What We Do in Solitary: Review of Amit Majmudar's Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and What He Did in Solitary
(né Amanda Jernigan)
What We Do in Solitary
A Review of Amit Majmudar:
Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary
New York, New York: Knopf, 2018
ISBN 978-1-524-73347-6, 256 pp., USA $20.00, hardcover
What He Did in Solitary
New York, New York: Knopf, 2020
ISBN 978-0-525-65651-7, 164 pp., USA $27.00, hardcover
My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
— Emily Dickinson
Sometimes, in the midst of life, one’s body closes out on one: one dies before one’s time—little by little, or suddenly, one’s fists and knees becoming hoofs before one’s eyes.
They are huge and hopeless to conceive, these transformations: so radical they feel like deaths. Life on the other side of them feels less like survival than it does like resurrection. It is perhaps for this reason that the transformed (the new parent, say; the recovered addict; the trans person; the cancer survivor; . . .) make good believers: to believe in life after death, for such a person, is not belief at all—it is simply memory.
I thought about this frequently reading Amit Majmudar’s new collection What He Did in Solitary. Here is his “Poem Beginning with a Line by Ovid,” perhaps my favorite in the book:
Of bodies changed to other forms I tell
anybody who will listen. Listen: my uncle Rishi
changed into a blue heron’s reflection in water
and stared into the sky until the sun went down
on the day he died. He died of kidney failure—
that was what they said in the announcement
because no one died of AIDS back then, not in our family.
In our family, no one died of anything, just changed
to a different form, wren form, cricket form, koi form
picked up like the end of a sentence swung around
and set down as the start of a sentence. A sentence
in a new language the tongue never twisted to fit before
because sometimes the body that doesn’t fit can be a life
sentence, as it was for Uncle Rishi. Uncle Rishi
would have loved to change his form to a woman’s
and love a man—in India, in the 1980s, in our family—
but karma says you can switch into another body only
if you die. You die little by little, waiting, Uncle Rishi
on all fours in his lover’s flat, lowing at the sky
like a heifer waiting for her milk to come in. To come in
to his old body after that—the flared wingspan
forgotten, forgotten the sweat on the horse’s tree-thick neck—
was a comedown, a letdown, solitary confinement
in his form. His form was beautiful, too beautiful
for a boy—our family used to despair
of ever finding a girl to match his long lashes and full lips,
my mom tells me, to this day never saying outright
the truth about her brother. Her brother
became a horse and took the bit in his mouth, became
a flying fish and stole the pleasures of one body
by transcending the medium he was born to.
He was born to love with and be loved in
that body, but his body wanted better for him
and so it helped him change to another body,
one that could turn and face his lover, spread for his lover
thighs like heron wings
and never say sorry. Sorry I’ve talked so long
about my uncle Rishi, but this isn’t something
we talk about in our family. In our family,
it’s a pity he never found a wife
beautiful enough to be worthy of his beauty
before he died of an old man’s disease, kidney failure,
at the age I am now. Now
I should go write something else, in a different form,
like an essay on karma and rebirth,
or an animal fable, or a sonnet I’ll rewrite
as four tercets and a couplet so no one
can tell. Tell no one what I said here,
how I dared betray the way my uncle Rishi
made hoofs of his fists and knees before he died,
made his gullet swallow the enormous fish,
made wings of shoulderblades and flew home,
his untold body changed to other forms.
Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses,from which it takes its opening line, this poem is a meditation on transformation: how is it that one thing becomes something else? If it is something else, how can it also be itself? What are the points of connection between one form and the next: those words “picked up like the end of a sentence swung around”—note the perfectly positioned line break here—“and set down as the start of a sentence”: an operation this poem enacts again and again, on the level of its form.
On the level of its form, this poem is a body. Can a body choose to die and be reborn? “[K]arma says you can switch into another body only / if you die,” says the speaker, that poet; yet sometimes we die in the midst of life, in the convulsions of pleasure or agony, one life ending, another coming to be.
In the eye of the believer, all death happens in the midst of life. Ye Gods who have yourselves wrought every change, writes Ovid; . . . He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change, writes Hopkins; I see you in every direction—unending Form! writes Majmudar, in his translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, a work whose godsong I heard constantly in the background of this new work.
In June of 2019 I was baptised a Christian. With the standing congregation of a little wooden church I said these words, this godsong, this song of transformations, reciting it as a credo—my truth (“[m]aybe there were many absolute truths,” writes Majmudar in his preface to the Gita “—as many truths, as many ideas of the divine, as there are human beings”):
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholic Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.
“Do you profess this faith?” the priest asked me; I answered him with the prescribed, the nuptial words, joyfully: “I do.”
It was not long afterward that a friend asked me, a poet friend whom I loved dearly, what I thought would become of my poetic “career,” now that I had become a Christian.
I didn’t understand the question: the two things (being a Christian, being a poet) seemed to me—not (at all) unrelated, but—to exist somehow in separate realms, the one, the first, of this world; and the other, well, somehow not.
As a person, I had an interest in becoming a Christian—I told my friend—in professing myself as such, in changing my life (Rilke, via Majmudar) or in losing it (Christ): it was a language of love that spoke to me—or perhaps, rather, that I found myself able to speak.
But as a poet—well, poetry is of the prophetic (a prophet being, properly speaking, not one who predicts the future, but one who tells the truth), and insofar as it is of the prophetic, the poet’s duty—like the prophet’s—is to the divine, and not to any orthodoxy or credo.
That said, poets are drawn to religions, I believe, for reasons that have as much to do with poetics as they do with cosmologies. (What is a cosmology anyway but a poetics, writ large?) It was no accident, I felt, that after decades spent in meditation on and in the word I should embrace the credo of the Word made flesh—nor, I feel, that that nascent formalist, Majmudar, back in early adolescence, should have placed at the center of his world the Gita, that great song of bodies changed to other forms.
The Gita, as Majmudar presents it, reads as a coherent fiction (I mean that in the sense of “narrative,” not in the sense of “that which is not true”). There is a frame story (an elderly king asks his advisor for news of the battlefield). There is a tale-within-the-tale (the archer Arjuna refuses to fight; his charioteer persuades him to continue) and in that tale-within-a-tale there is at least one character (Arjuna—I shall not speculate about his friend, here) who undergoes development.
But there is also a moment within this fiction in which the narrative explodes: for Arjuna’s charioteer is Krishna, and Krishna is divine, and in the course of his speech he reveals this to Arjuna first by telling, then by showing. Arjuna sees his friend divine, through the divine eye his friend has granted him, singing his vision in a kind of rapture that extends, in Majumudar’s translation, through seventeen quatrains, at the end of which Arjuna begs his friend to have mercy and resume his former, human shape. Embodied in his friend, somehow, Arjuna has seen:
. . . the Gods, O God, in your body,
And every species of creature crowded together
And Brahma the Lord in the lotus asana seated,
And all of the seers and celestial serpents!
With so many arms—bellies—mouths—eyes—
I see you in every direction—unending Form!
No end and no midpoint, I see no beginning to you,
Universal God, Universal Form!
It is a vision that transcends the linear narrative—that “coherent fiction”—in the context of which it is given voice: this is a story that contains all stories, all stories refusing to be contained.
I thought about this, too, reading What He Did in Solitary, because What He Did in Solitary does not, like the Gita, present itself (at least at first) as a coherent fiction. The collection’s subtitle is the pluralistic “poems.” We encounter here an exuberant profusion of themes (basketball, van Gogh, and Cleveland; the 2002 Gujarat riots; fertility, jellyfish, Hafiz, . . .) and forms (the villanelle, the sonnet, the sonzal [a sonnet/ghazal hybrid, Majmudar’s invention], the triolet, the sestina, . . .), and also of personae (a spider, a prisoner, a doctor, a martyr, a scribe, . . .). We are in the world, not of the epic, but of the song sequence: the Italians’ rime sparse, scattered rhyme.
In the European tradition, such song sequences—going back to Petrarch’s Canzoniere—often recollect “the motif of spargimento, the scattering of members or fragments”: what the critic Roland Greene has called “the originary, traumatic event in the history of the form.”
The sense of a traumatic separation in the prehistory of the poems is there, too, in another lyric tradition, that of the ghazal, that Majmudar likewise invokes.
But in Majmudar’s “unabashedly polytheistic” poetics (I’m borrowing Majmudar’s phrase, here; he uses it in reference to the Gita), the vision of incarnation, of embodiment, as originary trauma (in which we all are, separately, consigned to solitary) is balanced against a vision of incarnation as originary abundance: Many, many, many, divine, divine, divine,as Majmudar glosses the refrain from the Gita.
The scattered fragments of What He Did in Solitary are strung like pearls (the Gita’s image) or Argus eyes (Majmudar’s) on the thread of a godsong of Majmudar’s own, the sequence of triolets that preface each section; and also on the breath of the reciting reader (Majmudar writes as much for the voice as for the page), to which our attention is drawn (even as breaths are drawn) in the collection’s final words; and, finally, on the persona of the writer whose spirit animates all the characters we meet, and whose name surfaces again and again through the book with ghazal-like multiplicities of resonance.
Like the Gita, What He Did in Solitary “balances multiplicity and unity—and transcends them.” It accomplishes on the level of poetry what the Gita accomplishes on the level of theology, reconciling the one and the many.
The level of poetry, let us remember, is the level of theology. (“‘[T]heology’ . . . is really just storytelling,” Majmudar writes, in one of his “Listener’s Guides.”) That, too, is everywhere clear, here. Here is the collection’s first poem (or, perhaps, the first section of a long poem comprising nine triolet-like stanzas that weaves its way through the book):
I am no writer. I believe
the I who writes here isn’t me.
When the I in me gets up and leaves,
who’s writing this? Do I believe
myself the stranger who conceives
my self-estranged identity?
A writer’s no one if you believe
the I who writes here. Is it me?
I (I mean, I, Luke Hathaway; the I who writes here: is it me?) am not a theologian. I am a poet. When I read What He Did in Solitary through the divine eye (I?) its poems grant me, however, I see it as a song of bodies changed to other forms.
Each of the poems in the collection is a body. The divisions between poems, perceived in time, are like the gaps that divide one lifetime from another—as in Majmudar’s “Letters to Myself in My Next Incarnation.” Perceived in space, they are like the gaps that divide one body from another, as wren from cricket from koi fish from human being. From a god’s-eye view, all these forms (and times) are identified: as Majmudar puts it, in his introduction to the Gita, we are each other, an identification that goes beyond Blake’s “All Human Forms identified”to embrace also the cricket, the wren, the koi fish, . . . :
Though in all creatures undivided,
The Vishnu who nourishes species,
Known as their devourer and evolution,
Dwells in them as if divided.
Thus, the Gita.
The divine dwells in all creatures as if divided—but only as if.
But that as if . . . Without the God’s eye we are sometimes granted, human beings forget it. Like the title figure of Majmudar’s collection—like Uncle Rishi reconfined to his human/male-presenting body—we dwell in solitary, then.
Sometimes—like the cautious man, of “Solitary Sonzal,” warned by Eros he will die alone—we other ourselves. Sometimes, like the xenophobic reader addressed in various of these poems, we other one another:
This is me. I am no other.
Though others see another here,
I didn’t write him. They’re the author
of that pseudohim, that other
who’s no one’s son and no one’s brother.
Who is that I? It’s me, I fear.
From now on, I can be no other
than this unseen one othered here.
Sometimes, in the extremis of our solitudes, the divine is only present to us in the form of pain.
But other times, divinity flashes out at us, like something remembered from another life, another poem: a cricket, a heifer, a tongue, . . . Or we hear it in a poem as music, a voice we recognize poem to poem and life to life, something about the way the regular but unpatterned use of alliteration and assonance yokes our lines together through their turns.
What we do in solitary is unalone ourselves: Majmudar uses the word “pluralize”: “I strive always to pluralize myself because every life I live from here on out must be a salmon jump upstream to my source, to Brahman.” Majmudar’s poems jump like that: out of their skins, into ours, bodies changed to other forms.
A foghorn lows out in the harbor, as I write this; it lows at the sky, like a heifer waiting for her milk to come in—like Uncle Rishi lowing in his lover’s flat, in love, wanting to slough the man’s form he was born to; like me, in solitary in New Brunswick, wanting to slough the woman’s form I lived in when I began this review. I shouldn’t be writing about myself here, I should be writing about my subject, but then again I suppose I am it, Amit.