Poetic Measures of the Indefinite Self
by Cody Stephens
by Amit Majmudar
Knopf, 120 pp.
The cover image of Amit Majmudar’s Dothead depicts Hindu deity Shiva in a yogic pose, his third eye obscured by a red laser sight—a projected, menacing bindi. Was it too much to expect that Dothead be a book primarily about race and ethnicity? I have to conclude that this expectation of mine was rather too little. Dothead is about race, heritage, history, religion, sex, medicine, capitalism, war, and art. My incomplete catalogue has been translated into the publisher’s blurb, which calls Dothead “an exploration of selfhood both intense and exhilarating.” Like many marketable generalizations, this assessment feels true sometimes.
Dothead is frequently intense, especially when the lines are short. In brief tercets, “Ode to a Drone” identifies the drone as a terrorizing symbol of power, a “proxy executioner’s / proxy ax / pinged by a proxy server.” Soberer and more gruesome is “The Interrogation,” which presents a fictitious memoirist’s account process and enduring his own torture. Both these poems belong to the first seventh of Dothead, which I think of as the locus of the book’s “brown politics,” a politics for South Asians, Middle Easterners, etc. These early poems contain many references to Islamic history “farther [back] than the Balfour Declaration,” Qur’ans, and post–9/11 America. It is noteworthy, however, that the speakers of the two poems I just mentioned are of indeterminate nationality, ethnicity, and religious identification. This feels deliberate, and, as a result, any urge to foist drones and “enhanced interrogation” onto a specific Other feels like an attempt to deny the large role of systemic violence in our lives.
The intensity in Dothead finds expression outside of political issues and often is enhanced by the forms Majmudar employs. For example, “The Top” is a calligram shaped like a spinning top—handle and body. As the top’s body narrows, the poem focuses on the image of a lone figure skater cradling his chest before a spin. The athlete becomes an emblem of how discipline (perhaps including Majmudar’s close adherence to form) requires an inward focus that preempts responsiveness to an Other. Adopting the sestina form, “The Waltz of Descartes and Mohammed” combines Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” with the prophet’s “There is no god but God” to stage a spiritual wrestling match in turns improbable, heretical, and as dubiously affirmative as the end of Ecclesiastes. Elsewhere there are ghazals and sonnets, combinations of the two called “sonzals,” prose poems, rhyming tercets, rhyming couplets, and several nonce forms. Majmudar knows many shapes to give his words, many ways to play with language, and even if a few poems produce the uneasy feeling of experimentation (he dares rhyme sick with sacked with Balzac via minimal difference), Majmudar consistently and rightfully exudes confidence that his verse forms will intensify his expressions.
Majmudar’s confidence extends to his often exhilarating playfulness. As deathly serious as Majmudar can get, he is scarcely very far from inviting a laugh. In “His Love of Semicolons,” Majmudar writes unabashedly, “The comma is comely, the period, peerless / but stack them one atop / the other and I am in love; what I love / is the end that refuses to stop,” and he manages, cleverly, to end the poem with a semicolon, a single relentless note. Majmudar takes up art history in “The Enduring Appeal of the Western Canon,” where the likes of Michelangelo, Buñuel, and Monet are subjected to rumors both believable and laughable (“Monet started out trying to stay inside the lines, then lost his glasses.”).
The most remarkable poem in Dothead is “Abecedarian,” which combines elements of the intense, the exhilarating, and the comic, filling over ten pages from margin to margin. Suggesting an unlikely clash of form and content, Dwight Garner of The New York Times refers to “Abecedarian” as “an epic ode to oral sex.” The poem weaves rumination and autobiography with a retelling of Adam and Eve’s story. Though Majmudar’s sensibilities suffuse this book, and his name appears a few times elsewhere, “Abecedarian” is by far the clearest instance of the confessional mode; it is also the closest thing in the book to a prose poem, though it remains densely poetic. Majmudar takes the thought that “fellatio wasn’t just some corrupt, postlapsarian innovation” and runs with it, from Adam’s spare rib to the first parents’ curses and expulsion. He writes in sections with alphabetical headwords: Adam, breath, come, … innocence, job, Lucifer…, and by ZZZ, the reader gets a complex, vulnerable, and thoughtful portrayal of the beginnings, courses, and implications of (sometimes subtly) abusive sexual relationships. “Abecedarian” is remorseful, sensitive, and riddled silly with deft puns.
It is not too surprising that the greatest success in Dothead should treat Judeo-Christian tradition rather than a Hindu or Sikh or even Islamic one. As the title poem demonstrates, the word dothead only ever emerges as a snicker-worthy slur in places hostile to the bindi. It’s no secret that in such settings the alien imagination is best qualified to put an interesting spin on the dominant culture’s commonplaces. In the case of Dothead, that imagination is Indian American, and it produces speakers who sneer at “the soon-to-be / robohobo” returning from some tour of duty in the sci-fi future (in “Welcome Home, Troops!”) or who warn that capitalism dehumanizes and that money makes “The fingers morph / Into digits” (in “The Metamorphosis”).
Majmudar’s title is less a slur than a sort of merrily mocking self-indexing, a reappropriation that signifies dothead’s multiple uses, and thus multiple meanings. Knopf is right, some of the time: Dothead is “an exploration of selfhood,” but the successes of “Abecedarian” and of several poems in this volume owe to Majmudar’s recognition that the self is simultaneously embodied and symbolic; that his body exists in a matrix of pleasures and displeasures and takes guidance from rhyme and rhythm at the same time that he is constituted as a subject under larger systems. If his brown politics seem frontloaded, then it’s a testament to how complex the self is, beyond the skin.
About the Author:
Cody Stephens, a graduate of Emory University, is a linguist and computer programmer. He writes about ciphers of all kinds on his blog Year-Round Cipher.