with zippos
& here come the lorries, the bullock carts. Listen.

Do you hear the whips? Broken wheels?
There’s the untouchable girl I’d like to get my paws on,
the one turning handsprings at the head of the line.

She wears an amulet I’ve heard can stop these nosebleeds
once & for all. How her braids spin through my night!

I’d like to point out one more exceptional thing about this book. Rarely can poets engage in social commentary with such timelessness as Srikanth Reddy. His politics, as present on the page, are both delicate and cutting. “So this is the new world -- just like the old, only/ brighter. Word is the governor’s wife scattered loose strife in the barnyard thinking it chicken feed & the wetlands turned purple overnight. We make ready vectors for smallpox & language.”

Facts for Visitors is, and I do cringe as I use this word, a remarkable book of poetry. At its worst moments, it is sentimental. But at its best, it is subtly enchanting and genuinely frank. Reddy’s “here” is most certainly a place I will return to, in part because his observations are those of a skilled and sensitive eye. “Here might be enough. Could not the same be said of elsewhere? Yes, I suppose. But I know precious little of elsewhere.”

Facts for Visitors by Srikanth Reddy
University of California Press
ISBN: 0520240448
80 Pages