Original poem reprinted online here: "Elegy" by Vijay Seshadri
Originally read: October 29, 2013
More information about the Poet: Vijay Seshadri
Outside in, inside out. The poem plays with perspective while maintaining the first person. The first person is important here because this is someone noticing something rather than the scene being described in general.
"I've been asked to instruct you about the town you've gone to, / where I've never been." With these lines, the speaker sets up the premise. Already the introduced dimensions in which the speaker is the "instructor" but hasn't experienced the same thing the other has. It all seems like study and then saying what has been studied to the other.
The cathedral is worth looking at
but the streets are narrow, uneven, and a little grim.
The river is sluggish in the summer and muddy in the spring.
The cottage industries are obsolete.
The population numbers one.
Here are descriptions of the place in which the descriptors get bigger than bigger: cathedral, street, river, cottage industry, but the judgment calls less judgmental: worth, narrow, uneven, little grim, sluggish, muddy, obsolete. In this way, the poem at this moment hinges on going in two different directions at once while still being relevant. There's no time for further details within each line because the last line narrows down the focus to the one which correlates to the "town you've gone to."
"The population numbers one fugitive" And here the other can be seen as one running away to this place and here's the description of the one, "who slips into the shadows and haunts the belfries," something ghost like, a little campy here with "haunts the belfries" but the supernatural is talked about here and then further expanded upon.
His half -eaten meals are cold on the empty cafe tables
His page of unsolved equations is blowing down the cobblestones
His death was so unjust that he can't forgive himself.
He waits for his life to catch up to him.
And just like the first stanza, there is a cumulative effect, but this time of something missing: half-eaten, empty, unsolved, unjust. There's something missing according to the speaker observing this "one" fugitive. What this sets up is a need for either resolution or fulfillment to be addressed in the poem. Not directly mind you, but the accumulation brings a sense of importance to the conceptual.
"He is you and you and you" So this line confirms that the "one" is the same "one" in the beginning of the poem. However, there's more of an accusatory tone with each repetition and each line, "You will look to him for your expiation," looking at the other self to atone -- the one that seeks something as a fugitive (stanza 2) rather than a somewhat tourist (stanza 1).
"face him in the revolving door, sit with him in the plaza / and soothe his fears and sympathize with his story / and accustom him to the overwhelming sun." Here the poem goes personal with the other "one" by being receptive rather than being only observant. The "overwhelming sun" line feels like a regards to the divine, but not a jab. Here this line separates the setting from the interaction.
"until his death becomes your death. / You will restore his confiscated minutes to him one by one." Note that death here isn't absolution, but a goal. The true understanding of "ones" is something more empathetic rather than sympathetic. The last line is pretty heady for me, how does the empathy restore minutes of someone already dead? By keeping the memory alive, maybe.