AMIT
MAJMUDAR

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator. His latest books include Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the poetry collection What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). The former first Poet Laureate of Ohio, he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and three children.

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KAF

Thirty years into the Arabic alphabet

the lexicographer Lane

died on the cardamom-scented morning

he commenced the letter Kaf.

Steam calligraphy seriffed above his unsipped coffee.

After Lane’s death came the superstition

heart attack or apoplexy

would strike anyone who reached

this eleventh letter, this thirteenth floor.

Kaf claimed two Frenchmen, one American, and one

Korean, their dictionaries incomplete, their heartbeats

exiled to the cursor’s blink

before they got to kitab, book, or kufr, unbelief.

The letter evolved from the Akkadian glyph for a hand: the same

Black Hand killed the Archduke, the same

white hand drew the kyklos in Kentucky,

KKK, Kaf Kaf Kaf, coughs

of a sickened, a sickening country

where I learned letters consonant with my captors.

Kafka’s first novel was Amerika, spelled with a k, a.k.a.

The Man who Disappeared

like the lexicographer Lane from his home in

Kent, lost in the chasm between two languages, shoved

into his teak wood coffin

by the inked hand of this assassin afrit, this voiceless velar

plosive that makes its sound by obstructing airflow,

by literally choking off: the throat’s gun

cocked: the breath, briefly, caught:

Kaf.

WHERE HAVE I READ THIS BEFORE

You will sense a past life in your first kiss,

The recursive, immersive scent of a past love,

A repetition just below your awareness.

You’ll go through with the kiss, but you’ll be somewhere else,

 

The revelation just below your awareness.

Two faces regress to effigies of Pompeiian ash.

You’ll go through the kiss into somebody else

Under the gray snow that archived your love,

 

Two faces effaced, two vestiges of Gangetic ash

Restaging the fire by recreating the kiss

That revives your love like grass drinking snow,

Not dead, just stunned under the shroud.

 

Restage the fire. Recreate the kiss

Even if it ends in a civil war you must reenact

Down to the dead stunned under their shrouds,

The loveless lying silent between the sheets.

 

Every love ends up reenacting the civil war.

These repetitions are where your history lies

Stunted under forgetting’s ashgray snow

As the last breath passes, and your lips sense a kiss.

EXCERPT FROM KEATS IN KASHMIR: "SOMA"

I don’t want heaven unless I can drink it.

            I want the Soma my ancestors sipped

so I can feel the truth instead of think it.

            You’ve seen my Gods, right? All our poets tripped

on Soma back then, seeing visions of

            a sky-blue Vishnu with his thousand arms

                        and Kali rocking necklaces of skulls,

a coiled cobra, ten hoods flared aloft,

            Mohini’s nectar-sweet transgender charms,

                        Hanuman’s long jump flustering the gulls.
 

But was it neurological sheet lightning?

            Or did those psychedelic yogis prove

some riddles must escape the mind’s enlightening

and shove the language from its native groove?

The Amanita, or some other shroom,

            or else some relative of mescaline....

                        The Vedas never spill a recipe

or name an herb Nepali snows entomb,

            and so the swamis harp on discipline,

                        devotion, patient study, charity.

 

Me, I stay thirsty. Let my Soma simmer

            here on the stovetop, kettle whistling for a

minute, or at most an Indian summer.

            I want my cup to shimmersteam an aura

until my Gods and Goddesses appear.

            I’ll bow my head and take a sip and chat

                        them up in Sanskrit like a native speaker.
Then, nebbish flesh abandoned on the chair,

            I’ll step out, don illogic like a hat,

                         and stroll right past ascetic, monk, and seeker.

 

I want to take a shortcut, and why not?

            Why not attain Kailash without a climb?

The highest truths, I’ve read, transcend all thought,

and true samadhi sits outside of time.

The worlds we know are bubbles in a bong,

            the eyes we have are padlocks on a cloud.

                        I want to melt the long-sealed fontanelle

that’s iced me under like a bonewhite pond

            so that the Secret swirls in and out,

                        a taste on the tongue no tongue is graced to tell.

TOOL USE

If you coax a whip between a horse’s teeth,

he’ll just mistake it for the bit.

The taste of either: leather. Cured, like flesh;

salted with sweat and soaked with spit.

 

His neck is innocent. It doesn’t know

how to lash a naked torso, payback

for forty acres ploughed, the pony express,

a blue gunshot beside the race track.

 

Gandhians used to lay themselves face up

across a mounted sahib’s route.

They trusted a hoof, though shod in iron, never

to trample people like a boot.

 

Higher mammals evolve beyond the instinct

indoctrinated by the snake

to skin a body, tease and braid its sinews,

then listen to the snap they make

 

against a beast of burden, lustrous black,

welts on the back, linear script

still indecipherable after all

these centuries we’ve whipped and whipped.