Jun. 20, 2009
I have never understood how
the mountains when first seen by hunters
and traders and settlers were covered
with peavines. How could every cove
and clearing, old field, every
opening in the woods and even
understories of deep woods
be laced with vines and blossoms in
June? They say the flowers were so thick
the fumes were smothering. They tell
of shining fogs of bees above
the sprawling mess and every bush
and sapling tangled with tender
curls and tresses. I don't see how
it was possible for wild peas
to take the woods in shade and deep
hollows and spread over cliffs in
hanging gardens and choke out other
flowers. It's hard to believe the creek
banks and high ledges were that bright.
But hardest of all is to see
how such profusion, such overwhelming
lushness and lavish could vanish,
so completely disappear that
you must look through several valleys
to find a sprig or strand of wild
peavine curling on a weedstalk
like some word from a lost language
once flourishing on every tongue.
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Vikram Seth, (books by this author) born in Calcutta, India (1952). Seth grew up in India, went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and moved out to Northern California to study economics in graduate school. He started working on a master's thesis he titled "Seven Chinese Villages: An Economic and Demographic Portrait," but one day got fed up of entering numbers into a computer database. He walked into a bookstore and up to the poetry section. He pulled off the shelf several volumes. One of them was Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, a new translation by Charles Johnston (1977) — a version that preserved Pushkin's Onegin stanza of iambic tetrameter, a type of rhyme scheme. Seth was so impressed and obsessed with the book that he decided to quit working on his master's thesis for a while and write his own novel in verse using that scheme, set in California.
He never finished his graduate school economics project, but he did write that novel in verse, published in 1986 as The Golden Gate.
To make a start more swift than weighty,
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon
A time, say, circa 1980,
There lived a man. His name was John.
Successful in his field though only
Twenty-six, respected, lonely,
One evening as he walked across
Golden Gate Park, the ill-judged toss
Of a red frisbee almost brained him.
He thought, "If I die, who'd be sad?
Who'd weep? Who'd gloat? Who would be glad?
Would anybody?" As it pained him,
He turned from this dispiriting theme
To ruminations less extreme.
Seth's native language is Hindi. He writes in English, and he's fluent in Mandarin and Urdu, Pakistan's national language. He's also studied Welsh, German, and French. He plays the cello and the Indian flute, and he sings German lieder. His other novels are A Suitable Boy (1993) and An Equal Music (1999), and his poetry collections Mappings (1980), The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), and All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990). His most recent book is a work of nonfiction, Two Lives (2005), a love story about his Indian great uncle and German Jewish great aunt.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®