Srikanth Reddy’s Readings in World Literature is a strange and delightful cycle of prose poetry, or perhaps it’s poetic essays: I’m not really the expert on that.
Reddy, in his acknowledgements, calls Readings “this poem,” so I think I’ll say that it is one poem, or one poem cycle, broken into thirty-three parts. Each is numbered. Some are a full page in length; others are only a few lines. The epigraph should have been my tip-off for the subject matter—”Time is a great teacher, they say. The pity of it is, she kills all her pupils.—Berlioz, Letters“—and, if that hadn’t done it, then the quote from Assurbanipal in #1 (I made him more dead than he was before) definitely should have done it.
I, of course, didn’t fully register until a few more poems in that we were going to visit the land of the dead while simultaneously hanging out on the University of Chicago campus, and by then I was enchanted and well caught up in the stories being told. (I seem to have a knack for this: I fell hard for Pedro Páramo as I was realizing that, gosh, there was a bit of a dance of death thing going on.) I can’t really wait to read it again, now that I’ve figured out where we’re going: I think the second read will be even richer.
Much as he suggests in the title, Reddy builds upon world literature—and world heritage—as he meditates upon the nature and space of death. But we aren’t just taking a trip to the land of the dead, whether that’s Xibalba or Dante’s Inferno or any other. Instead, our unnamed narrator has to balance Death’s presence in his own life with his teaching load, which includes a few survey courses that can be taken as part of a general humanities requirement. I laughed outright at a few of those poems. (5 reads almost like a standard course description—until you get down to those requirements.)
But in the midst of snarky academic humor and smartass undergrad dialog, there is pathos, and poignancy, and the fear and tenderness that comes of walking alongside Death. Reddy perhaps sets the stage most clearly of all in the final lines of 1: “…it is not customarily permitted to visit the underworld. No, the underworld visits you.”
Reddy might not be able to take us to the underworld, since that has to come to us, but he brings us along on a meditation on death, life, and mortality. The students who lend us their eighteen-year-old surety might not have a clue about what’s happening, but our narrator isn’t exactly sure either, allowing us to explore more fully the nebulous guilt and morality at play throughout Readings.
Readings in World Literature feels to me like a cycle of prose poetry, a story of mortality and morality, a meditation on life and death and humanity interspersed with moments of sadness and tenderness and outright hilarity. (Here, Sun Tzu is a notable defender of humanities professors whose words our narrator uses as index-card pep talks before every term.) It’s funny. It’s charming. It’s magical and fantastical and rooted in our own concerns about mortality (and, hell, morality too, and the ever-nagging question of guilt). And I really can’t wait to read it again, and find even more.