Summer Requiem

Summer Requiem

By VIKRAM SETH | | 17 October, 2015
Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth is best known for his 1,300-page tome A Suitable Boy, but his poetic achievements are considerable as well. In the titular poem of his new collection Summer Requiem, he presents us with a world-weary protagonist struggling to reconcile himself with an increasingly unrecognisable world.

Since there is nothing left but this,
I shall watch the snakes as they twist across the plain.
They are independent of me like everything else.
Everyone I seek has a terror of intensity.
The liberated generation lives a restrained youth.
Stone by stone has been built across the mountain,
Yet people have broken their backs quietly gardening.
And whether the sheep escape or the radishes are
Is all the same to me; I must forsake attachment.

The bells are ringing the tale of this city,
Gather and scatter, gather and scatter;
Down South, one sees the landscape flash green and
‘Showing no respect for space whatsoever’;
In the nearby road, one shakes hands grimly.
Another is in ‘a cocoon-like state’ with anxiety,
Has eaten all my apricots, smiling, and now
I use my teeth as a nutcracker –
Only the stones are left, the nuts inside bitter

Broken glass spangles the lawn;
Yesterday was revelry, so today we may not walk
The shell of forgetfulness has broken sharply,
The harmony warped in my hands.
Jaggedness and discontinuity, as if the pebbles
Smoothed by centuries were crushed again.
It is clear why men wish to live where linnets call
Or the green swell is in the havens dumb.
Birds are not desolate, impute how you may.

This garden was built for peace. But every day
Somewhere a lawnmower is grumbling busily,
Building chance events into a philosophy,
‘Gather and scatter, gather and scatter’.
I have so carefully mapped the corners of my mind
That I am forever waking in a lost country.
Everything learnt has been trivial: on the evening road
I fumble to read the signpost with my fingers
Which claw so fiercely they’re no use at all.

Returning to the wastes of expression,
I feel again dry ground, though sterile:
From the shining sea I was thrown back always
Into the harbours of regret.
I regretted my fingernails, my eyes . . .
The town bound knots, then tore the fibres open;
The ink ran out before there were things to say.
When the sky fell upon me in a blue shudder
I was left staring at the horizon.

Facts float like leaves
In my mind’s calm river:
To have substance means to rot.
Cornflower and crocus have withered,
Acroclinium survives; it was always dry.
The cool of the evening brings relief to the sick fever –
Those loved eyes dead to me, those sighs stilled;
Late, late – even the rooks have flown home;
The hour of rust brings everything to a close.

Where the lock of longing was opened
There will be a perpetual wound.
The steel cries out in grief, and there is no assuager;
Those who could have warmed are scattered,
And no one now can see the light in my window.
I stretch out my arms to the disbanded
But the flesh has pined away.
The crimson sun suspended on the dark spire
Can see me wander near the bridge.

Over the fields the pollen like last year,
The whistle of the train like – but, last year,
Last year I did not hear the whistle cry;
The sounds were a backdrop. Now with dead actors,
The canvas is all that remains of the history.
Bound and torn on the returning wheels, like pollen
Gathered and scattered, gathered and scattered,
What further pain can the future promise
To a wandering exile from heart to heart?

Memory is a poison; it has sickened my body.
The cleavage of attachment has frayed my mind.
Rabid and weary, autistic, spasmodic,
Exhaustion makes me dance like a puppet.
New gargoyles are carved, new stones cleaned;
Within ten weeks the old constructs are broken;
Magnolia and tulip rushed in and out of bloom;
Rose and wistaria rush in and out of bloom;
Perpetual replacement is the only song of the world.

All striving lapsed, the reclaiming grass has covered
The brick and stone and earth and the steepest agony –
Invulnerable, cold, immune to pain;
The day sees me dreaming of sensitive hands
And of the dance of warmth across my skin.
The sun bursts through his disguise and sprinkles
Gold on the world; and the hours pass
In silent emblems of despair. Bee-filled hibiscus-filled
Summer songs underline winter.
The common air envelops the old beech.
Swinging from pain, the heart
Revels in its surroundings, and forgets; but they
Stun the air and blur my world, being absent.
In the summer’s trap, one theme alone
Like the thin persistence of the flute
Upon the stifling air, attacks, attacks.
It sings that to be alive is a delicacy,
Clear filigreed glass in a vaulted hall.

The evening sun retreats along the lawn;
The broken diamonds shine on the lawn;
I stand by the city wall and hear the chimes
Collect and shower sound upon the city.
The words were here, engraved in earth and weed,
The words I read too late. I can remember
I stood two years ago, where now I watch
The summer turn to bitterness and fruit
And slow unsheltering of skeletal trees.

Between the chorus of the stars and of the birds
It released itself slowly, it turned away,
And next day under the misty wave
Of need it was unwetted. Thus atrophied
The love for lack of loving, the lovers through fear.
Now only the empty doors mark empty houses;
The rusted tracks lead to dead embankments,
The signals are always down, and whistles
Are forever smearing the air with grief.

The town is indifferent; a scrapyard claw,
It lifts and deposits elsewhere on the earth’s grid.
The opened rose closes, and welcomes night,
And lets the seat of joy become a grave.
Mist lifts the cold plantations of the dew.
I recreate a hunger for the dead eyes
That tuned these discordant wires and made them sing,
Walking tranquillised in the mist, under
The serene and tender evening star.

Still day’s death, across the fields
All swallows have flown.
The summer red sinks into the flowing dark.
From the field’s corner fade the voices of the children.
Dark, as in some peace,
Twists the key of silence.
The beech proclaims power over the grasses.
Sombre thoughts become this hour,
Hour of red copper, rust, dark iron.

This poem from Summer Requiem by Vikram Seth has been reprinted with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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