Life in Verse | Book Review — Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation by Sudeep Sen

by Jeremy


A file photo of rescue work underway at Tapovan in Chamoli after a glacier broke off, causing massive flooding in Uttarakhand in February this year (Express photo)

By Suvanshkriti Singh

For most of us, the last year and a quarter has been a cruel and unusual obstacle race. Time warped, fearful days sank into hideous nights. With tragedy hurtling after crisis, there has scarcely been a moment to survey the shapes into which our scars have sculpted us.

It is precisely these imprints that Sudeep Sen sets out to delineate in his multi-genre collection Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation. Here, then, is a record of the cataclysms through which we have lived, loved and lost, as much an exercise in catharsis as it is in memorialising.

Although they are organised into discrete sections in the book, the pandemic, in Sen’s paradigm, is only a symptom of the larger climate crisis. The language of his verses seamlessly transforms the “asthmatic sounds” of “lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air into the “wheeze whistles” of viral pneumonia. Similar, too, he claims, is the emotional and visceral experience of the environmental and health crises:

At nearly 50°C, you do not need a
pandemic to remind you of human
agony and grief — you inhabit one

The entanglement deepens. Sounds and images become whole phenomena of climatic violence replicated in the microcosm of errant physiology. In Implosion, ribcages struggle to contain cyclonic storms; in Icicles, the extremes of weather are reproduced in human anatomy as “bones that are parched in heat, turn to/skeletal icicles”; summer heat competes for devastating potential with an internal burning in Fever Pitch.

Sen’s insistence on the close linkage between the pandemic and the climate crisis serves to highlight the precarity of the environmental conditions that sustain life. The vocabulary of danger proliferates the collection, with solitary clouds “wafting perilously”, and “tree leaf-ridges struggl[ing] to supply life”. You could, perhaps, argue about the strategic value of employing the language of existential threat to altering our collective climate consciousness, but the deep emotionality underlying Sen’s statement of the fact of impending doom compels empathy. There are the familiar suspects — despair, resignation, warning, opprobrium — as the poet speaks of floods, droughts, and pestilence of the future. However, there is also nostalgic love — for “[t]he lighthouse/ our beacon/ an adventure island”, the rituals of spring, and an ode-like attention to mundane detail that would make Rilke proud.

In style and form, the collection accommodates a delightful range. The visual orientation of the conceptually spacious, short lines of Amaltas imitate the tree’s supple fall in shape even as the verses capture the terrible, beautiful, yellow heat of a Delhi summer. In Shower, Wake, the lines stretch horizontally, the words falling in sheets of prose poetry, “with…the full fury of an unstoppered monsoon”. If Indian Skies is a cinquain, Paper T[r]ails and Disembodied 2: Les Voyageurs are among the most explicitly exquisitely ekphrastic. Most of Sen’s poems are short, sharp, and determined, but the incisiveness of his Corona Haiku is lethal. The 20 haiku that constitute the cluster are among the most politically responsive of verses, taking on the Indian state’s contemptuous response to the plight of migrant labourers, its failure in preparing appropriate medical infrastructure, and the appalling flippancy of the likes of Donald Trump.

What unites these varying verses is their imagistic quality. His ability to weave sound into sight, create colour from smell is one of Sen’s most admirable skills, second only to his ability to tailor words into camera-sharp pictures. Listen to the Stars transforms the night sky into “[a]n aural orchestra…echoing anti-gravity static, /space-dust murmurations, galactic-sighs”.

Anthropocene is not without its share of trite images and theses, but even these are delivered with exceptional skill. What should be unimaginable becomes, in Sen’s hand, visible in high-definition: “On an empty chair, sits a bodyless form — legs/ crossed, no spine, a jacket hung on the chair’s/ frame”. Or, sample the swooping gaze that gives us this description of Varanasi’s ghats:

Presiding priests, feed ritual ghee
to the burning wood-and-dead —
the flames forming huge flares,
fragmented waves of golden-amber spark,
electrifying helical fire-flurries —

In addition to this poetic variety, Sen gives us diaristic literary criticism, flash fiction, several photographs, and a poetic travelogue. The photographs, particularly, are a fascinating complement to Sen’s many ekphrastic poems in the collection. Taken over the lockdown period at different times of the day from the same spot, and captioned by his own lyrics, the greys, blues, pinks, and oranges, and yellows of the snapshots seem to hold life itself within them. This easy, border-free access even as the vantage point and the subject are dominated by fertile, cherished solitude.

Sen confesses to finding the idea of self-isolation amusing. He even chastises us, in Quarantine, to appreciate the slowdown that it offers. On this point, however, he seems conflicted, having already shown awareness of the mental health epidemic that followed the imposition of lockdowns. But, in Poetics of Solitude, Songs of Silence, the philosophic musings on aloneness seem to neglect entirely the great human instinct for sociality.

Sen appears somewhat blind, also, to his upper-class, urban privilege. Much of the collection’s titular consolation comes from art, some more from travel. But, it is only a small minority to whom the art he talks of is accessible. The internationalism works in Sen’s favour where it allows him to cross literal and metaphorical borders, underscoring the cultural imprints of the human race. However, the lack of an acknowledgement of the luxuriousness of travel, the longing for it, made more intense by its unaffordability — the presence of a void where nuanced emotions should and could be — significantly lessens the enjoyment of undeniable artistry.

For all its flaws, however, Anthropocene makes an urgent and beautiful argument, one that cannot be emphasised often enough. It is a book for the times, if not fully for the soul.

Suvanshkriti Singh is a freelancer

Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation
Sudeep Sen
Pippa Rann Books & Media/Penguin Random House
Pp 176, Rs 599

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