When I showed Sandeep Parmar’s poems to a poet friend in the USA recently, he was stunned: “How come I didn’t know this amazing author of three books?” he asked. Indeed. In this time of pandemic when so few books from abroad are available in America, it is easy to miss an important voice. And Parmar’s poetry should not be missed. She is writing powerful work that touches on themes of exile and gender (“The wheat came apart in her hands / her hands came apart in the grass / her body a field / the field her body / innumerable hands would bury / carry the charge”), historical memory and poetic legacies (“I re-read the book of myths / the ash falling from my hair onto its pages”), public silences in a ruthlessly racist age—and also private tendernesses, astonishments.
Faust, her new collection, is splendid, especially in how it echoes the past while building something entirely new. In her sequences, Parmar is supremely skilled at bringing together different things to make a larger whole. Fragmentation is not just a poetic tool for her, but a kind of poetic vision of language itself: “Your heart packs up its mismatched syntax,” she says, it is for her a recording of the body’s impossible and yet inevitable movement through time: “The plough carves fate into flames that split your skull forty-six years.”
Ultimately, from various fragments, a new alignment is made as multiple voices and musical scores come together in a chorus.
Perhaps it is Parmar’s ability to include very different kinds of works in one book—a poetic sequence, a critical essay that ends up being a poem, a personal reflection, and so on—and make them all cohere is what makes Faust such an urgent, memorable performance, a gathering of the tribes, one that dares to travel across genres with such style that the journey itself becomes a voice, a lifegiving litany at that: “by soft coincidence / by a chance crossing / of wild river graces / by seizing threshing seeding / by training the eye on green / green wild soft unfolding.”
Indeed, there is so much music in this book, even if sadness is the music, its syntax leads Parmar on, and at the end of Faust, years later, the child of immigrants, who grew up in one country and lives in another, reckons:
where one alights on what is worth taking—
carried through fire, my ancestors, a reliable syntax—
and what must be left behind
What she decided to keep with her, here in the pages of Faust is gorgeous poetry indeed, and it is a pleasure to have the chance to ask Parmar about her work and her writing process.
ILYA KAMINSKY: Could you speak about your writing process? I would love to hear about your influences, your relationship with the lyric, and the process of putting together this collection.
SANDEEP PARMAR: I like to think that chance and serendipity deserve the most credit for the direction of my work—and, once I settle on a project, I tune my listening to it and set about reading, observing, allowing things to fall into place. This is how I wrote the Faust sequence, which began with the epigraph from my previous book, Eidolon, a quote from Hart Crane on Helen and Faust’s marriage. Although I knew Marlowe’s version I had not read Goethe’s Faust until a few years ago. I gathered several translations of Goethe from the nineteenth century onwards and considered how the legend emerged into the English language, too, wondering at other manifestations but mostly sticking with Goethe’s. For me, his retelling of Faust’s life is the most exciting and expansive—as many will know its composition took decades and so it maps onto a shift in sentiment, thought, belief during Goethe’s lifetime in Europe. But the real reason I picked Goethe up was curiosity and tragedy: the death of a childhood friend by likely suicide. It would appear that she carried a copy of Goethe’s Faust with her in those final moments of her life. I wondered why that might be. And how it might relate to striving, living, making, being—whose end is death.
Half of the book is the Faust sequence and these poems are not unlike the poems in Eidolon or in some parts of my first book, The Marble Orchard. I owe my use of caesurae and lineation and the sequence to my love of H.D. and Mina Loy first and foremost. The rest of the book is made up of essays, possibly lyric essays, and a triptych called “Uncommon Language,” which is a sort of academic essay that gives way to lyric essay that gives way to a poem. These other forms are different ways to think about the same subjects, of course, and I’m interested in their different readerly expectations and the pressures they apply to language and thought and inheritances. I think because so much of the book is about hybridized high yield variety wheat seeds—which are the beginning and end of prosperity for my family, the seed that is seedless, the seed that seeds exiles, etc.—I would say that a hybrid mode is a series of adaptations and responses to stressors and change. It could be a brutal way to think about the survival of the migrant. Of her soul.
You ask about the lyric—and I must confess my unease about the lyric. With an expectation of lyric coherence, everything that is not lyric is fragmentary, multiple. But I am not a believer in coherence, wholeness, the poem as an event or the speaker as a singular subject. As Denise Riley has written, “A liar tries lyric.” In Faust, there are different strands, in the way that I suppose in epics there are different narratives, and they diverge and converge: there are poems about the shadowy sisters at the end of Faust, Part Two who spell his end, about other minor figures; poems about India’s Green Revolution and about farming/climate disaster; and poems about migration and Partition. These strands work together to create a relationship between the failure of technology, the failure to strive, the failure to arrive, many failures.
As for the music: typical though it may sound, the first strong connection to song/music for me was the ghazal, played on a tape deck by my parents on endless car journeys. Precisely because I didn’t understand the words, but the misery and nostalgia translated perfectly, the sound of longing—its repetitions especially—is a kind of inevitability of loss that shreds any hope that the words might carry you from one shore back to another.