Review: Anthropocene: Climate, Change, Contagion, Consolation by Sudeep Sen
Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene, in the tradition of 18th century British poet, Alexander Pope, critiques man’s hierarchy in the grand scheme of the universe. However, unlike Pope, Sen is neither didactic nor satiric. Sen’s philosophy seems to be inspired by the intricate relationship between purusha and prakriti. His works — in this multi-genre book comprising poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and photography — are lyrical, meditative, poignantly sharp testimonies to the capitalist ruin of the planet. A well-known contemporary Indian poet, Sen enunciates with profundity, the mass disappearance of biological and cultural diversity both at micro and macro levels.
The idea of the ‘Anthropocene’ is fraught with definitional inadequacies in the fields of anthropology, the human sciences and environmental humanities. Critics like Donna Harraway, Jason Moore, Kim Stanley Robinson and Alf Horborg argue over terms like ‘Capitaloscene,’ ‘World Ecology,’ ‘The Dithering’ to articulate the present climate crises. In the given context, it is apt that a poet speaks. However, such a position specifically highlights the title of the book, its strengths and drawbacks. One, the book is open to theoretical scrutiny which could overpower its literary appeal. On the other, the title is offered a reliable voice. The time is ripe for a poet’s knowledge as an artist, a citizen to illumine those who choose to remain ignorant of the earth’s imminent danger. In the Yeatsian sense, only poets can bring back the ‘falcon’ to the ‘falconer’. This is the uniqueness of Sen’s Anthropocene — it delivers urgent messages on climate consciousness through images, metaphors, rhythms and narratives, instead of jargon. Like all good poetry, it is the marriage of truth and beauty. As Jonathan Safran Foer cogently puts it, ‘History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history.’
The hardbound edition’s white and sandalwood-coloured jacket positions the reader in a state of tabula rasa. One must focus on the ‘three peepal leaves’ miming the structure of the third eye and the quiet wisdom of the Buddha — the subtle paths of mukti, gyana and bodh. However, do not mistake Sen as a poet confined to monkish isolation. He opens the collection with a romantic association with Bangla, written in Bengali, a Tagorean hunger for rain:“Ami grisha aakaashe’r dikhe dekhi — / dhulo dhaka megh gulo jeno gorome kaapche — / kothai jal o bristhi? / Megh gulo doorer mirage’r moton. / bristhi’r aasha — otai ek shotti.” (Bharateo Grisha). In his own translation, it reads: “I stare at summer’s steaming sky — / layered thick in dust, clouds / quake in heat — bereft of moisture, rain. / Cloudbanks appear distant, mirage-like. / Yearning for rain — that is the only truth.” (Indian Summer).
This return to the native tongue is not just an overture to a collected poetic narrative but the confession of a highly private premise. The poet pines for communication perhaps from a sweet beloved, just like the lovesick Yaksa in Kalidasa’s Meghadutam. The verse in Bangla is a hidden door to the poet’s micro-cosmos, to ‘Anthropo-sen’— a poet’s prophecy on mankind’s prayer for hope amid melting ice-caps, vanishing river beds, bushfires and the slow collapse of virus-afflicted bodies.
A Rilke-like uncertainty looms over the book. Perhaps it explains the inter-textual, fluid flow of the poems. The first poem, i.e. [That Is] highlights the lost value of listening: “because you hear — / the sound / of a lone rustling leaf — / you hear the sea.”
In Climate Change, the poet weaves the household habit of “shelling freshly roasted peanuts” during the fading winter of Delhi with how people have normalised rising temperatures. Several poems place the common lives of street mongrels and urban birds in the larger context of natural calamities. Sen consciously chooses clarity for his art in a book meant for all kinds of readers.
This collection, more than any other, shows Sen in his subjective avatar. He is keen to establish a bond with his readers and together respond to the emotional nucleus of the collection: “In the company of myself, I reflect. It is time to call family, a neighbour, a neglected friend — time to read, rejuvenate, revive — rekindle love’s labour lost — time to savour life’s little joys.” (Quarantine).
The poet’s dissent against apathetic regimes is expressed in the Corona Haiku Series: “fighter jets shower / flower-petals on the poor — / why not food, money?” (Rose Petals).
The sections, Contagion, Atmosphere, Holocene, Consolation, Lockdown are fraught with the poet’s emotional repair, alongside physical ailments and the contradictory yearnings for isolation and companionship. The book offers what statistics cannot — courage, consolation and hope. The poet’s sincere plea for prayer and awareness is the way out of the Anthropocene into a more salubrious world: “Inhale, exhale — eyes / Shut. Sound of collective breath — / invisible song.”
Deftly tackling urgent issues of climate change and the pandemic by subtly juxtaposing the sciences and the arts, Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene is one of the most important books of 2021.
Jhilam Chattaraj is an academic, poet and author.