Jane Zwart on Amit Majmudar's "The Illuminator"

An Ordinary Plots Guest Post

Throughout this year, I will be featuring essays by poets I love and admire in response to poems of their choosing. They will appear at random, whenever such poets are moved. I’m honored to include the third installment this week, by the poet Jane Zwart, writing about Amit Majmudar’s poem “The Illuminator.”

The Illuminator

My grandfather, the last illuminator of Qu’rans in Herat, went blind at fifty-two.

All his life, his brush was forbidden cedar forests, clear-eyed falcons, horses, men--

Any shape that might rival God’s first stick figure on the dust jacket of life.

Any doodle with a root, hoof, hand, or frond.

A diacritical dot, the rules went, must not masquerade as a watermelon seed.

An alif must not be reborn as a leaf, nor a laam as a lamb, nor a baa as a sheep.

My grandfather’s stained-glass cataracts left his eyes as blue-gray as any Englishman’s.

Fingertips ink-black, wick-black where the light had long ago alit

Saw by feel his grandson, his living image.

Indigo infused his lenses, madder red his rosacea.

Those lenses were solid haze, as if a dry nib leeched his inkdrop-pupils

To conjure a border or crosshatch mountains outlaw.

Cataracts are waterfalls: When my father closed his father’s eyes,

Thousands of unpenned images, unpent at last,

Thrashed upstream to the breeding waters of his dreams.

from Dothead (Knopf, 2016)

Amit Majmudar’s paternal grandfather was not “the last illuminator of Qu’rans in Herat.” His grandfather was not a Muslim, not an Afghan, not blind. “The Illuminator” is, in other words, a persona poem--a poem in which the writer lends an imagined other his voice. 

Well, Majmudar makes a habit of climbing into other consciousnesses. The first-person narrator of his novel The Abundance (Metropolitan, 2013) is a terminally ill grandmother. His early poem “Insect Collection” (Heaven and Earth, Storyline Press, 2011) contains a handful of soliloquies, beginning with the Mosquito in Amber’s unnerving and perfect revelation: “I have watched you through this glassy cough drop / Epochs now.” And anyone given to listing examples of Majmudar’s quick-change artistry could go on. The point, though, isn’t the volume of costumes that Majmudar tries on. The point is how and why he tries on—at all—the “sleeves of [other] selves.” 

That phrase is his, and I love it. Majmudar invokes “these sleeves of selves” in one of the triolets between sections of his most recent collection, What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). However--and the order matters--this octet does start with the self, the singular I. Its first line reads:

I slough my skin. I hatch. I molt.

Yes, the order matters. How can a Hindu poet borrow the “sleeves” of a Muslim illuminator’s grandson? By first “slough[ing his own] skin” or “hatch[ing]” or “molt[ing].” Of course, on the heels of this answer to how? comes the question why? Why strip off the outermost layers of your self and tug on some other self’s (likely ill-fitting) sleeves? 

It strikes me that the answer to this question has to do with what one believes a self is, and (although my knowledge of Hinduism is slender) I suspect Amit Majmudar believes that a person’s self is the flour-sack tunic their soul wears until it wings its way back to God. 

Which means that this poem, “The Illuminator,” is a kind of reincarnation writ small. That is, it sets before us readers not only a persona, this boy with a blind and devout grandfather; it also, with its sympathetic and elastic imagination, sets before us an exercise in the selflessness that taking on the stuff of another life demands. Maybe such a poem is even a practice run for the soul’s ascension. I think that chance, in itself, is beautiful.

I think this is beautiful, too: “The Illuminator” dwells with selves more than souls. It gives us the blind man who holds a flood of images inside him; the boy who looks like his granddad; the man in the generation between them, layered by father- and son-hood. The poem, moreover, loves these selves--each of whom it makes more vivid than “God’s first stick figure on the dust jacket of life.” That is not, though, what the illuminator, afraid of his own art, would want. Or, at least, not what he would want to want.

What strikes me, then, as most beautiful and difficult about this poem is the art it spends on fleshing out the illuminator, whose religious devotion prohibits him from trying his hand at representational art. After all, this painter with his cataracts—this artist who illuminates Qu’rans, wary of the “diacritical dot” that might “masquerade as a watermelon seed”—does live on the page, although, according to the strictures of his belief, he should not. And it is the poem’s art that gives him breath. The words swarm to make him. Exercising what he would regard as a heretic creativity, the poem incarnates him, and it does this despite him, and it does this for him.

The speaker of the poem, then—the grandson’s imaginary self, or Majmudar in his borrowed sleeves—carries out a kind of making that the illuminator fears would wrong God the creator. Look, for instance, at the line that plays on the Arabic alphabet:

An alif must not be reborn as a leaf, nor a laam as a lamb, nor a baa as a sheep.

In the very prohibition, the alif sprouts, and the lamb gambols, bleating the second letter. The banned act of creativity takes place within the language of the ban itself. And later in the poem, the grandson also insists, gently, that the old man has already “rival[ed] God’s first stick figure on the dust jacket of life.” The grandson, after all, calls himself the illuminator’s “living image.” And, further, he—or Majmudar—changes the cataracts occluding the illuminator’s eyes to waterfalls, transforming the “unpenned images” to “unpent” visions. (This is perhaps also the time to say how much I love the slant homophones in Majmudar’s poetry: so much.)

But in all this fretfulness about making and being made, I think the poem urges an even bolder transformation, which is probably why I chose it. Because it uses language to push breath into the “forbidden cedar forests, clear-eyed falcons, horses, men”—daring this human feat of creation—“The Illuminator” transfigures God, too. Indeed, the creator who hoards art and artfulness, the poem says, is not God. The artist jealous of the life or beauty that “thrashe[s]” in cataracts from his creatures is not God. Thus, Majmudar, dressed up as the illuminator’s grandson, insists: we are not God’s rivals but God’s joy. Not God’s stick figures but God’s images and imagers and imaginers.

So in the world of this poem, reverence is not narrow; it is wild. And art is not a transgression but a shimmer of transcendence. It is what lets us “slough [our] skin” and try on other selves, writers and readers, illuminators all. It is what tutors the soul to trust its wings. 

Jane Zwart teaches at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and Poetry, as well as other journals and magazines.