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.
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:
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.
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.