Should I Read This: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Winner 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

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Austin Duck

As the committees announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this month, we find ourselves once again in that season where, all of a sudden, people read a book of poems. Sure, it’s only one (and usually not the best one of the year), but hey one figures, all these poor suckers are writing these books that maybe five hundred people ever read, and if this one has made it atop this year’s pile of dreams (a la the scene in World War Z) we might as well. Maybe we’ll feel something.

If you’re feeling this way, 3 Sections might not be for you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it—really, it’s astonishing—but, in 3 Sections, Seshadri grapples not with the known, reducing the world to something we can see or hear or think; there are no easy answers or feelings of beauty or satisfaction in these poems. Yes, they’re beautiful, yes, they’re satisfying, but, in some ways, his subject matter is so foreign, so simultaneously abstract and concrete that even when you make it through a poem, or the book, or the book twice, it seems to have been a dream, a dream you didn’t understand, a dream that gestures and satisfies at the very idea that, if you understood something, you’ve dominated, destroyed, and reconstructed it in your own image; that astonishment and beauty and meaning in the world luxuriate all around us inaccessible, and that that is the pleasure, to see and fail to assimilate it, to feel the meaning slip always through your fingers. Like I said, not, conceptually, a very simple book, nor a book in which the author has much chance of succeeding.

I mean, it doesn’t take a philosopher to see the logical problem of making a book in which poem after poem (each, in and of itself, a meaning machine) concludes unable to make meaning, or makes meaning of not being able to make meaning, not being able to know, always just outside of the world taking place before the mind. Add to that the collection itself, 3 Sections, is not actually delineated into three sections and you wind up less with what you might consider classically as a book of poems (title, body, meaning / title, body, meaning), or a logical piece of work, precisely because both logic and “classical definitions” are ways of understanding the world by categorization and rules, both of which assume that we truly know the world. Rather Seshadri crafts a story about failed attempts, of trying and failing to break into what we think of as the “sensible” world in which we know how to make meaning, precisely because we allow our minds to to categorize and sort things we don’t understand.

What we get instead is a book unable to separate itself out, or, in case some of you think about books as put together by an external author, unable to be separated. While it parses like this—a bunch of short poems, then a long prose piece about commercial salmon fishing, and then a really long philosophical poem—and while each of the pieces does have its own title, its own thud of meaning, we have a singular mind working its way through a singular problem so that the “sections” seem formal rather than thematic, new approaches to the same problem, new strategies that land in different, though (in many ways) equivalent valences of failure of access to the world.

I know that I’ve talked about this book very abstractly, and for that, I apologize. Here’s an alternative way to consider this book and its project: Imagine you’re looking at a very beautiful woman (or man) by whom, inexplicably, you’re filled with an enormous amount of feeling and affection. At this point, if you’re in any way conscious of what it means to fantasize about someone, you acknowledge that there are two paths you can take: 1) you can project your dream of them, all of your ideas and fantasies about who they are and what their life means onto them, or 2) you can accept the frustrating, terrifying reality that they are only, exclusively themselves, and that, no matter what happens, or how much you pay attention, all you will ever come to is that what they are, what they think and feel and what makes them beautiful is entirely inaccessible to you, and that that singularity, that inaccessibility, that inability to ever know something well enough to separate out its parts and to theorize it, is exactly what makes it beautiful and astonishing and worth looking at and trying towards again and again.

In many ways, this is a book of prayers, a book of trances, a book in which, ultimately, things can only be seen exactly and perfectly and separately as they are. It’s not a pleasant book because the mind in the world is not pleasant; the mind wants to steal from the world, to make comfort and simple beauty, and to ask god what’s the meaning of life and to get a satisfactory, comprehensible answer, and the world and god refuse. Seshadri’s 3 Sections is a story of how to live in that refusal.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

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