Book Review

Heaven and Earth by Amit Majmudar. Story Line Press, 2011. $14.95

Reviewed by Zara Raab

Beneath the shimmering surfaces and technical acumen of Heaven and Earth lie unspoken conundrums of identity and allegiance for Amit Majmudar. How deeply, for example, do we attach ourselves to a culture that vilifies Osama Bin Laden, launching a multi-billion-dollar war against his scattered forces, while honoring—as Majmudar reminds us in his Canto XI from American Inferno—Paul Tibbets, the pilot who flew the Enola Gay over Hiroshima and in one moment killed over 100,000 civilians? Subtle meanings and ironies of flight abound in Heaven and Earth. In the poem “Elevation,” the poet creates the persona of a family man who works as an elevator operator, filling “his corner like a plant in a pot,” pushing the buttons for the various floors with his “black fingers.” In a brilliant turn, the poem reveals that this humble father recites classical poetry on the bus ride home and dreams of his sons becoming pilots. “You go fly,” he urges,

            Dreaming us altitudes he’d never known
            In his forever interrupted rise [“Elevation,” 58]

In “Time,” the poet-narrator recalls his experiences with air flight as a young boy visiting India with his parents, his glimpse of pilots “through a half-open cockpit door,”—“illumined and pulling the sky to their chests,” and the pilots’

Hour ten in their navy blue uniforms, numen-blue eyes
So long aloft they came to resemble the altitude [. . . ] [“Time,” 23-24]

Majmudar’s themes, too, tend to be the lofty ones of faith, courage, the pain of displacement, family bonds, the confusion of multiple identities. He uses big words like “enlightened,”  “culture,” “soul,” “truth,” and “right,” and a heightened diction, creatively co-mingled with a rapper’s rhyme.

            I look like gaudy Saudi cash.
            I sound like sound enlightened thinking.
            This double-timing rhymer bows
            To Mecca in the Land of Lincoln.

                                    .   .   .
            That Intifada? Just a fad.
            A fashionable chequered scarf.
            I talk like art and look like terror,
            All things to all men, and at heart

            Nothing at all. Two rights don’t make
            A truth, two halves don’t make a whole.
            Two cultures make a diplomat
            But cannot make a soul.  [“January’s Janizaries Marching West,” 60-61]

Majmudar’s expressive grasp of familial, religious, and cultural tensions and allegiances comes to the fore in the poem “Telemachus.” A patriarch has gone off to war, joining “the beaked airships/Mustered to sack that wild mountain country, // Wind-worn and war-winded Afghanistan,” while his wife at home plays around with other men, and his son, Telemachus, sits on his hands. Majmudar catches the nuance and timbre of American slang: “The hell do you want,” the mother makes the declarative question and at the same time indicts her son of nosy interference in a life spiraling out of control.  When his father disappears in the mountains of Afghanistan, the son goes to the desert in search of him. With lyricism, Majmadur describes the harm that may befall the warrior:

Sing to me, Muse, in the braille of his burns
The helicopter’s offered hecatomb
Smoking high in the Hindu Kush.

Let sawed bone be your incense, or if kerosene
Delight you more, then with golden kerosene
I will lave the altar of the living war.

Sing how he pulled his body by the elbows
Through the gate that sends nightmares into the world ["Telemachus," 47]

Telemachus finds his father, but in that alien land, his father speaks only Pashto, refusing to recognize his son, and having no intention “of coming home to the faraway//City I spoke of, that alien Ithaqa” [“Telemachus,” 49]. “All I can offer you is brotherhood,” the father says. But the son does not want his father’s faith.           

The reliance on myth and heightened diction works here partly because the myths take us out of the realm of real time, with its sketchy empirical explanations, into universal forms. Majmudar’s strategies work less well, to my mind, in a poem like Canto XI from American Inferno, “The Circle of the Underlings,” where the poet introduces the historical figure of Paul Tibbets, the pilot who flew the mission over Hiroshima, into the circle of Hell reserved for those who claim to have “only been following orders.” The unrepentant Tibbets, who named his bomber after his mother, Enola Gay, is made in this canto to dig the graves of the dead of Hiroshima for an eternity. However powerful the image of Tibbets carrying the dead from the radioactive sludge to be buried, as an actual person, living in a specific time and place, rather than an archetype, Tibbets, both too well known and not famous enough, distracts from the issues of genuine moral responsibility raised by the poem.

Unlike many poets in America today, Majmudar earns a living outside the realm of poetry. But in addition to being a physician, a practicing radiologist, he has tasted widely and deeply of literature and the arts, from the epics of Homer to the paintings of Vermeer, from the Book of Isaiah to Das Kapital. I was charmed by Heaven and Earth’s grasp of the disparate worlds of scientific and religious or spiritual disciplines, of Eastern and Western cultures. A.E. Stallings was charmed, as well, it seems. She selected Heaven and Earth for the 2011 Donald Justice Prize.

Majmudar’s poems do occasionally turn personal, and even risk embarrassment by breaking what David Orr has called “the stillness of the social order” [Orr, Beautiful and Pointless, 23] by juxtaposing an apparent fact about himself with the prevailing social reality. More often, Majmudar develops elaborate poet-personas to tell a story, as seems to be the case with the father who works as the elevator attendant in the lovely sonnet “Elevation.” In “The Transformation,” the poet or his persona (although in this case, there is a sincerity that suggests to me the former) celebrates the birth of his twin sons, by revealing casually his earlier disregard for any and all housekeeping details.

It is the sequence, “The Walter Reed Sonnets,” that best integrates Majmudar’s identities. First published in the Kenyon Review and The Dark Horse, the poems reveal tenderness in their humanity and the precision of a surgeon in their details. In “Embers,” the poet sits with a patient who after two tours in Iraq “circled back to Walter Reed,/ A patient this time, shrapnel in her back.” [65] In “Arms and the Man,” the poet-physician works in the fitness center with maimed and disabled veterans, Atlases working their deltoids.

A soldier, six foot seven, thumps his run;

I don’t know why I stare. A moment’s lag,
And then I see the shriveled sleeve that lies
At half mast by him, like a grieving flag.  [“Arms and the Man,” 66]

Majmudar captures the greenness of new recruits—“From green nineteen to sunburnt twenty-one, / Half of the desert his to watch” [“Combat Readiness,”  67]; the psychological supports, often all too fragile, on which the ordinary soldier relies, and the powerful unconscious rage that is released when these supports break down:

The killing never having such allure
As when the pictures of her taped beside
His bunk came down and left him bare inside. [“The Breakup,” 68]

At the same time, the poet understands that no amount of family love can protect a soldier in “a trash heap ticking in Tikrit” or erase the phantom pains of missing limbs; he recognizes the admiration and awe such warriors inspire: “I’m not religious, Lord knows, but if I were, / Such men would be my holy men for sure, / Demanding as they do no reverence for // The casual salvation in their line / Of work.” [“A Reservist,” 66]

Majmudar, as we have seen, often writes metered poems, in forms similar to those used by poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. The influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins is felt, especially in the surprisingly abundant and various poems dealing with spiritual subject matter directly, or (as is more likely) indirectly through the creation of complex personas. Here the language becomes dense, highly alliterative, almost clotted:

Lord, late though I am, slide the lathe
And shape, shave me, shear me wraith-
Slim, slave-thin. Flay the skin in moth-
Wings off my soul’s loathed sheath. Wrath-
Ripe as I am, pluck me, pulp me. Filth
That I am, lave me, bathe me. Faith
Be water: Father, help me drown.
I cannot breathe until you force me down. [“Prayer,” 25]

Similar effects are achieved in poems like “The Christ-Frost.” Majmudar can also be bitingly satiric when it comes to money-making evangelists: “Are you evacuating everyone? Only the righteous.” [“Evangelical Fugue,” 31] In addition to his other extraordinary talents, Majmudar has a knack for another lost art, that of aphorism: “The taste of knowledge is the aftertaste of loss” [“Heavy Water,” 5], and “Face it, another word for skin is hide. / Show me the face that never lied.”[“Seventeens,” 26]

In the poem “Master / Forger,” the poet takes a moment to wonder if the forgeries of Vermeer paintings made by the 20th century artist Hans Van Meegeren were in fact a kind of “vernacular / Vermeer”—
                        Vermeer corrupted into new life
            Like cold church Latin into hellfire Tuscan?
            The body in the grave, bread in the bread pan
            Rising true forgery a resurrection. [19]

These lines recall Devin Johnston’s ”Mockingbirds,” a poem celebrating the mockingbird’s strength, which is also his weakness. So, too, as Majmudar suggests in “Master / Forger,” Van Meegeren’s greatest strength and weakness is the forger’s. But the poet who uses, as Majmudar does, traditional English verse forms from earlier centuries is, in a sense, copying the old masters.  And how well this poet does it, resurrecting a body of work that speaks to us out of a dense, rich past, and speaks to us now, as well, in this time and place.

Zara Raab lives in Berkeley, but she grew up on the North Coast, where her ancestors farmed, raised cattle and harvested tan oak. Her poems appear in River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Evansville Review, and elsewhere. Her most recent book is Swimming the Eel (David Robert Books, 2011). Her reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Critical Flame, Valparaiso Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. Visit her website for more information.