BY SUDEEP SEN
Book Reviewed by Christopher Barnes
The Body is ‘The Text’
EroText is an ambitious, long sequence in a high modernist style, in the form of micro-fiction or prose-poetry, segments approximating the length of a breath. From the start, we are aware of the process of art as inherent as any other meanings we may glean from the text. It is art that refers to its own making. Popular and high culture made by other artists in music, film, literature and photography seep though some verses to remind us that the world, creation of culture within it, is to be appreciated. Art is energy that has already been spent.
In the first sequence, the persona, ill in a Delhi hospital bed, drifts in and out of consciousness; lucidity is always temporary. The words that Sen has given the persona are in autobiographical style, fiction with self-conscious technical devices shaping the text. This is literature, not life. This is not literature that shouts. It is a type of writing that weaves and diffuses, folding in on its main themes again and again. The writing is delicate and crisp.
The first sequence is about being trapped in a sickbed in one room. However, this does not give the reader the feeling of going ‘deep’ into consciousness, or the persona’s self. The bouncing around of details are necessary escapes from pure nothingness, something to hold onto at the edge of oblivion.
I am surrounded by tropical green neon — multi-sized screens populated by cursors and graphs whose night jive is determined by every move I make — every cough that escapes my parched throat alters their crest and trough.
It is cold here, very cold. I lie reluctantly on this crisp snow-white sheet, laundered impeccably to create a lasting impression as if it were my last day. Starch has its own curious effect, not just on your so-called gait, but also on the sleep-cells.
The colour of this room is blue, endless blue that seems almost black. Against this, the radiated glow of green and its tiny electronic letters and numbers, the nurse-white linen, the stale starch scent — all trying their best to induce a lullaby. However, this languorous soporific lyric is making me feel colder, rather than the warmth it is supposed to inject in me.
We begin with an image of “magnetising dead bones,” within which is the suggestion that they will attract or part. This nicely sets up the way the rest of the sequence flows. Things come together, recede, and come together again in a somewhat Proustian manner. The line ends with —“tropical green neon”. The dangling of the “green”, even though the form is prose-poetry not free verse tricks us into thinking of healthy renewal. After decay, the “neon” undercuts this expectation bringing us into the contemporary unnatural world of the hospital and its monitors. Objects coming in and out of focus are part of the text’s shape.
Emotions evoked beyond the obvious - “Snow-white sheet, laundered impeccably to create a lasting impression” suggest the vortex of time but also subtly hint at guilt; that the sheet will not be impeccable forever. Illness and eroticism play out “as if it were my last day,” opposites that exhaust as their energies insist on attention. Between life and death is sex. The “nurse-white linen tries to induce a lullaby.”
A childhood of Eros’s innocent early days is remembered. The act of writing, it has a counter-effect in “making me feel colder”. The erotic tide flows backwards. The free feelings of childhood have gone. Putting it down on paper sends it away, making it something else altogether.
“A figure enters the room” -the pain-relief drugs fuse reality with dream. He ghosts into a “post-war burial site”, between life and death.
Sen occasionally stumbles with sentences clumped with too many adverbs but every now and again, the odd, visceral simile feels just right as in,
(…) clear as coarse air in a tunnel”.
In Sen’s writing, connections and alienations crop up regularly, “The person in the room can sense the electricity, the invisible photons lighting up this intimately controlled space.” But the flux will change no matter how temporary.
The “mind is buzzing” not in the slang use of the term but quite literally - it is overactive, the only energy that does not diminish. Only the brain has the power to move freely without strain.
Illness and discomfort bring frustration and cynicism - “They say imagination can conquer anything, even the body. It isn’t true”. The body can be an enemy; it “has a hollow feeling running through it as if all the bone shave been stripped out”. Dissolution is a real threat. Identity is in crisis — the skin, which holds the body, cannot be relied upon: “the shape will be retained artificially to deceive the onlooker”.
“There is enough left in my bones that every morning is an undesired struggle”- this brilliantly expresses the contradiction of Eros’ will to engage and the body’s weakness in following through. There is romance towards the illness, and awareness of ego, in its condition as heroically under fire, “there is beauty in that”.
“I write my coded pieces, but no one takes any notice of the hints” is psychologically challenging. The codes may be erotic but their subtlety might prevent them from being understood. This could also refer to the other artworks invoked as influences that give the text depth. The alienated self is shut off from being able to perform for others. This drama, where operatics are silent, only exists in the written text with the body unable to act or move from the bed.
In the first sequence, dreams are not expressed as vivid, for even they can’t be held onto for long - “Barely lit by the colour of molten green.” The mind also dissolves. The concrete world that others inhabit doesn’t impinge much; it is “redundant”. Withdrawal into the hospital room is total but for memory. Memory or dream states regress. “I find myself in a toyshop,” hints at helplessness. Memories or dreams create identity so must be invoked; the alternative is loss of them and the self. The persona abstracts the body to understand it, to know it in its parts. The whole is ungraspable.
The persona insists he has “shyness and honesty,” which the reader might find difficult to believe. There are moments of petulance- “what is the point of constructing the text?” Ego is also a burden. Its demands may cause guilt. “Real lies swim deviously in shallow waters” show he is searching for the truth in a dangerous place, the mind can sink us, and so can the body.
“The poison may finally allow me to see the possible worth of the next twenty hours.” Each day is a different but similar struggle to find something to engage with, against the forces of the illness. This emerges as text. Consciousness floats in and out of reality and the present - “there I travel variously”.
“The mercury in the thermometer rises, gradually and numerically, to a height where human equilibrium can just about balance itself”. Like other scientific lines, this suggests sex but I feel the image is too comic to work with the rest of the sequence. Writing the erotic is always difficult. Only a few do it entirely convincingly as Sen does.
Again, in the first section, we move towards the erotic, in thought, but can’t quite stay with it. Delirium and its fluxes are too ethereal - “these wet dreams are dreams that will have to remain un-soaked”. Erotic language is always stronger when it is hidden beneath an image- “there are electrical impulses that are waiting, poised to spark”. The wait is a long one, the journey tiring. There are phrases and ideas that seem pretentious to my taste - “it is at such interstices that art and passion find their true shape”. Other words are perfect within the context, “marry” in the following lines being one -“alterations that marry physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics”.
At the beginning of the next sequence, entitled “Heather”, there is a marked change in mood. The language loses its paleness becoming altogether more colourful. “There is no moonlight” - is interesting for what it isn’t. “Moonlight” would be a traditional symbol of romance or Eros, but in this text, its lack is what is poignant and unexpected, overturning what might have been a cliché. “You kiss me everywhere,” heralds language that is more direct than in the previous section. Even memories have become brighter, more concrete, “Every grain remembers every wave”. Both memory and nature imprint in a way that is absolute.“The sea is getting restless. But I am dead” - this intrigues me. Time is non-linear. Life contains its own destruction. Sen’s lines destabilise the reader while mythicizing the persona.
The male persona fantasises “about Sappho, Carson, Winterson”. But it is unclear whether he identifies with them or is a voyeur. They too use texts to show a relationship between the act of writing and lovemaking.
Hyper-awareness of touch is well expressed in - “words that paint filigree screens on camisoles that aren’t transparent or opaque, visible only to those who read Braille”. The fusion of the text with the body is complete. The muse is a real lover that feeds the writing.
“Two beautiful female forms. I was taking photographs of …” is fascinating. The attempt to objectify the women fails and the photograph doesn’t develop, coming out white. Both the attempt and its failure unpeople the women of themselves. The mind and its processes are not a given and the camera is an agent of alienation.
The past is an honourable place “full of well-worn elegance”. Time has a dignity; he is able to read on a ‘sari’ its indelible past. The importance of clothes and their details is a theme Sen returns to. Clothes can be used as architecture for experience as well as pointers to memory. The importance of objects like - “a white-cushioned canes of a” brings moments into focus and when they recede makes them reusable symbols of their associations. Time is never lived as expected - “The clock hands appear to move fast or not at all”.
Colours are surprisingly utilised to show changes of mood - “ordinary black linen, a colour I have dreaded facing”. Recurrently, colour or lack of it gives or reduces energy.
I don’t at all hesitate in recommending this book, EroText- the initiative to take on such a challenge should be rewarded. The best pieces are super band the sense of the overall structure of patterns creating shapes is effective and leaves a lasting impression.
I lie next to the sea. It is dead still, except for the invisible rippling soundless undulations the water makes as it breathes. There is no moonlight, but it is not pitch dark.
You kiss me everywhere - everywhere, for hours and hours and hours. My lips are dry, my body salt-encrusted. You have eaten every bit of pleasure, yours and mine. I feel parched, dry, in spite of all the plenitude of water and our sweat.
The sand too is sweating beneath us. Every grain remembers every wave, every caress, leaving behind just salt, a silver layer of salt as a gift - a talisman of love, of their inconsistent meetings.
I feel parched like the sea-salt gauze. My tongue is parched in spite of your lavender saliva, saliva which has changed from that bouquet to the taste of heather, wild weather-ravaged heather.
I look around for light, but I can only see reflection. There is more beauty in the second-hand glaze - the sky’s dark light radiating off your lashes, the water’s blue light hiding in your navel, the beach’s grainy light lying unwiped on your nipples, and the light’s invisible inner light stored in your pupils.
The sea is getting restless. But I am dead still, except for the inaudible swishing that I can hear when you press yourself against my heart.
I need to taste the grainy light that you wrap your skin in, each and every grain that maps the slow deliberate contours of your body.