From “Miscarriages” to “DEFCON 1” from Ohio’s first Poet Laureate | Amit Majmudar | TEDxColumbus

Translator: David Hsu
Reviewer: Denise RQ Friends, our subject
this afternoon is risk. What art, I ask you,
could be riskier than poetry? (Laughter) Not only your skill, yourself,
and your soul are out there to be judged. Many of the speakers today
have spoken to you about risk. I myself will take a risk
and present you a few of my poems. The first poem I am going to read
is the title poem of my latest collection that it was released this March;
It’s entitled “Dothead.” It opens in a high school cafeteria, and it ends with the Hindu god Nataraja dancing the dance of destruction
in his sphere of fire, at the end of time. And we’ll get there from here
if you stick with me. (Laughter) “Dothead.” (Reading starts) “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. Alright. 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, Sati,
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 wears 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. (Reading ends) Thank you. (Applause) The next risk I will take, the next poem I will read is something that I wrote
when I was much younger. This poem first appeared in print
over 12 years ago, and it’s also very personal. It’s entitled “The Miscarriage.” (Reading starts) Some species can crack pavement
with their shoots to get their share of sun. Some species lay a purple froth
of eggs and leave it there to sprinkle tidepools
with tadpole confetti. Some species, though,
you stomp them in the carpet have already stashed away the families
that will inherit every floor at midnight. But others don’t go forth
and multiply as boldly. Male and female peeling the bamboo; they are keepers watching in despair. Or those endangered species
numbered individually and mapped from perch to oblivious perch. For weeks, the world it seemed
was plagued with babies. Forests dwindling into cradles,
rows of women hissing for an obstetrician. babies no one can feed, babies received by accident
like misdirected mail from God. So many babies – people hired
women to hold them; babies, babies everywhere
but not a one to name. When we got home, the local news showed us
a mother with quintuplets; she was suckling them in shifts. A mountain of sheets universally admired; her smile could persuade
the skies to rain. Her litter slept ointment-eyed
in pink wool caps, while Dad ran his hand through his hair, thinking – maybe of money – as he stood surveying
his crowded living room, his wealth of heartbeats. Pizza and pop that night. And there, unasked inside the bottle cap was, “Sorry. Try again.” You set it down and did not speak of it, The Moon flanked
by her brood of stars that night. A chaste distracted
kiss goodnight that night; your body quiet,
having spilled its secret; your palms flat on your belly,
holding, holding. Forgive me if I had no words that night, but I was wondering
in the silence still begetting silence whether to console you; if I consoled you
it would make the loss your loss, and so, we laid beside ourselves a while because I had no words
until our bodies folded shut. Our bodies closed around hope
like a book preserving petals, a book we did not open till the morning
when we found hope – dry and brittle but intact. (Reading ends) Thank you. (Applause) This last poem is a little unusual. It’s never appeared
in any of my collections yet; and it’s the first and only poem
that I was commissioned to write. I was commissioned to write it
for the 2017 Inaugural Ceremony of this country’s first federally-funded
Civil Rights’ Museum. I considered that
my greatest poetic honor to date. The poem structure plays
with the US military alert levels, DEFCON 5 up through DEFCON 1. To commemorate the Civil Rights struggle, I thought it fitting to write
about a Civil Rights issue that is still alive in our own day. So, this is “DEFCON 1.” (Reading starts) Breathe America. We are alive. On sidewalks, in suburbs, citizen husbands promenade
with citizen wives. There is cash in the box,
and jam in the cupboard, and I could walk with my dog
or drive black in a black car and never elicit a shudder; The nukes are at bay,
and the submarines dive. God’s in His Heaven,
and I am at DEFCON 5. Relax. Because I’m relaxed. Yeah, sure, what’s there is there,
but it can be ignored; the enemy is hardly invading our shores. The enemy – I’d meet at the convenience store;
that’s all, that’s all. And muttered
how our families ruined the mall and claimed
that bumper sticker Dixie flag had “Nothing to do with the Civil War,” and called a homosexual, “Fag.” Nothing more, nothing more. I am hardly reaching for my nuclear codes;
you needn’t reach for yours. It’s hunky-dory here at DEFCON 4. But see, when I see the way some people look at me,
not that I am looking for an enemy, but sometimes, I can sense
the chitchats music startled as if my color wore the one disharmony. Start up again, but half an octave darker
and in a minor key. Worst things have happened, let this be. OK, relax, let sleeping warheads sleep. I don’t mean to be mean,
but I mean to be me, and do-re-mi,
I am up the scale to DEFCON 3. And then, they do the things they do; and a slave’s great-grandson
feels like a slave though a free man home
in the land of the brave. And I feel them arming, feel the warheads aching
in the silo of my forehead. And the young man’s holding still,
and still, they shoot. And they deny the bond
though the love is true. They do, they do! And I am walking
on a sidewalk in a suburb, when screamed, from a pickup truck, an abrupt slur hits me out of the blue. And it’s OK. I know it wasn’t you, but you’ll forgive me
if we aren’t through, if we are stuck awhile at DEFCON 2. Know what? I’m done. I said I’m done! Man stoppers pointed at a black boy
playing by a see-saw with a plastic gun. We saw, we saw! Oh, say, can you see
that body bag no bigger than a duffel? They zipped it shut,
they muffled the rising sun. So, me? I’m done. I said I’m done. Don’t be fooled because my rage is sung. Be sharp, my tongue, be sharp! My ear is stung by words
that reek louder than actions: some inactions cannot be undone. Look at me,
your song and dance, man, singing lullabies for dead boys,
all in good fun. This is me, in key, in tears,
in rage, and stunned. America, America! This is me at DEFCON 1. And I’m done. I’m done. I’m done! (Reading ends) (Applause)

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