Reviewed by Aleah Brown
That Was Now, This Is Then is an eerie yet alluring collection of poems that blurs the fine line between the real and the fictitious. Written by Vijay Seshadri, this short book is partitioned into three sections, each one calling into question our sources of inspiration, the people and the memories that stay with us, and the disconnect that can rather quickly ensue. Though some poems use deceptively simple language while others use words that are beyond the average vernacular of a college student, it is clear that each of the poems are meant to be read aloud. Despite the low register, the poem but rearranges words in a way that forces individuals to read intentionally; a prime example of this can be seen as early as the title. What makes That Was Now, This Is Then an appealing read are the variety of subjects covered throughout the progression of a book—housing a poem for anyone. This includes everything from poems about love and loss, poems that usher in a candid and chaotic feeling, and poems that are nostalgic and nourishing to the reader. By focusing on some of the forgotten details that enhance the creation of poetry, Seshadri transcends his poems beyond words on a page. His meticulous emphasis on punctuation, form, and repetition strongly impacts the way the readers interpret his poetry. Giving the reader another aspect to focus on actually enhances this collection of poems because some of the poetry covers heavier topics such as questions of existence, higher entities, mental health, death, and life’s motley frustrations—giving even the seemingly monotonous aspects of life new meaning. Seshadri gradually tunnels inside the mind of his readers, to the extent that the reader eventually becomes a part of the poetry.
This level of skill makes even more sense once the reader understands this established author has won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and his works have been published numerous times. This comes as no surprise after seeing and feeling the way That Was Now, This Is Then conjures images and emotions—ones that were good and others that were perhaps suppressed. I really appreciated the unconventional nature of Seshadri’s poetry. He was born in India and moved to America at a young age, so seeing how he incorporates other cultures and languages into his poetry is a breath of fresh air. Additionally, I want to emphasize the impact of utilizing different forms of writing. He beautifully and comically blends prose and poetry to tell a story that is all too familiar to both the writer and the reader. Though this book is pretty short, it is contrasted by having several poems that are rather long, intermingled with a few of the shorter ones.
Through his poems Seshadri jogs memories, and his work implores the reader to be introspective by utilizing a confessional approach to poetry writing—which in itself can be very personal. I think this is important to emphasize this because of the structure of the book. It is not a collection of heart break poems, though some poems in the last section talk about relationship tensions. It is not a collection about depression though some of the poems talk about losing touch with reality. It is not a collection about road trips although several of the poems happen while on the go. It is a book that encompasses each and every one of these topics (and more) while not being strictly about any one topic. However, despite all of this, it is still, for the most part, designed to be read in its written order.
For example, in the first section, most of the titles successfully utilize one word to encompass each poem’s meaning. One of my favorite poems in this book is titled “Robocall,” and if this poem was omitted from the book and the reader was forced to tell the author where it should be in the text, it would still clearly fit in the first section. “Robocall” is slightly humorous compared to some of the other poems, and it adds a bit of much appreciated comedic relief to the collection before returning to a sense of existential dread. This is super relatable because, while some people do spiral deeper than others, overall, we all experience at least one moment where we are doing something unrelated to the question of our existence, yet we suddenly begin to question our existence and the purpose thereof. The poems gradually progress to a unique ending, which only begins to make sense if you have followed the flow of the poems that arrive before it. Through works such as “Robocall” and others, Seshadri compels the readers to ask themselves the question of whether we need constant reminders of our existence to know we are alive, or will simply living suffice?