What He Did in Solitary
Amit Majmudar
Knopf, $27 (cloth)

Amit Majmudar is interested in how people’s lives diverge and converge within the systems of power around them: a veteran traumatized by a war, the veteran’s son who calls another boy a racist slur in the schoolyard. Whether constellating the effects of a military invasion or of a midwestern city’s impoverishment, Majmudar’s poetry is grounded in the contemporary United States—its schools, gyms, jails—and yet spans a vast amount of history and space. The titles of his first two collections suggest his range: the coordinates of 0°, 0° (2009) locate a point 300 miles off the West African coast, and Heaven and Earth (2011) encompasses multiple religious traditions and a sprawl of global conflicts.

Amit Majmudar is interested in how people’s lives diverge and converge within the systems of power around them.

Majmudar has spent much of his life in Ohio: he was raised near Cleveland, went to college in Akron and medical school in Rootstown, and now works in Columbus as a nuclear radiologist. Radiology is still his full-time job. Twelve years ago, however, just before he turned thirty, he published 0°, 0°—and then three novels, a verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita, a fictional reworking of the Ramayana, and the three books of poems that have appeared in the last decade. The most recent of these collections, What He Did in Solitary, exemplifies the scope of Majmudar’s poems, which often exhibit a novelist’s interest in other lives, both real and imagined.

While What He Did in Solitary is novelistic in its attention to other people, what is even more salient is its attention to poetic form, attentiveness Majmudar has demonstrated ever since 0°, 0°. Such a claim may sound forbidding—for casual and expert readers alike. If poetry often seems a relatively remote and apolitical and even unwelcoming genre, formalist poetry—however you construe “formalist”—might be its most remote, least political, least welcoming subcategory. But for Majmudar, the patterns of fixed forms are ways to think more clearly: “metrical rules,” as W. H. Auden asserted, can help us get past “automatic responses.” They can “force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.”

In What He Did in Solitary, second thoughts—changes of mind or of perspective—are everywhere. For Majmudar, form helps both writer and reader see things otherwise missed. Form can also be truthful to how cause and coincidence mingle, which resonates with how Majmudar keeps considering individual paths in shared cultures.

But there is a second side to poetic form: that of fun, pranks, and sheer surprise. This side has been evident since Majmudar’s first book, too. “A Pedestrian” (from 0°, 0°), for instance, sets a chase scene within an unlikely vehicle—a Petrarchan sonnet, a fourteen-line rhyming form dating back to the fourteenth century, and originally linked to sequences of love poems. Majmudar’s sonnet begins with a man browsing windows and newspapers while drinking a coffee. Each of the first eight lines is textbook pentameter (five stressed syllables, with a few relatively standard variations) and each line’s end word fits into the rhyming octet pattern (ABBAABBA, though some of the rhymes are less than full). Nothing seems irregular, “except a black van loitering down the block.”

Just at the end of the octet, though, there’s a turn—the sonnet’s prescribed volta. It happens in the middle of a sentence and across a line break:

His neck prickles. He slows. The coffee drops
and before it has landed he’s off like a hound at the races
he is hurdling strollers & ducking a chilidog raised
to the mouth
. . .

For one slow-motion second, the coffee is suspended in the air. And then the sestet (the closing six lines) opens into an italicized, punctuation-free sprint, a chaotic barrage of hot dogs and trench coats flying past you. Majmudar is showing off the almost cinematic effects of meter: how time begins to slow down as the man’s “néck príckles” (I’m adding accents to indicate where the stress falls), in a line with about as many pauses as a line can have, and how it gallops when the meter leaves iambs (unstressed–stressed pairs of syllables) behind. There is a streak of defiance in the implication that a sonnet not only can handle a spy movie, but can guide you as a camera would.

For Majmudar, the patterns of fixed forms are ways to think more clearly: “metrical rules,” as W. H. Auden asserted, can help us get past “automatic responses.”

Though the word “formalist” can sound constraining, or contrarian, Majmudar’s formalism is intensely varied, and often linked to surprising subjects. Dothead (2016) included his invented form, the sonzal (which fuses the sonnet with the ghazal), and “Abecedarian,” a twenty-six-part alphabetical prose poem about blow jobs. What He Did in Solitary adds to an encyclopedia of poetic forms—an encyclopedia that devises new forms and stretches old ones.

Majmudar’s primary desideratum for form is not that a poem be in a recognizable, traditional shape but that the shape itself should say something. Look at the ragged lines in “Apocalypse Shopping List”:

Breadboxes, to bury stillbirths.
            Flare guns, glue guns, gun guns.
Marijuana brownies for the burn units.

 Later, some lines shrink to single nouns, whose purpose is omitted:

Spike strips.

Form here—the units of varying length, every other one indented—accentuates the way a list lets a menacing item brush against a goofy one. And form affects pacing, pulling you up short on purchases calculated to raise questions: What situation might require spike strips?

Just at the end, the list’s intermittent and slanted rhymes snap into an audible, seemingly inevitable pair:

Wooden stakes, because you never know.
            Four-ounce jars of Fleischmann’s yeast.
Gallon jugs of Zen.
            Rabbit traps, for the mice of the future.
Bear traps, for the men.

The stability of rhyme here is ironic: those gallon jugs of serenity are simultaneously matched and shattered by the idea of needing bear traps for other people.

That poem was first published in 2015: Majmudar had been writing about 2020 well before it happened. “Virus,” also from What He Did in Solitary, is even more prescient, describing a “[d]oorknob-slobber-droplet- / Borne mysterium”—a line that now registers as alarmingly full of germ-transmitting plosives. And it shows how Majmudar works with and against a fixed form—short, brisk AB XB couplets that sound like light verse:

Born of nothing, knowing
Only how to breed

Like some dandelion-clock-less
Dandelion seed

Soon, though, a couplet breaks that pattern: its lines do not link up with another couplet. Instead, they cinch up sound within themselves, in “Protean protein, / Hijacker, safe-cracker.” Though the AB XB rhyme then continues, it snags again a few couplets later. The result on the page, with its invisible twists, faintly recalls a strand of DNA—a little bit of code, starting to replicate.

The uneasy relation between one’s subjects and how one makes them beautiful is central for Majmudar. He presses at how to write about wrongdoing and suffering, especially others’ suffering.

That feeling of formal cleverness, of making something like a puzzle or joke, is everywhere in Majmudar’s work; it’s second nature. Often it is a comic and self-reflexive expressivity. For a fleeting moment in a poem about laundry, Majmudar adjusts iambic pentameter to move one line’s tenth syllable to the next: “The sóaked and sóaped, bedrággled úndies / spín to lácy cóngeríes of língeríe.” If the transformation of undies to lingerie celebrates the roots of English, so too the sloshing and whirling of clothing celebrate the effect that even a superficial rearrangement of meter—pushing spin across the line break—can have.

As you keep reading, though, this self-reflexiveness can sometimes come to have an edge of self-reprimand. “Ode to a Jellyfish” seems, for the first six of its tiny three-line stanzas, to take a jellyfish as an aesthetic experience. The jellyfish is a translucent, fluctuating “Ghost truffle / unruffled / by rough weather.” Being “colorless and odorless, / [a] tangible patch / of poison gas,” it is an excuse for excesses of sound and also metaphor—“inhaling, exhaling, / all skirt and no legs, / parasailing.” But just at the end, the ode’s rationale becomes visible: the jellyfish is “kissing fire / up my daughter’s shin.” It is a reproach to the linguistic display, though the sting itself is also aestheticized.

This uneasy relation—between one’s subjects and how one makes them beautiful—is central for Majmudar, and not only in the poems with conspicuous verbal invention. More broadly, Majmudar presses at how to write about wrongdoing and suffering, especially others’ suffering, from the perspective in which one is stuck (“Abecedarian,” for instance, is not actually so much about blow jobs as it is about consent, selective obliviousness, selfishness, and guilt).

The final section of What He Did in Solitary revolves around the experience of one unnamed man in the United States prison system (a focus built up to by earlier, glancing references to addiction, systemic racism, and childhood neglect or abuse). Its final three poems—the title poem, followed by “What He Dreamed in Solitary” and “What He Drew in Solitary”—take on solitary in the sense of literal incarceration. “What He Did” begins with something mundane, then turns to decorating a cell as a student might decorate a dorm room:

Named all the state capitals

Sang as much of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as he had tattooed on his eardrums, which was all of it

Tugged, instead of magician’s scarves, blinking Christmas lights from somewhere deep inside him

And strung them in spirals up and down his prison bars

As the poem progresses, the activities degenerate: “Shouted at the ceiling.” It takes pages to get the full effect of how time slows and distends, but in each poem, Majmudar conveys the rounds of boredom, desperation, hopelessness, and endurance, minute by minute. Here rhyme doesn’t appear even at the end: these lists, like real lists, appear to have no pattern or progress or resolution. They wait for time to pass. “What He Did” stops with the arrival of lunch; similarly, all the images of “What He Dreamed” turn out to have taken up the space of a twenty-minute nap.

Much of the first half of What He Did in Solitary is a loosely autobiographical structure which moves from recollections of adolescence to racial profiling after 9/11 and the loss of a father.

What He Did in Solitary also, however, encompasses solitary in its general meaning of loneliness. Much of the first half (a loosely autobiographical structure which moves from recollections of adolescence to racial profiling after 9/11 and to the loss of a father) emphasizes a single autobiographical self, sometimes a lonely self. Though the meaning specific to incarceration—the loneliness of someone who reaches for lunch in the hopes of seeing a human hand through the tray slot—gets the last word, to foreground both senses of solitary in the same book is a risk. It risks seeming to equate them, to imply that normal solitude is anything like the psychological trauma imagined in the last poems. In juxtaposing different kinds and scales and distances of pain, Majmudar asks: How can a mind, or a book, contain both the frivolity of the laundry poem and so many kinds of horror—solitary confinement, the 2002 Gujarat riots, “The Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery Floor,” a grandfather slipping into dementia?

By putting this array of subjects into disparate poetic forms, Majmudar calls attention to how grief, cleverness, and reproach can follow each other in rapid succession—or rather, how they intermingle. The book doesn’t equate its forms of solitary; rather, it recognizes that solitary confinement is cruel, before all other reasons, precisely because loneliness in any form is so painful.

In considering how poetry depicts loneliness and injustice and hopelessness, Majmudar also considers poetry’s role within them. The imprisoned person dreams of “His old house in East Cleveland with the snow on its roof dyed the color of rocket ice by cop car lights,” and draws “Shin-high sunflowers seed-stippled with Vicodins” on the wall of his cell. Art isn’t a hackneyed solace: the fourth-from-last line of “What He Drew in Solitary”—“Drawing sustenance, drawing from the well, drawing his family like a treasure map from memory, drawing in the face of faces turned away forever”—acknowledges both art’s power and its all too perceptible limitations. The three remaining lines consist of “Breath // Breath // Breath,” moving away from art to something even more imperative and equivocal.