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Joe Hoover, S.J.April 18, 2023
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There is no poem like a gravestone,
that tersely worded, lapidary tercet,
the name, the numbers, and the R.I.P.
that are the skeleton key to all biography.

– Amit Majmudar, “Settler’s Gravestones, Millersburg, Ohio”

Just because April is National Poetry Month, and just because America has published new poetry regularly since its founding 114 years ago, does not mean I am going to open this column by doing something so gauche and pandering as reeling off a list of the acclaimed poets we have featured over the decades. We are far too dignified for such things.

(Besides, I cannot imagine that Philip Levine, Kwame Dawes, Christian Wiman, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Merton, Marie Howe, Jessica Powers and Amit Majmudar—among other sparkling American writers—would appreciate being used in such a manner. I mean, really. Can you?)

Nevertheless.

The poems in America’s pages and digital platforms are like grace notes ornamenting the reportage.

The poems in America’s pages and digital platforms are like grace notes ornamenting the reportage. They are a caesura in the middle of a symphony of foreign dispatches, political analysis, faith reflections and book reviews. The poems veer away from the straight ahead, the practical and the instructive. They put a window of insensibility (in the best meaning of the word) in the middle of all the plain-speaking sense. A poem’s worth and value lies not necessarily in a conclusion or takeaway, but in how the words are put together and the ideas are expressed; and the fact that it simply exists on the page. The one needful thing is for the reader to simply be with it.

When I started as America’s poetry editor in the summer of 2013, I quickly dashed off a list of things I would be looking for in our poetry. Among them were “mystery, humor, surprise, passion and daring, political but truthfully, does something to us, MOVES.” I look at the list every so often and I think it still holds up. Over the past decade, we have published 10 poems by Amit Majmudar, far more than any other poet, in part I think because they fit the bill.

Majmudar’s work moves easily between the mystical and the ordinary, the one rooted in the other. “Settler’s Gravestones” is an exemplar of this form. The poem continues its description of the graves: “Some lie embedded, trapdoors in the grass,/ while others rear their monumental/ cornices and angels, like cathedrals/ where worms receive the body’s bread and wine.”

His ultimately chilling poem “The Weaver’s Song” dares to do something we don’t see much in modern poetry. As with many of his poems, wonderfully, it rhymes:

I wove myself a boy of wicker.
Daddy, teach me what to fear.
Matches, ants, and the flail of the rain,
But not while Daddy’s here.

We commissioned a poem from Mr. Majmudar to commemorate the first anniversary of the pandemic, which included a reading and interview on our podcast “Church Meets World.” In “Year of the Rat,” he opens a window on the terrible stories we all heard (or experienced) those first months:

Our parents perished in beeping rooms,
Their funerals pixellated: freezing:
Freezing again: a heartbeat, skipped:
Even their cessation ceasing.

Majmudar operates in a world that calls itself (maybe with some delusion?) “spiritual but not religious.” But an honest spirituality is always freighted on the foundations of religion and is conversant with its traditions. “His Vision” walks exactly that line: “No visage singed into a shroud/ Or knotted in a tree./ A newborn in a swaddling cloth/ Was the vision given me.”

An honest spirituality is always freighted on the foundations of religion and is conversant with its traditions.

Similarly, “Gaza Ghazal,” about life in a modern-day Israel perforated by religious conflict, sums up in one stanza what a theological dissertation might take thousands of words to say:

Absolute truth      switches      two blocks west of this apartment
More than one thing is true    more than one thing false    in Zion

Mr. Majmudar, who is also a novelist, essayist, translator, and author of eight books and several essays and poems in outlets such as the Kenyon Review and The New Yorker, and who can write things legitimately on Twitter like, “Thinking about doing something creative and unorthodox with Claudian’s DE RAPTU PROSERPINAE,” and who is a father of three, and who is a full-time medical doctor, and whose particular labors as a full-time doctor are in working with radioactive material as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist, and who when I email him usually gets back to me within about 35 seconds, is, in a word, an implausible person. Not to pander, but he is cool. We are blessed to have him in our pages.

Things I look for in our poetry: “mystery, humor, surprise, passion and daring, political but truthfully, does something to us, MOVES.”

•••

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

Joe Hoover

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