Sudeep Sen, South African Woodcut
Mario Relich, World Literature Today
Like Vikram Seth, Sudeep Sen has been meteoric in his impact as a young Indian poet writing in English. He has been widely praised by critics, but it is Angus Calder in The Scotsman who has awarded him the following significant accolade: ‘At 29, he is probably as good as Louis MacNeice was at that age, and he often reminds me of "the drunkenness of things being various".’ If Sen is like MacNeice, it is because he displays mastery of English as a poetic language yet without being English, as neither was Irish MacNeice.
But comparisons can be invidious, even insidious. Sen writes in his own, unmistakable voice, where the ‘cosmopolitanism combines with unswervingly Indian loyalties,’ a voice that has made its mark internationally - whether it is New York, London, and Edinburgh, or Europe, South Africa, and India. South African Woodcut, his latest collection, resulted primarily from a recent stay in South Africa. The poems deal with that landscape, each one like a sharply etched woodcut, ranging from a fine tribute to a poet caught ‘under the strong shaft of the Johannesburg sun’ of this politically volcanic city, to a ‘frozen image’ of sacred ibises in Durban’s Botanical Garden. None of his poems is tendentious, but each is tense with quiet intensity. The political is not overtly obvious, but emerges obliquely, as in the following couplet from ‘South African Daguerreotypes’: ‘Afrikaans is as far apart from English, / as Xhosa is to Sotho, and that to Xulu.’ This poem ends philosophically with a startling image: ‘Can one arrest the ancient restlessness of the sea?’ The collection also contains a long poem sequence that originates from a writers’ rural retreat in England. Austere verbal ingenuity is displayed in the two alternating voices that are structured in sparse minimalist lines. Ostensibly, they play with metaphors linking milk and proofreading, but eventually the narrative evokes and suggests the juxtaposition of beauty and horror, real and surreal.
This review relates to the book
South African Woodcut
by Sudeep Sen