Srikanth Reddy's Voyager

I read Srikanth Reddy's Voyager (University of California Press, 2011) with the assumption that its three parts followed the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise), largely because of the book's epigraph from Purgatorio 12.67: Morti li morti e i vivi parean vivi. The full translation is something like "the dead seemed dead and the living seemed alive," but with Reddy's strike-throughs, the epigraph takes on a different meaning along the lines of "the dead seemed alive."



While I think that there is something deliberately resonant with the Divine Comedy in the 3-part structure of this collection, I discovered upon reaching the end of the book in the Acknowledgements section that Reddy had provided a link to some commentary on the process of constructing the book. The link offers a few documents, one which explains the general process and a few examples of how Reddy went about writing each book. In essence, Reddy took Kurt Waldheim's memoir In the Eye of the Storm as a source text, and through a process of selectively erasing words (or perhaps selectively extracting words), he created the lines and narratives of each section in his book. I really like that Reddy has made some of this material about his process available online. The photocopied source text with Reddy's marks (strikeout lines through the text, boxes around particular words, marginal notes) are fascinating to consider. The material reminds me of a really wonderful book, Black Lightning: Poetry-in-Progress (Asian American Writers' Workshop, 1998), edited by Eileen Tabios, which offers discussions with a few Asian American poets about the process of their writing and includes manuscript facsimiles to show how the poets revise and rework their lines through multiple drafts.

Reddy's note about his source text in Waldeheim's memoir helps to clarify his project quite a bit. While I was reading the books, I wondered who the lyrical speaker was and wondered how to place the references to Europe, America, and Asia. To be frank, Book One read quite a bit like a series on non sequitur statements, and it wasn't until Book Two that I felt I could grasp a kind of narrative arc. The second book is certainly the most narratively focused of the three. The poems in the second book are all brief prose poems, more like paragraphs in a story. What is fascinating is how coherent these pages are in creating stories, characters, and statements about the world.
This man, legend states, likely knew of the mass execution of groups of people as a capable officer required to collect and analyze data, prepare reports, conduct investigations, and otherwise facilitate operational projects in the last world war. At the time, however, he did not express concern at this action. To a degree this is understandable. His voice failed. Now, after years have passed, our little record is carrying his words as Secretary General of the United Nations to a government above.
Moreover, I think in Book Two, there begin to be some repeated phrases from the first book that suggest a kind of overlapping text. Certainly by Book Three, that repetition is more evident in places. One prose poem from Book Two, for instance, reappears verbatim albeit with different spacing in the line-broken poetic structure of Book Three.

Perhaps the first point at which I began to suspect that Reddy was playing with text was in the middle of Book Two when he begins to make use of strike-throughs (I hadn't really paid attention to the strike-throughs in the epigraph the first time):
To cross scenes out of a text would not be to reject the whole text. Rather, to cross out a figure such as to carry out programmes they approve the various regional economic commissions and inter governmental bodies sometimes increases the implications. I had hoped to voice my unhappiness in the world thus. More and more, it seems to me the role of the Secretary General in this book is that of an alter ego. In a nightmare, Under Secretaries General, Assistant Secretaries General, and other officials of rank reported directly to me. I was given an office and a globe. But I wondered why the forest just beyond the window seemed so cold when it was, to be sure, rapidly burning.
What is so amazing about Reddy's selective excerpting of Waldheim's memoir is that he transforms the lyric I into a different persona, someone who critiques and reflects on the troubled world of international diplomacy. (A blurb by Marjorie Perloff on the back of the book identifies Waldheim as a Secretary General of the United Nations who was eventually discovered to have been a Nazi SS officer.)

I'm much more interested in Voyager now that I have read more about Reddy's process in constructing the books. In projects like these, I often wonder if it makes more sense to foreground the structure rather than to bury it in the acknowledgements at the back. I suppose I could've read the blurbs on the back first, too, which pointed out Reddy's process of selectively erasing words from In the Eye of the Storm three times to form the text of the three books. I'll also have to read Dante again to think more about Reddy's construction of this journey in Voyager and the overarching structure of commentary on politics and world leaders.
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