Strokes of Solace is a remarkable collection of eighty-five concise and dense poems that involve the reader in a language space that challenges certainties and suggests simultaneous multi-layered thinking. The voice is strong and poetry is the protagonist, a medium Sethi employs to explore the essence of humanity as well as his own life experiences. The aphoristic style that he sometimes uses is poetic and challenging and reveals a skilful and innovative use of the form, a style that is personal and unique:
Happiness has hierarchies
death is democratic.
Don’t love too much
Surfeit never satisfies,
it enlarges the exactness. (‘Distich’)
Sethi conveys what he witnesses through complex metaphors and sometimes unusual language. Words such as zetetic, inveigle, epistaxis, omniety and many others used throughout the collection might surprise the reader and prompt a Google search; they may also intentionally confuse the reader, suggesting a different understanding and a flexible approach. The significance of words shifts, dissipates and digresses; the poems create a dissemination of meaning that recalls Derrida’s ideas in which meaning is not at the centre and every reading of a text allows alternative implications:
As inanition takes over
I withdraw into words.
They inveigle me
with their richness
and resolve. (‘Ana’)
Vocabulary as you and I
understand it, dissipates. (‘Subtext’)
The context is therefore open and the significance is polysemic, changeable and in transformation. According to Derrida, dissemination ‘has the power […] to condense, while unwinding their web’. There is a free play of meanings in which the central authoritative source is lost and new alternative meanings are potentially acquired. This is what happens in Sethi’s poetry in a subtle, deft way; the search for meaning is relentless and yet unsettling.
In this context, the poet takes some ‘solace’, or respite, from the emotional hardships of life in his language practices. The authenticity of communication is hard to attain; words conceal and explain at the same time in an ambiguous mode that might heal wounds or leave them open:
You let wounds stir-fry in your inner wok.
(‘In the Neighbourhood’)
[…] Words let
up when wounds weep, hanging like
tousled passages of a soiled text. (‘The Nut Graph’)
Sethi’s attitude seems to be neutral rather than judgemental; he shows facts, expressing pieces of wisdom without making final statements. His words are always open to further explorations and wider views. His poems are widely published in renowned magazines and posted daily on Instagram and Twitter. Furthermore, his seven collections testify to his popularity, scholarly expertise and skilfulness in the use of semantic and syntactic structures. This collection has a particular focus on language, a language that does not allow labelling or ideologies to take root. His lines require that attention is given to every word, sound and even syllable to extract the sense and the pleasure of his verses.
Isolation and a sense of solitude create a privileged viewpoint from which Sethi observes and meditates upon the human condition and his own existence. Therefore, universality springs from the personal that questions the self without giving clear answers. Love does not seem to be an option; on the contrary, it is delusional and probably an utter illusion:
of brisk emotions
is this love? (‘Snips’)
A bleak, hopeless perspective seems to doom our existence, ‘a bubble spread / nothingness’, in which ‘promise is like / an earworm’. Humankind therefore faces a constant challenge with language, a negotiation with words that deconstruct meanings and context. At the end of the collection, the poem ‘Nocturne’ summarises and expresses all these concepts in full:
Within an indicium
we have to seek our peace.
If the search
is only for fault lines
will never cease.
We are in an endless search for meaning, essence and existence in which our essence is in our existence, as Jean-Paul Sartre remarks, saying that ‘existence precedes essence’. This existence is uncertain and sometimes dreamlike but is always focused on what it means to be human and how language makes our existence possible.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th February 2023