August 16th, 2016

  • pylduck

Amit Majmudar's Dothead

I picked up Amit Majmudar's poetry collection Dothead (Knopf, 2016) from the library's new books display. The cover image is quite provocative, turning the pejorative term "dothead" for wearers of bindis into something new with the laser-like ray either emanating from the bindi on a statue of Shiva or landing the third eye on the statue, like the targeting laser on a gun.


I found this collection of poems to be wide-ranging in tone, word play, and content. The epigraph from Dr. Seuss, "It is fun to have fun / But you have to know how," suggests how Majmudar is playful with words, but the epigraph's pairing on its verso with a page from a dictionary also suggests a weightier side to word play, marked by histories of colonial contact. The photocopied dictionary page includes the definition and examples of the word KEDGEREE or KITCHERY, referring to a mix of rice and dal. What is fascinating about the photocopied dictionary page is how it highlights the interplay of Hindi and English, traces of colonialism manifest in the words and everyday stuff of Indian life. The definition points out, "The word appears to have been applied metaphorically to mixtures of sundry kinds (see Fryer, below), and also to mixt jargon or lingua franca." The definition then continues to refer to uses of the term in England that are "inaccurate" (in its reference to re-cooked fish for breakfast). The table of contents follows this dictionary page, and it is called "KEDGEREE INGREDIENTS" rather than a table of contents, listing each poem with page number as an ingredient.

The collection front-loads poems that address race explicitly, as in the leading titular poem, "Dothead." That poem takes as a setting a not unfamiliar scene of school children at lunch talking to each other and exposing prejudices and misunderstandings about cultural differences. Another early poem, "T.S.A.," describes the experience of racial profiling at airport security lines, and "To the Hyphenated Poets" playfully enjoins such poets to celebrate hybridity:
Being two beings requires
a rage for rigor,
rewritable memory,
hybrid vigor.
These lines are chock-full of repetition, alliteration, and rhymes in a rhythm that reminds me of Dr. Seuss as well as of some of Wallace Stevens's poems.

The poem, "Immigration and Naturalization," begins with the charged line, "We were that raghead family," and worries over the generational split between father and son, exacerbated through language:
We didn't. Nobody spoke
To us, either, though our tongues
Could parrot, palate the sounds.
And the poem unfolds towards a series of questions about identity ("Can I be my father's son / Without being my father?") and an ending stanza that puts front and center the melancholy of race:
But is it still a family
When the son cannot speak
The mother tongue of the father?

Of all the poems on the collection, the one that caught my attention the most was a long abecedarian about oral sex. Each letter of the alphabet lends itself to a word that heads up a short prose poem. The narrative structure shuttles back and forth between exploring the biblical story of Adam and Even from the perspective of why God did not create Adam to be capable of autofellatio and the speaker's confession of his desire for receiving oral sex and how he had forced his first girlfriend to give him a blow job. There is a bit of uneasiness in the speaker's reflections, suggestions of rape in the way he describes the girlfriend's reluctance in the stanza titled "No." The idea of a biblical loss of innocence and the appearance of snake-formed Lucifer suffuses the speaker's personal narrative, and the idea of the speaker's lack of reciprocity comes full circle in a suggestion that Eve's temptation by the snake was in the promise of oral sex for her in the snake's waving tongue.

Majmudar is also Ohio's Poet Laureate for 2016, and I'm fascinated by poets who are poet laureates because of the educational and celebratory aspect of that role. In general, poet laureates put on programs to engage their communities with poetry (writing, reading, performing....). And it is especially interesting for me to think about Asian American poets who have taken on this role as Ishle Park did in Queens, New York, and Janice Mirikitani in San Francisco, California. The role carries with it a number of interesting qualities--publicness, representation, and pedagogical, for example--that give a particular valence to the poetry celebrated in each poet's selection. I'm also curious how poet laureates get selected--whether appointed by an individual or committee or if there is some kind of open competition with applications--and what kinds of criteria the selectors use.

stephenhongsohn has reviewed Majmudar's previous novels and poetry collections:
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