In his first book, Facts for Visitors, Srikanth Reddy presented us with the image of the poet as a wry if mellifluous tour guide to the overlapping geographies of under- and overdeveloped worlds. In his new book, Voyager, he becomes a reticent and compulsive Virgil, erasing and re-erasing the memoirs of Kurt Waldheim so as to produce a bleak landscape of surpassing moral obtuseness. The title refers to the pair of Voyager space probes launched by NASA in 1977 on a “Grand Tour” of the solar system; they have become, three decades later, the man-made objects that have traveled farthest from the Earth. But it also describes Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations whose voice (recorded on a gold LP attached to the Voyager probes along with whale songs, baby talk, and “Johnny B. Goode”) was intended to serve as the interstellar introduction of our species to whom- or whatever might encounter it, millennia hence. Of course Waldheim’s sublunary voyage is more infamous: before he became, as Reddy drily puts it in Waldheim’s own words, “a spokesman for humanity . . . so to speak, the conscience of mankind,” he served as an intelligence officer for Hitler’s SS. Reddy’s book does not float in the easy irony of that fact but instead takes Waldheim, in all of his mingled mendacity and idealism, to be the representative man of the twentieth century. The Secretary-General becomes “a formal negotiation” whose words will be carried “to a government above.” The book explores the contradiction of Waldheim’s character in three sections or “Books” and three epilogues, in which text from Waldheim’s book In the Eye of the Storm is continually reused and recycled. Book One is presented in a beautifully abstract propositional form while Book Two consists of prose poems in a scholarly voice that could easily double for Reddy’s own. Book Three is the longest and most challenging, written in a three-step line evocative of Dante’s terza rima, depicting Waldheim-Odysseus’s descent into hells of ambiguity, eventually breaking down (or up?) into white space voids evocative of Ronald Johnson’s treatment of Milton (if Johnson had been concerned with intensifying rather than lightening the “darkness visible” of Paradise Lost). The darkly satirical adventures of Waldheim in his diplomatic afterlife (depicted at one point negotiating “between the Democratic Republic / of Union // and the International Committee / of the Non-Aligned Movement / for Foreign Community”) are at one point juxtaposed with the Buddha’s origin story, presented in a form that mixes fable with geopolitics: “On the Indian sub-continent, / a prince was isolated / from all knowledge // that might upset him. Blind where he would be most virtuous, culpable in his evasions of power, Reddy’s Waldheim is one of the most memorable and disturbingly recognizable characters to emerge in recent poetry. The book is most moving in its epilogues, in which the exact same pages of text are presented three times, unaltered save for the words that Reddy has stricken through. Out of Waldheim’s, our, Reddy’s obsessive repetitions, therefore, a political narrative tentatively emerges that echoes Freud’s “Where the id was, the ego shall be”: “Yet I am not without hope,” “citizens,” “I am a,” “believer in,” “silent,” “prayers,” “relinquished.”

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