Critical Writing

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection 3 Sections

by Vijay Seshadri (writing)


Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now—
radioactive to the end of time—
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.


Remember that family who lived in a boat
run aground and capsized
by the creamy dunes where the plovers nest?
Sea, sun, storm, and firmament
kept their minds occupied.
David Copperfield came and went,
and their sympathy for him was such
that they pitied him almost as much
as he pitied himself. But their story
is not like the easy one
where you return to me and
lift my scarred eyes to the sun
and stroke my withered hand
and marry me, distorted as I am.
He was destined to dismantle their lives,
David Copperfield, with his
treacherous friend and insipid wives,
his well-thought-out position
on the Corn Laws and the constitution.
They were stillness and
he was all motion.
They lived in a boat upside down on the strand,
but he was of the kind who couldn’t understand
that land was not just land
or ocean ocean.


I’ve been asked to instruct you about the town you’ve gone to,
where I’ve never been.
The cathedral is worth looking at,
but the streets are narrow, uneven, and a little grim.
The river is sluggish in the summer and muddy in the spring.
The cottage industries are obsolete.
The population numbers one.

The population numbers one fugitive
who slips into the shadows and haunts the belfries.
His half-eaten meals are cold on the empty café tables.
His page of unsolved equations is blowing down the cobblestones.
His death was so unjust that he can’t forgive himself.
He waits for his life to catch up to him.

He is you and you and you.
You will look to him for your expiation,
face him in the revolving door, sit with him in the plaza
and soothe his fears and sympathize with his story
and accustom him to the overwhelming sun
until his death becomes your death.
You will restore his confiscated minutes to him one by one.

Script Meeting

So, there’s this guy—what is he, forty, fifty?
He has a condition, a history. Exurban, depressed, but alert,
his senses are sharp.
He hears the little hiccups embedded in the pattern of sound.
Sleep-walking in the woods,
premonitions of cataclysms,
flashbacks to black ops—
all of which you do a nice job of establishing under the opening credits—
dimple, we might say, the emptiness of his days.
And, then, next, cue the family memories:
the accident on I-5,
the eighteen-wheeler, rain, fog, a doe;
the lake, the stalled outboard motor, the rogue wave;
the explosion in the warehouse,
which is very good,
something needs to be blown up right about here.
But we have to know what actually happened sooner
rather than later. Remember,
our reputation as a studio is built not on suspense
but on horror.
We like the genetically engineered second wife and son.
The zombie in the basement, not so much.

Only a little bit less tedious than
his guilt-soaked diary entries in a fine copperplate hand
are the drooling flashes of nobility interspersing his psychotic episodes.
You have his eyeballs
twitching out of their sockets right here,
and how many times have we seen that before, how many times
have we left the multiplex disappointed,
convinced our needs will never be satisfied by
the world’s mimetic gestures?
Don’t leave us feeling like that. Stick with your guy.
He’s his own zombie.
He haunts his own nights.
Not in this life will he tear himself from the bank of the burning river,
hotfooting it on the radiating marl
as his arrow of longing seeks the other shore.
Not in this life, or the next. Show us
what that means to him and what he means to it.
As our master said so long ago
in the London drawing room brilliant with candelabras,
“Here let us linger as the coal-fired Victorian ambience
curses outside.
Never forget that both in art and that which art comprehends
the whom you create is the key,
it is to the whom you create that the what,
after all so trivial, so adventitious, upon examination,
will, or, as likely, will not, happen.
The rest we can manage digitally.”

Vijay Seshadri was born in Bangalore, India, and came to America as a small child. He is the author of three other collections of poems: Wild ­Kingdom, The Long Meadow, and The Disappearances. He has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence since 1998.

© 2013 by Vijay Seshadri. Reprinted from 3 Sections with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis.