Saturday, July 01, 2017

Amit Majmudar channels James Wright (with a difference)

Two Ohio poets working 60 years apart look murderers in the face, and the result is a thought-provoking examination of the links between identity, community, and place. 

James Wright's 1959 poem "At the Executed Murderer's Grave" (read it here) portrays the poet visiting the grave of George Doty, a small-town Ohio taxi driver executed for rape and murder. The poem begins with Wright establishing his identity in connection to his place of birth:
My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father. 
Wright wrote frequently of his love/hate relationship to his homeplace, which, in his poems, often threatens to consume and constrict his creativity. This poem is no different, for he confesses to remaining "aloof" from "dead Ohio, where I might lie buried, / Had I not run away before my time."

"Ohio caught George Doty," he continues, with the verb "caught" suggesting both the act of prosecuting Doty's crime and the fact of Doty's interment in Ohio soil. Wright works hard to distinguish himself from the executed murderer, insisting, "I do not pity the dead, I pity the dying." In Wright's eyes, though, the dying include those unable to escape from stultifying small-town life, those too eager to judge others' crimes while silently forgiving their own hidden sins. Wright imagines a final judgment when "we dead stand undefended everywhere," forced to expose hidden scars and "sneaking crimes to God's unpitying stars":
Staring politely, they will not mark my face
From any murderer’s, buried in this place.
Why should they? We are nothing but a man.
Most telling here is the shift from the insistent "I" to the inclusive "we" that links the poet with all people, including the wretched murderer before whose grave he stands: "Doty, killer, imbecile, and thief: / Dirt of my flesh, defeated underground."

Wright, though, can walk away from the grave and need not carry his connection to Doty on his daily face; Amit Majmudar, on the other hand, cannot so easily slough off his unwitting association with a criminal. In "The Beard" (read it here), Ohio's first poet laureate describes what happens after he discovers that he bears an uncanny resemblance to terrorist Ahmad Rahami. Like Wright, Majmudar begins with identity, which he described as fluidly adapting to his surroundings:
Who I was depended.
Among believers an atheist,
among atheists a skeptic,
among skeptics an agnostic...
But this fluidity becomes more difficult when photos of Rahami fill the airwaves and the poet sees those around him erecting prison bars formed of fear: "The more they eyed me / the more my face began to itch" until a beard erupts all unbidden, growing bushier in response to the gaze of others until it has "quite foreclosed / the flux of me." Others' appraising glances associating the poet with the murderer transforms the poet from "e pluribus unum" to "maybe him, unknowably."

Majmudar refers to Rahami as "my doppelganger Afghan, / mon semblable, I will not say mon frère," but it is clear that he feels trapped and isolated within a resemblance he cannot shake. In the end, his resemblance to the terrorist leads fearful observers to question the poet's connection to his homeplace:
I am alone here now,
among Americans a foreigner
when just last year I used to be
among Americans American.
In both poems, a poet finds his identity and individuality disrupted by an arbitrary connection with a societal outcast. Wright discovers that he cannot throw off his bonds to his native soil or to his community's outcasts, but this does not stop him from walking freely away from the executed murderer's grave. Majmudar, on the other hand, carries the criminal's image on his face and thus finds himself dislocated, his fluid self imprisoned behind bars constructed from others' fear, "with no way now to bare / my true face veiled beneath his beard."

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