There are books of poems that take place entirely in the poet’s mind, and there are others that set themselves in kitchens, countrysides, office cubicles, or Antarctica. Jay Deshpande’s debut collection, Love the Stranger (YesYes Books, 2015), carries the reader out and back over and over again: to the subway, to a bar, to the mall, to a wood or field just outside the city apartment where so many of the other poems unfold. It reflects the rhythms of the poet’s life, but the cadences of being on the move and searching are universal enough that it’s hard, while reading, not to feel a little weary, to long for rest, and the chance to be “absolutely unrelenting about just one thing,” as Desphande writes in “Chet Baker.” But this world is full of distractions, he reminds us. Being about one thing, whatever it might be, is impossible, when everything is leaping out at you and demanding your attention, from the water tower on the building across the street to the dead.
Echoing T.S. Eliot’s famous refusal — I will not be Prince Hamlet — in “Elegy for a Year,” Deshpande prefers to “reach for my ghosts like Horatio.” And like Horatio, the ghosts refuse to say much to him in return. And yet, having seen and spoken, Horatio believes:
Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
“Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (translated, a Defense of One’s Life) opens the collection and offers an addition of its own: not only are the eyes needed to believe, but the hands as well. Touch, and the search for it, will haunt this and many of the poems that follow:
I am always running ahead of my needing,
looking out from a higher window of the body
to see the edges of things, the weight
of a pound of grapes in my hand…
The “tactile rush of consolation” doesn’t limit itself to the romantic, though sex — in ways many readers may find uncomfortably familiar — bids more than once to provide that consolation the speaker of these poems keeps looking for.
But I suspect I’m not doing justice to the singularity of Deshpande’s work by discussing it in this vein. In “The Lovers,” for example, “a familiar story” of strangers meeting in a bar turns into a meditation on the Magritte that shares the poem’s title. After the encounter, the poem’s speaker broods on the loss that follows. “I live quietly now, / by myself,” he says, “mildly hallucinating.” That multiple readings of “hallucinating” — the phantasmagoria of regret-tinged memories, or literally seeing things that aren’t there — work in this context is a testament to the truth of the poem. And this encapsulates the feeling a reader is left with after finishing many of the poems in Love the Stranger; the speaker continually betrays a feeling of separateness and self-regarding. He stands beside himself as strange things fall in among the detritus of his life, and as he, himself, becomes strange.
The speaker of these poems is often burdened: he often goes out looking for something, but finds himself at a loss for what to do with what he finds. This constant pursuit, this reaching, threads its way throughout the book. Long walks are taken, objects are sought. Enduring a “parade of self and task,” he’s always being handed objects to hold: in the first of a series of poems all titled “Chet Baker,” a dream-or-nightmare figure called the cloud-piercer hands him a “small porcelain castle,” or something like it, “an organ of sex without gender,” it’s called, or “the teeth of my enemy.” In the last poem of the section, he’s still stuck with something he can’t put down: “it is a gift that I can’t look at / it is a gift that I must carry.”
The idea of hindrance comes to the fore in “Gruen Transfer,” named for the Austrian architect Victor Gruen, whose conception of a new “third space” for midcentury suburban Americans brought us the shopping mall. The erotic quest for touch is replaced, or at least interrupted, by the possibility of a more direct mode of acquisition. “[W]hat is it / we think we touch?” writes Deshpande. As he explores the exchange “of cash for object” in first-person —most of the book is in first-person — he highlights both his own vulnerability in the face of Gruen’s machinations as well as his willing participation.
In the hands of another poet, and not necessarily for the worse, poems of this kind might strike the reader as tragic or enraged, but Desphande is too gentle — or perhaps too weary — for that. Instead, these pinpricks of daily life are addressed with the stately acceptance that follows a heartsick frustration. There’s something almost stoic in his declaratives that speaks for many of us who identify with “the overfull / and foolishly employed” that appear in “Distraction.” “I have purpose / until I don’t,” he writes, “or used to, and this seems / a reasonable way to pass through the crowd / of an afternoon.” Reasonableness, and the idea of seeming reasonable, crop up again and again throughout this book, and Deshpande doesn’t moralize, trusting the reader to notice which things are and which things seem, and to draw our own conclusions. “We keep from each other // just so much as begs belief,” he writes in the wonderfully titled “Dream of Disconsolate Strangers.” There’s never an accusation; just an observation.
In the vein of “Distraction” and its companion pieces, Love the Stranger is for the most part firmly urban. Deshpande moves from skylines and water towers to views from apartments. Every now and then, a field appears. But despite his aversion to the sweeping vistas of the British Romantics, there is something of an impulse towards the emotion recollected in tranquility — the difference is that Deshpande never fully settles into that tranquility. These are powerful feelings, to be sure: loss, regret, a grimly startling willingness to consider his own moral and physical frailty. But he writes with an intelligence too great to be impressed with itself and unable to rest easy as it examines both what’s been experienced and the process of the examination itself. Call it powerful emotions recollected in anxiety. An epistemology of failure. “I am never / interior but a shaken thing,” he writes in “To Body What’s Around Me.” Like small apologies, poem titles such as “Porn,” or “Keeping Up” suggest the hindrances to their own writing. Perhaps the finest of these is “Bewilderment,” where the titular mental state is captured in the image of a herd of black horses neck-deep in a frozen lake, all of them “turned to face the shore.”
In this way, Love the Stranger acknowledges the process of its own writing. Rather than walling out or pretending that these forces of distraction do not exist, Deshpande turns to them as source material. “A Kardashian is not to be trifled with,” he admonishes in “Keeping Up.” There is something to learn from these women, who stand in collectively for problems of isolation, of living with constant noise, surveillance, and intimacy. Contained in each, there is:
… something hard
and hewn at the core, something
bought and sold in the exchanges
of a difficult spiritual economy.
Does it behoove us to develop such a core ourselves? Deshpande is silent on the subject, though the final image of the poem, where a Kardashian whispers about the empire of culture into the camera in her lover’s mouth, is not not chilling.
For a book that is in many ways about love and its relationship to sex, these topics seem to give Deshpande the most trouble, and he’s almost scrupulous in his acknowledgment of this within the poems. Women drift luminously in and out, dressing and undressing, holding and hurting or being hurt. Of one who appears in the Chet Baker suite, we learn only that her name “sounds like the rose of a woman’s hair / coming dangerously undone.” In “On the Meaning of Love,” where the speaker, in an image reminiscent of an infamous scene in the Almodóvar film Talk to Her, steps inside the mouth of his beloved:
… I pressed my back against her palate
and dug my feet in deep and strong. It felt so right I’ve stayed
ever since. I know she likes it: now and then I ask her
if she wants to say something. And when I think she does,
I dance inside her mouth to make the words.
This brings us to a question that Deshpande asks us and himself again and again. How do we pursue any kind of love — familial, platonic, sexual, romantic — without a degree of selfishness? There is so often, in the thing that grows and flexes into love, a moment of grasping: I want. And with all that wanting, how do we keep from hurting others? The “line between tenderness and violence,” as Deshpande described in an interview at The Rumpus, is trod and troubled repeatedly, with no clear takeaway in sight but ambiguity. Some readers may find this frustrating. With questions of this magnitude, though, there’s not always much to be done but to grow in an awareness of our capacity to cause harm, and this seems to be central to Deshpande’s project.
Another ambiguity that’s difficult to overlook is that of the title, Love the Stranger. Grammatically, it’s permissible to read it either as an injunction or an inverted description. Is the reader being commanded to love that which (or one who) is more strange, or a stranger? Or is it a statement of indication: of a love which is strange in and of itself? One answer is hinted at, I think, in “Eclogue with Animus”: “the body / cries out when it learns it is here for love, / and is the stranger for this calling.”
Love the Stranger runs close to 100 pages, a little on the long side for a collection of contemporary poetry, though other recent releases (Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Josh Bell’s Alamo Theory, Brenda Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth, and Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, to name just a few) push or break the hundred mark as well. In these other works, the effect of that length ranges from the invocation of an oppressive dictionary in Sharif’s Look to the sense that Bell’s fluorescent anxieties really do just need that much space. Reading Love the Stranger is more immediate, with an intimacy and honesty that’s deeply disquieting — not because Deshpande has betrayed too much, but because you recognize the accusations he levels against himself in you, feeding the urgency of the experience as you read. It’s like showing up at a small party, lights low, and staying until it’s just you and the host, tired and a little drunk, swaying into each other. The two of you talk as night turns into morning and you watch “the sun come up drained of blood.”
So yet more questions arise — did you overstay your welcome, should you just go home, are they going to kiss you or not? And as a reader, it’s hard to escape unease as you make your way through these poems, lovely as they are. And they are beautiful. While Love the Stranger is not a showy book, the poems and the intelligence of their speaker are captivating: they’re the work of a mind that has examined itself, thought it over, and found the words to disclose what was found. It doesn’t shout because it doesn’t need to: “…we will never have enough / of being wrong about the other, not once.” Often, Deshpande speaks briefly — many poems are sonnets or sonnet-like — and mostly in declaratives. “You know how it goes,” begins “Reports of the Dream You’re Not Likely to Recover From.” And so we do, though we’d never thought to put it quite that way before.
Lurking somewhere, in the white space, is a loss that surpasses the particular. And the particulars abound, of course: the loss of a lover; of youth; of loved ones to illness, estrangement, and death. But there’s something less clearly elucidated that feels more universal — a loss that, when it’s mentioned, often hovers around or proceeds from the daily parade of tiny fractures that come with having a body. In an eerie moment in “Letter from the Church of the Broken Body,” “blue spirits” rise from people like wood smoke, from “every gap in the flesh / that would let them.”
It is this estrangement from our physical selves, our simultaneous helplessness before the body and our frustrated desire to dwell more thoroughly within it that is emblematic of the ways we fall short in our lives. An approach, not even to perfection, but to simple peace or improvement that can only ever be tangential. If there is a chicken-and-egg question of whether desire or emptiness comes first, Deshpande, I think, comes down squarely on the side of a fundamental lack: a something that’s been missing for so long it may as well have been always. This, I think, is the loss that lives in the aching bones of these poems. The people in “Letter” cannot see the blue spirits themselves, and that is the underpinned tragedy of Love the Stranger: that whatever is lost is ineffable, and we’re left to replace it with — what? With any number of things, which Deshpande has taken the time to unflinchingly enumerate. But we stop short of bleakness as the collection enters its final stretch.
“In truth I do not suffer,” begins the penultimate poem in the collection. As if to reassure us after all we’ve just read.
In truth I do not suffer,
making shapes with the tongue
of my mind…
There is a confidence in these lines, a surety without regret. “I believe in my structure, its yes,” he writes, “I have seen what I came here to see.” Seen, yes. Held, or possessed? If we are to believe the preceding poems, then no — it is not for the speaker of these poems, nor for Horatio or any of us to be so fortunate. The issue of a lack or disconnect at the heart of Love the Stranger doesn’t go away, but Deshpande suggests that we can, and we must, keep on living anyway, and brightly.
Anatomy of a Poem
Love the Stranger is divided into quarters, each section with its own title: Down, Entering the Castle, Inner Ear, and A Gold Beast Come to Rest Behind Me. The third of these consists of 12 poems, each 12 lines or less, each bearing the title “Chet Baker.” Deshpande generously agreed to discuss, over the course of several email exchanges, the process and logic of assembling this section of the book, as well as the poems themselves.
Though I had initially read the poems as abbreviated sonnets — and Deshpande confirmed his fondness for a sonnet-like length and shape in his writing — he explained that the inspiration for the length was not the sonnet explicitly, but a desire for formal constraint and a structure of “Establishment-Development-Turn.” There is less the logical leap of a volta within each Chet Baker poem than a direct, almost brutal, denial or refusal.
All throughout Inner Ear, there’s the negated or obstructed possibility of speech, forcing the “I” to listen — or at least fall silent — rather than monologue about itself. To the extent Inner Ear is a sort of rebuke to the internal monologue, it is filled with nonverbal sounds and frustrated speech-acts: “You make shapes with your mouth,” but the words don’t come, like a bad dream where no matter how hard you run, your pace slows to a crawl. And, indeed, the logic of dreams permeates these poems. One minute, you are brought to a room and a woman is holding you; the next, she’s vanished and something, perhaps, is on fire.
While Deshpande mentioned Seamus Heaney’s Squarings, written in sections of 12, 12-line poems as a piece of work he’s especially fond of, the number of poems in Inner Ear — also 12 — was a less deliberate choice. It was the result instead of winnowing down to what Deshpande calls “the most essential statements” from 40 or 50, most of which were written very quickly after the first one, and the idea to title them all “Chet Baker,” took shape. When asked more about the process of selection, Deshpande explained he was looking for “a certain silence, and a certain deferral…they dictated the form, they dictated structure. They probably brought me to the particular images and scenes of the poems, which then declared themselves as necessary.”
And the ideas of negation that thread their way through the Inner Ear section are very much visible here — “one house on the block is touched / by none of the others,” or “you sit there unable to speak.” The entire section itself provides, as Deshpande puts it, a sort of “balance and response” to the rest of the collection, wherein the lyric I is speaking actively and at length. The Chet Baker poems, meanwhile, often have a more explicitly narrative quality, and the speaker, an “I” or a “you-that’s-really-an-I” finds himself unable to say what it is he wishes to say, or stating and restating himself but unable to get it quite right, as in the litany that closes, “I know one house on the block is touched.” It’s a tricky question for a writer to approach: how do you evoke silence or the act of listening through a medium that’s fundamentally verbal?
The answer, for Deshpande, is the technique of deferral, which each of these poems takes in a different direction. The first uses restating and replacement, while in the second, something that has been introduced as part of the narrative (“the woman you used to love”) is taken away (“When she is finished you can’t see her”). The poems themselves are, as Deshpande calls them, “almost curt utterances,” and all of this — the brevity of the poems, the denial, the way in which they “do some violence to [their] expectations” — is all a way of pushing back against the idea of Chet Baker, or at least the popular conceptions and associations surrounding Baker’s vocal work while allowing him to inform the poems “as tacitly as possible.”
That quiet overlooking — Chet Baker as a sort of patron saint rather than a direct inspiration or tone of voice — is something Deshpande has talked about at length in other interviews. The satiny, almost androgynous and shamelessly beautiful quality of Baker’s voice along with his pretty-boy image — “central,” as Deshpande has pointed out in an interview with the Rumpus, “to a whitewashed jazz landscape,” — has overshadowed the cacophony of his personal life, including a heroin addiction. There is something of that contradiction in these two small poems, 11 and nine lines respectively, as they offer music, a seduction, a dreaminess, and then take it away. The repetition and reiteration of certain sounds, as in “Unlettered, forever” is echoed in the subsequent two lines with the “terrible sound the bone makes / when it first kisses air.” In the slow, contained space of these poems, filled with short, contained utterances that rarely go on for more than a line or two, there’s not a lot of noise. But the silence that wends its way in among these poems is terrible, in its own way.
I know one house on the block is touched
by none of the others.
Unlettered, forever strikes me
as the terrible sound the bone makes
when it first kisses air.
All these years raving:
I was a bicycle on fire in a field
marked out for ghosts.
I was the light on that field, growing mild.
Or the thing some people call success
when there’s blood in their mouths.
The subway brings you to a room
where you are alone with the woman you used to love.
As you sit there unable to speak
she takes you in her arms
and softly lists all the things that have hurt you
in the last three years.
She strokes your hair and she lists them out in order.
When she is finished you can’t see her.
It is completely dark and nothing touches you.
You make shapes with your mouth.
You start to smell a history of smoke.