Hymn to Yama

[God of Death]

1.
Your trachea is snakeskin.
Subtil one, your lair is
somewhere, somewhere. There.
Your voice is living venom,

a venom that inseminates
the mind with meter. Listen.
Breath is the student. Hiss.
Death is the lesson. Teach.

2.
You crossed into an open field. A ribbon snapped
against your chest and shivered off to either side.
Nobody knew what death was yet, you least of all,
the fleetest-footed sprinter among the Gods, your resting
heart rate so low you didn’t notice when it went
to zero. What was it you daydreamed while your sweat cooled?
There in a field of asphodels that till themselves
and flower in the winter? Stabbing chalkwhite fingers
in sterile earth, you brought up ancient coins, but none
could buy you passage to the stars. Lightlorn, you listened;
lovelorn, you kissed the shapes that strode through parting mist.
Far smoke took on an architecture. What was burning?
You trekked there to a pyre—yours—the first of all
the signal fires warning us of raids to come.
The staves of half-burnt corkwood clattered at your footfall
revealing a rickety lukework throne of ashes.
You rested all your newfound weightlessness on it.
It held up. With a lordly hand that rose commanding
music, you ordered all the scattered slats to rise
and range themselves into a picket, pillars, palace.
With teeth like chemo pills, you test our coins of tribute.
With brass-bright bullet-casing eyes you rule the dead.

3.
I know you, nightfall mandala.
I know you, caesura.
Flicker of the grid,
gap in the bridge,
            I know you, God of the ghat.

I know you, singular scissor.
I know you, elision.
Fissure in the wind,
ax to the shins,
            I know you, God of the knot.

4.
Reconnaissance. You’ll know he’s made a pass
when dentures fizz and tremble in the glass
and hot breath silvers all the windowpanes.
When knuckles wake to achy morning rains
and spiderwebs are strung with blood drop dew,
why, then you know King Yama’s whispered through,
eyeing your bed as florists eye their roses,
with pruning scissors tilted. Garden hoses
freeze to the faucet on a summer night.
Fireflies spill their final joules of light
in constellations littering the lawn.
A dreamer sits up breathless to find him gone
or never stirs again beneath the covers.
Old couples drift off like Pompeiian lovers
under the sifting ashes of a dream.
They whimper once, but never think to scream.
His clump of damp chew tucked behind his lip,
A trucker swears as he scrapes the rumble strip.
The clock strikes none. A doctor hears an owl.
A banker gasps, and it’s his last withdrawal.
King Yama has both pinkies tipped with white
from testing, tasting powders in the night;
he ferries heroin cross-country in a hearse,
and oxycontin cut with something worse,
and all the dusts that turn a man to dust.
The snapped-off needle ripens in its pus,
the addict’s forearm growing warm as spring.
The pollen that precludes all flowering
King Yama sheds like skin cells where he goes.
He filches finches’ eggs to feed his crows.
You wake to his bootprints melting in the hall.
If you are lucky enough to wake at all.

5.
Cousins in sunglasses, silver-rough kameezes doing bhangra round the groom,
caterers ferrying foil-covered tubs, the drummer swaggering with his drum—
            what did you do with them, Yama?
                        Where did they go?

Rose petals scattered by the bride’s best friend in the top floor suite,
the mango ice cream cups, the flown-in grandma limping to her seat—
            what did you do with them, Yama?
                        Where did they go?

The groom’s men Bollywood-boisterous in tuxedos on reception night,
the open bar, the henna hiding letters in its Mughal grate—
            what did you do with them, Yama?
                        Where did they go?

                                    When a little girl has died,
                                    custom says we dress her
                                    in a blood-red saree.
                                    Paisley henna on her palms
                                    hides a name. We bear her
                                    to the consummating pyre,
                                    offer up her body there,
                                    jasmines braided in her hair.
                                    When a little girl has died,
                                    not so small she could not hide,
                                    she becomes a name in henna,
                                    Yama’s meat, his child bride.

6.
On to the learning of languages, now, before we go silent for good.
O is the shape of kala. Kala is one word for death.
Open-mouthed, we sing hymns to Yama, the God of
Origins. His black hole pupils zero
Out our kala, our time on earth, two gun barrels seen end
On: two endings,
One of them, as always, a beginning. Kala is
Ongoing, aging and dying and being reborn,
Or so we have heard. Auricle,
Oracle: Sanskrit meanings notoriously
Oscillate. What did you expect from Yama’s mother tongue? He’s
Oblique like that. Same syllables,
Opposite order: Yama’s mirror image is maya,
Optical illusion. His deepest word for thirst is
Ocean, his soundest word for silence,
Om.

7.
Yom is the Hebrew word for day.
May stepping stones rejoin the water

the moment I’m not pushing off them.
Yama, the Sanskrit name, means rein.

May I recall this Day is full
of breathgifts strangers gave the sky.

Here in the half life I have left
may I love the living twice as hard.

Here in the half life I have left
may I learn to leave this life I’ve loved.

Rein in desire, say the tame
who live their lives with an eye to dying

but desire is the reigning law
where shirts go see-through in the rain.

This flame or that one? The fate of straw.
May all my days be days of awe.

8.
Death before the birth could happen.
Death to teach the rest a lesson.
Death on a graph, or traced in chalk.
Death by Smith and death by Wesson.

Death by incompetence, ancient tech
furred like a tongue with rust.
Death by meth of mythic money,
no God in whom we trust.

Death by distraction, baking shows
with naught but a bone to gnaw.
Death to the [outgroup], shout the [ingroup].
Death by corvid, caw caw caw.

Death of eros grunting on a screen.
Good death or bad, it remains to be seen.
Death by the virus or death by vaccine,
natural death by unnatural means.

The soul is immortal, scientists
announce, except they’re lying.
Death by superhero movie. Sell me
the sequel, sell me the tie-in.

Death by painkiller. Death by Tuesday.
Death by dearth or death by glut.
Death of the past by way of no one
can remember what.

Death by hanging, sneakers twitchy,
the medics tie the laces.
Death by doxxing, anonymous profiles
suddenly cursed with faces.

Death by famine, death by fame.
Death for want of trying.
Dead or alive, unwanted, haunted.
We are dying, America, dying.

9.
Ten spines of the bone fans he calls hands.

Nine strokes of a cat’s back to drain her of lives.

Eightfold noble path to the same funeral ghat as everyone else.

Seven eucalyptus trees sacred because they poison the soil around them.

Six rounds chambered though he’s got me aiming at the back of my own throat.

Five rounds of chemo but the liver mets keep growing.

Four chambers in the heart’s locked-room mystery with blood on the floor and walls.

Three eye sockets in the skull that wears the crown.

Two dice dancing tipsy over green felt only to come up snake eyes.

One God to God only knows what liftoff counts me down.

Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019). A historical novel, Soar, was released this year in India from Penguin Random House, and a poetry collection in the United States, What He Did in Solitary, is forthcoming from Knopf in August 2020. His novel Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) was shortlisted for the HWA/Goldsboro Crown Prize for Historical Fiction and was named Best Debut Fiction of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and his second novel, The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio Program. His poetry has appeared in The Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition, numerous Best American Poetry anthologies, as well as the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and Poetry; his prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, The Best American Essays 2018, and the New York Times. His first poetry collection, 0',0', was shortlisted for the Norma Farber Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his second collection, Heaven and Earth, won the Donald Justice Award. He also edited an anthology of political poetry, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now(Knopf, 2017). Winner of the Anne Halley Prize and the Pushcart Prize, he served as Ohio's first Poet Laureate. He practices diagnostic and nuclear radiology full-time in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.
Amit Majmudar

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Author: Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019). A historical novel, Soar, was released this year in India from Penguin Random House, and a poetry collection in the United States, What He Did in Solitary, is forthcoming from Knopf in August 2020. His novel Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) was shortlisted for the HWA/Goldsboro Crown Prize for Historical Fiction and was named Best Debut Fiction of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and his second novel, The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio Program. His poetry has appeared in The Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition, numerous Best American Poetry anthologies, as well as the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and Poetry; his prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, The Best American Essays 2018, and the New York Times. His first poetry collection, 0',0', was shortlisted for the Norma Farber Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his second collection, Heaven and Earth, won the Donald Justice Award. He also edited an anthology of political poetry, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now(Knopf, 2017). Winner of the Anne Halley Prize and the Pushcart Prize, he served as Ohio's first Poet Laureate. He practices diagnostic and nuclear radiology full-time in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.