Sudeep Sen, Mount Vesuvius in Eight Frames
Joseph John, World Literature Today
Mount Vesuvius in Eight Frames is a slim volume containing eight poems by Sudeep Sen and eight etchings by Peter Standen. The poems are meditations on the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, which destroyed the Italian city of Pompeii, and the etchings provide pictorial representations of the love-death nexus on which these meditations focus. Together the poems and the etchings evoke an ironic vision of the perennial ‘macabreness’ of the Vesuvian catastrophe. Between them they conjure up an intriguing ‘idyll’ of unlamented mortality, with neither solemnity nor sentimentality attending on the singular phenomenon of death dreaming of life.
The Vesuvian eruption’s cruel ‘legacy,’ buried by time and unearthed by archeology centuries later, receives the poet’s statistical attention: ‘The dead: All neatly packed / in small square groups, and / in even multiples of eight, / nailed, framed, and glass-encased.’ However, the poems focus mainly (and lyrically) on a young couple ‘starting their life, their dream home... / The sight chosen, the view determined - / Mount Vesuvius - this centrepiece,’ in utter unawareness of the impending doom. In terms that evoke the mysterium fascinans as well as the mysterium tremendum of the ominous mountain, the couple address themselves to the ‘Lava God’ and pray, ‘Bless us, / our love, and our curse,’ hardly knowing that they will soon be ‘skeletal / remains transfixed in the passion of / the very first night.’ The love-death embrace of the couple instances the fate of countless others ‘locked in fear / and in death, around each other.’ In a Frostian equation of ‘fire and ice,’ the flames become ‘frozen / like tense icicles’ as the couple seek asylum from the ‘black rain’ within ‘the synovial spaces / of their intertwined limbs.’
The interanimating reciprocity that subsists between the poems and their illustrations is best exemplified on page 30, where the etching, depicting a skeletal embrace, constitutes a visual ‘diagram’ of the verbal ‘picture,’ presented on page 31, of a ‘couple mummified as they last slept, / left unmoved, untouched, unaged’ in cadaverous emulation of Keats’s ‘unravished bride.’ Death’s ‘invisible presence in the Vesuvian valley’ is encoded in a sonorous refrain that seems to echo down to us across the centuries. That Sen has been able to distill such light, limpid lyrics from the gruesome stuff of a volcanic holocaust is a measure of his creativity as a poet. The dry voice of the speaker of these lyrics, dry as the centuries that obscured the Pompeian disaster, is characterized by an Audenesque matter-of-factness that, in effect, accentuates the understated horror.
This review relates to the book
Mount Vesuvius in Eight Frames
by Sudeep Sen