Reviews / February 2011 (Issue 13)

Flesh and Blood, Blessing and Curse: Sweta Srivastava Vikram's Because All is Not Lost

by Mary-Jane Newton


Sweta Srivastava Vikram, Because All is Not Lost: Verse on Grief, Modern History Press, 2010. 25 pgs.

Expound on death and one joins a conversation already crowded with the thoughts of others, including some doubtlessly great others—under which condition, one might think, it is difficult to find anything very much new to say, anything that others have not said before, possibly better; indeed, unless you are very good, almost certainly so. True; so why bother?

It is a question we might fairly ask of Sweta Srivastava Vikram's slim volume of Verse on Grief, written, she explains in her preface, in part at least, as a tribute to her grandfather, who died while she "was young, an age where understanding loss/of even milk teeth was inconceivable" ("Lesson learnt") and to her aunt, who died more recently, just one year ago. The answer, one suggests, is that Vikram bothers because, just as death is one of the very few true universals of the human condition, so too is the human impulse to describe the events that impact on our consciousness as we travel towards our rendezvous with that implacable universal—or, as Vikram has it—"This letter has to be written…We are flesh and blood" ("A note to the biggest thief in this world").

Flesh and blood, yes, but of a peculiar kind; there is the blessing and the curse. "We live, as we dream, alone", Joseph Conrad tells us—so too, we might add, we die, grieve and mourn alone. For better or worse, all universals must be experienced individually and uniquely; and, if few of us are adequately gifted or visionary to parse these occasions in anything other than a more or less recapitulatory fashion, taking the time to try represents at least the kind of therapeutics that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggests form a predictable stage of mourning. It is in the spirit of entering into a healthful restorative relationship with an individual, not unthoughtful, voice that one perhaps best engages with Vikram's verse.

This is a collection populated by a recognizable but richly diverse and dramatic cast of family characters: the overbearing mother, the absent father, the alienated child, the nurturing grandmother—most of whom have something in common: they are conscious of being stalked by death, to one degree or another. "You talk to the dead, for hours, but ignore the ones alive," a miscarried fetus chides her distracted mother in "Mommy, we need to have this chat"; "Should I call them/siblings if they were unborn/withering residue in a petri dish?" muses the surviving child of 'Bohemian' parents, reflecting on their previous attempts at ameliorating a shared condition of being "old and alone/like the Saharan desert" ("Look at me"); "You fear my loss—we know/I am a rock sunk to the bottom," reflects the moribund whose "breathing rasps my nerves" and who wonders "when the cleaver will hit" ("Let me go").

This amounts to a preoccupation: a boy dies in a swimming accident at twenty-one; another hangs himself from a maple tree; a woman pedestrian is fatally injured in a traffic accident, the driver a gleeful father-to-be; a grandfather nurses a "hole in his throat, a kaleidoscope of catastrophe" ("Lesson learnt"). So the catalogue lengthens. As Vikram notes "Life and death don't seek permission" ("A different kind of Thanksgiving").

Yes, and it is life's insistence that rescues Because All is Not Lost from a maudlin mood of introspection. For, if the poems cycle through the predictable stages of denial, anger and depression, they engage too not only with acceptance ("We take our pasts wherever we go, cozily/stashed inside our conscience" ["Lesson learnt"]) but with a psychology that is more affirmative and uplifting—a commitment to transcendence, to regeneration. Vikram, in her personal engagement with death's universals, offers her readers a stubborn hope: "There will be silver rain. Frost will flow. The apple tree will bloom/And you, loss, will become insignificant" ("A note to the biggest thief in this world"). Don't grieve too hard, too long, she instructs us in "I cannot emphasize enough": while it is not our fault that—over the course of a life, in an ill-advised moment, in ignorance, at the end of their tether, through necessity or by chance—others take the fateful steps that end in death: "it will be your fault/if you don't claim the dusts of grief, throw them into the oblivion/and move out of this transient world."

We stand advised.

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