Monday, April 11, 2016

Amit Majmudar—The Radiologist as Poet

Dr. Amit Majmudar

Those of you who are NPR listeners—I know you are there—may have heard the featured interview last week with Dr. Amit Majmudar , an Ohio diagnostic nuclear radiologist who doubles as a poet and novelist.  I heard a snatch of it on my wife’s car radio the other evening as we searched for place to have dinner.  I was intrigued enough to be sent scrambling on the internet to find out more about him and his work.
As it turned out my “discovery” turns out to be a well-established writer.  His new book Dot Head turns out to be his third published collection.  which came out in 2009 earned the was a finalist for a Poetry Society of America Norma Faber First Book Award, and Heaven and Earth (2011), was chosen for a Donald Justice Prize.  Majmudar has also published two novels, Partitions in 2011 and The Abundance in 2013.  That’s a lot of production over a short time for a guy with a demanding day job.
Majmudar was born in 1979 to Indian immigrant parents.  He was raised in the middle class Cleveland, Ohio suburbs with high expectations for academic and professional success.  He earned a BS at the University of Akron and an MD at Northeast Ohio Medical University, completing his medical residency at the University Hospitals of Cleveland.  He seemed destined to join the growing ranks of South Asian who have entered medicine, science, engineering, academic and other professions in large numbers in this country.
He would seem to be a completely assimilated Asian-American.  As his NPR interview attests, he speaks flawless casual Midwestern English without a trace of an accent.  Photos show him comfortable in stylish sportswear.  He likely spends his work life surrounded mostly by white professionals.  Yet he is always conscious of his Indianess and the Hinduism that keeps him an outsider in a heavily Christian society.
It all becomes the grist for the mill of his poetry and fiction.  His subject is “familial, religious, and cultural tensions and allegiance,” according to one reviewer.

In the title poem of his new book those tensions are laid bare in the memory of a grade school lunchroom encounter. 
Well yes, I said, my mother wears a dot.
I know they said “third eye” in class, but it’s not
an eye eye, not like that. It's not some freak
third eye that opens on your forehead like
on some Chernobyl baby. What it means
is, what it's showing is, there’s this unseen
eye, on the inside. And she's marking it.
It's how the X that says where treasure’s at
is not the treasure, but as good as treasure.—
All right. What I said wasn’t half so measured.
In fact, I didn't say a thing. Their laughter
had made my mouth go dry. Lunch was after
World History; that week was India—myths,
caste system, suttee, all the Greatest Hits.
The white kids I was sitting with were friends,
at least as I defined a friend back then.
So wait, said Nick, does your mom wear a dot?
I nodded, and I caught a smirk on Todd—
She wear it to the shower? And to bed?—
while Jesse sucked his chocolate milk and Brad
was getting ready for another stab.
I said, Hand me that ketchup packet there.
And Nick said, What? I snatched it, twitched the tear,
and squeezed a dollop on my thumb and worked
circles till the red planet entered the house of war
and on my forehead for the world to see
my third eye burned those schoolboys in their seats,
their flesh in little puddles underneath,
pale pools where Nataraja cooled his feet.

—Amit Majmudar

But Majmudar  is no one trick pony.  He keenly observes the world, extrapolates understandings, and uses vivid, imaginative language.  Witness this poem from an earlier collection.
Instructions to an Artisan
Into the rood wood, where the grain's current splits   
around the stones of its knots, carve eyelashes and eyelids.   
Dye the knots, too—indigo, ink-black, vermillion   
irises. These will be his eyes, always open, willing   
themselves not to close when dust rises or sweat falls,   
eyes witnessing, dimly, the eclipse that shawls   
the shuddering hill, Jerusalem's naked shoulder.   
The body itself? From a wick that still whiffs of smolder,   
wax, because wax sloughs a smooth skein on the fingers just   
below sensation's threshold. Prop the cross   
upright and let the tear-hot wax trickle, slow, clot, taper   
into a torso, thighs, calves, feet. Of Gideon Bible paper,   
thinner than skin, cut him his scrap of cloth; embed   
iron shavings in his forehead,   
and, as the wax cools, scrape the rust off an old fuel can   
to salt the whole wound that is the man.   
Cry, if you feel like crying, and if no one else is there.   
Then set it on the counter with your other wares.

—Amit Majmudar

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