By way of introduction to this month’s Featured Selection, a “conversation” between the poet, Amit Majmudar, and new Associate Editor for Special Projects Nancy Mitchell, followed by the work itself and some biographical material.
Mitchell: I loved your playfulness in the title ABECEDARIAN; for example, you obviously intend for the title to designate the form the prose/poem inhabits, and perhaps reference its history in ancient literature and sacred texts. However, as the noun “Abecedarian” means beginner, did you intend the title to introduce Adam/the speaker, Eve/the girl, the snake and even God, as they are all beginners, rookies in this primal drama?
Majmudar: This is one of those times that my instrument knows better than I do. I find that if you trust the English language, it won’t lead you astray, at least not always. So I had no idea until I read your question that “abecedarian” means “novice”—but it seems absolutely perfect in retrospect, given the work’s themes of innocence and experience. You are right also about how in Genesis, even Satan, whom we have a tendency to consider shrewd, is a novice at the art of subversion. Eve is God’s maiden attempt at a woman, herself a revised and reshaped “excerpt” of Adam.
Mitchell: The narrator speaks with such matter-of-fact authority, I have to tell you I was on my way to believing the anatomical description of ejaculation in “Come:”
At the moment you come, the spinal cord detaches from the brain and whips down, forward, and out liquefying gray and white matter. Immediately before that moment, gooseflesh prickles up the neuraxis and the body gives a slow, rising shudder—as if a third, colder presence had come into the room and blown, ever so gently, on the naked back.
After I re-read this many times for the sheer pleasure of it, I realized how just reading it creates a moment of complete resolution as the dichotomy of brain/body is dissolved. It was such a perfect image that I don’t think I will ever see it in any other way. Thank you, I think;
In a sense, the genesis of the first act of human creativity-art-if you will, in trying to find pleasure by tweaking nature (what God has wrought), springs fresh from the mind of Adam. They couldn’t have learned it from watching the beasts of the field. As this creative original act deviates from the procreation plan to perpetuate the image of God, is it not in a sense the real original sin?
This new discovery cleared Eve out of Adam’s field of view. This transition of pleasure, from Eve’s face to the absence of her face made the pleasure twice removed from the pleasure of beasts: consummately solitary, consummately human. Before the fall, Adam laid on his back and marveled at clouds and their many counterfeit forms. After the fall, he stood and watched himself in a mirror.
Is this the original sin from which every other sin committed in Eden “genetically” descends?
Majmudar: You can definitely think of it that way, and the logic behind that passage was as follows: All evil, in Vedantic thought and mystical thought across traditions, stems from a failure to understand the unity of the self and the other. It’s what leads to ahamkar, which is Sanskrit for, literally, self-doing, or doing-for-oneself. So the antidote to this is to realize that you, your enemy (think “Love thine enemy”), God (think Mansur al-Hallaj, a Sufi: “I am the Real”), and all nonhuman natural life (think environmentalism, animal rights advocates, and so on) are all, together, unitary Being. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”…because they are you, the Upanishads would add. Tat tvam asi, You Are That.
So the endgame of a spiritual life is to actually live that unity. Some call it atonement (at-one-ment), or the unio mystica; even Nietzsche’s Zarathustra speaks of “self-overcoming.”
Sex, as originally conceived, in its unfallen form, is here the enactment of the unity between Adam and Eve. The denial of separateness, of otherness. When Adam makes Eve go down on him, he pushes her literally out of the picture (“he stood and watched himself in a mirror”). This is the original sin because this is the original selfishness.
Mitchell: Eve, within the literal, physical restrictions, of the new hierarchy-and its impossible not to think of poetic form here-must shape the raw material of the unnatural into an artifice of the natural. In the spaces between accommodating, anticipating, and modulating the cell bars of Adam’s rhythms, she riffs and refines his into her own, perhaps her own act of Non serviam:
she played with what would become meters: dactylic, halfway, all the way down; iambic, halfway, then down to the base, or Adam’s favorite, the emphatic spondee.
Each stanza dissolves so logically into the next, although there are shifts in point of view and setting. Is the transition so graceful because archetypes are at play in plot and character? If so, are particulars of person and setting significant? Is there hope for the human spirit to evolve as long as it is at the mercy of archetypes? Are compassion and empathy (to ask) necessary to break the archetypal grid?
Majmudar: I think the work occupies a middle-ground between/among the forms of the poem, the short story, the (faux) memoir, the essay, and the theological commentary. In such a melange absurde de tout kind of form, archetypal imagery and personae are crucial, from a technical standpoint. Even the first person “I” of the memoristic passages is someone who flickers into and out of your field of view enigmatically, and is essentially unknown, or known only through the alphabetically arranged sequence of images and anecdotes he tells, and a tone of voice. That is what allows the different narratives to cohabit a (relatively) small space: the Book of Genesis, the narrator’s loss of innocence, and the meta-analysis of these things. The work has this braided, essentially triple structure: the mythic story, the realist parallel, and the nonfiction commentary.
Mitchell: You are masterful at stringing tensions between disparities and then playing on what is taut between them; I find it makes your work very alive. Do you think the negotiations you’ve made or make everyday between cultures, work and writing, etc. have contributed to this facility?
Majmudar: I conceive of all these disparities as means of attaining hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor is something people have known about for millennia: That a mutt is hardier than a specimen of either purebred parent species. The mongrel can live on trash and air; the purebred can eat Purina its whole life and it will still get early arthritis. It’s the nature of biology. I apply that principle to things intellectual. Pick a pair of seemingly or supposedly opposed things—science and art, reason and religion, formal and free verse, poetry and prose, mono- and -polytheism, theism and atheism, fiction and nonfiction, left brain and right brain, East and West, India and America, Hinduism and Islam, God and Mammon, truth and lie, truth and dare: I seek to hybridize them and to be invigorated by that hybridization. So I try to force opposites into occupying the same intellectual real estate and I wait for the explosions: because the explosions happen in English, which is, with its globetrotter’s portmanteaux and its Latinogermanic ancestry, probably the most hybrid-vigorous language in history.
Mitchell: As I read your blogs, poems and fiction, I’m impressed by your prodigious imagination-wow! and amazed at how you manage to be a prolific writer with the other wonderful responsibilities in your life. Your work seems suffused with a kind inclusiveness, which finds a way to fit the misfit with the fit to make a whole, as in your poem Joint Effort:
Let the hunchback lie hump down
upon the Bactrian camel. On that snug foundation
let the leper stand tiptoe, balancing
the cripple’s cane on his nose, while the cripple,
upside down, balances atop the cane, index finger
on the hook handle.
I’m wondering, guessing really if that could be a metaphor for your (forgive the term; I’m at a loss for another) creative process?
Majmudar: We are all writers trying to pile things up: paragraph upon paragraph, stanza upon stanza: a work, if it stands, is really just a Jenga tower of words, enjoying a temporary reprieve from gravity.
The only proof we have of intelligent design is that Adam could not connect his mouth and his penis. His designer was so aware of the risk that he designed Adam with a two-rib buffer. One rib eventually went to make Eve, but the second made sure Adam never lost interest in her. If given the ability to fellate himself, he would have poured himself endlessly into himself, like an ocean evaporating into one fixed cloud and raining on its own waves, greening nothing. The act would have been a means to knowing himself Biblically—to self-knowledge— and as such would have vaulted Adam above the sexless archangels. He might well have lost interest in God, too, bowing only to himself, rising a little, bowing again. Eve and Eden would have blossomed, Satan would have hissed in vain as Adam rocked like a pillbug on the grass, our species committing suicide as its intended first parent over and over again shot himself in the head.
Between the nose and the throat, we swallow in the same place we breathe. The pharynx is an anteroom where breath and drink mingle before they are sent, by the mindless knowingness of the body, down their separate tunnels. The breath is constantly blowing up and down, just beyond, while the head continues its own up and down, the lifegiving movement crosswise to the pleasure-giving one. The ancients believed that God blew the breath of life, the nishmath chayim, into a mud effigy. In this sense, the arousal of Adam to life was the first blowjob. The first time my first girlfriend was forced to give one, she kept stopping every ten to fifteen seconds. Holding one thing in her mouth, reflexively she held the other as well. It’s okay, I told her.
At the moment you come, the spinal cord detaches from the brain and whips down, forward, and out, liquifying as it leaves you. The dull pearl hue of come comes from mixing gray matter and white matter. Immediately before that moment, gooseflesh prickles up the neuraxis and the body gives a slow, rising shudder—as if a third, colder presence had come into the room and blown, ever so gently, on the naked back. This is the same shudder Eve felt when the serpent came inside the garden: her first adumbration of the female orgasm, courtesy of Lucifer.
Duino Elegies, in Edward Snow’s translation, sat on the nightstand next to her bed. She had bookmarked it with its own receipt. I kept turning my head to it, pondering its thinness and the thinness of books of poetry generally, and wondering what a duino was, and wondering why my head was not in the getting of head when head was what I had wanted for so long. I knew nothing of Rilke then—she introduced me to poetry, too: you’d think we would have kept in touch—but I had seen, maybe on a calendar, the famous quote about how love is two people protecting each other’s solitude. At the end, when she rose onto her knees at the foot of the bed, distanced from me by the length of my body, looking to the side, perhaps at that very book on the nightstand, I did feel loneliness. Loneliness is just solitude without a book. O fig tree, how long I’ve pondered you….
When Adam first asked Eve to look up at him, he thought eye contact would be like touch, only deeper. His mind would enter the upper half of her head as his body was entering the lower half of it. She, too, wanted to lock eyes, believing it would connect them—it was getting lonely and tedious down there, and she was wondering whether she preferred the snake-eyed sweetness of the apple to the salty treesap of Adam. But Adam thought her left eyebrow rose slightly as she looked up, and he couldn’t shake an impression of knowingness, which only reminded him of their lost innocence. Eve saw him looking down at her from his height and sensed a new hierarchy between them, in which he made demands, and she knelt and serviced him. Non serviam, she insisted, but her mouth was full as she said this, and Adam mistook it for a groan of pleasure.
They couldn’t have learned it from watching the beasts of the field. For many—the giraffe, the horse—the logistical barriers to any technique other than mounting are insurmountable. The closest thing they could have witnessed was the mutual investigative sniff between dogs.
For that matter, even the default position of human copulation, face to face, had little precedent in nature. The new discovery cleared Eve out of Adam’s field of view. This transition in his pleasure, from Eve’s face to the absence of her face, made the pleasure twice removed from the pleasure of beasts: consummately solitary, consummately human. Before the fall, Adam laid on his back and marveled at clouds and their infinite counterfeit forms. After the fall, he stood and watched himself in a mirror.
This second fruit—over which Adam had taken to wearing a leaf, creating the illusion he, too, was a tree—seemed as forbidden as the apple, and as such, irresistible. Eve found out how seriously she had transgressed only when, devouring it whole, as a serpent might its noonday meal, she felt an unexpected lurch, her whole neck and torso rising in revolt. She fell back onto her heels, coughing. If only the apple had convulsed her so! Everything might have been different. She would have never swallowed that bite of the forbidden. She would have done nothing more than hold the forbidden in her mouth, like smoke, or a pill, or now, returning onto her knees, Adam.
The physical expressions of love are really just people rubbing together the most sensitive parts of their bodies. We rub hands, we rub lips and tongues, we rub genitals because that’s where the nerve endings are. We rub them the way paramedics rub defibrillator paddles before delivering the jolt: Well-given head makes the getter arch off the bed, electrified. To get head is to have the lover’s thinking head sleeve your unthinking head. Two civilizations at vastly different stages of development are meeting. The thinking head is a cluster of highly developed organs of perception, eyes, ears, nose, tongue—not to mention the neurological capital, where decisions are made. It is the body’s technological North. The head of the penis is nothing but nerves, something rudimentary, not yet a mind. This head is capital of a hot-blooded rebel country, hypersensitive and easily roused: the body’s humid, tumid South.
It seemed like a way of having it both ways, at that age. Pleasure without risk, intimacy without a sinking sense of obligation. You could get your knowledge without having it age you. It should have been playful. I shouldn’t have had to put my hands on her shoulders and, ever so gently, press. Because I was everything at once in the garden of my greenness. I was innocent Adam and insidious Lucifer. I was also the Tree, the standing wood of life, coaxing an Eve curious but full of foreboding, Taste of me. Taste of me.
Blowing Adam became one of the many jobs of Eve’s exile, the milking of one more udder. Repetition: Cain the infant, Abel the toddler loved it. Their minds still carried an amniotic glisten of innocence, which wouldn’t rub off until their teens. Repetition, though, their mother could not bear. In Eden, things had been different: twelve hours of daylight, twelve of dark, the saying of the same prayers at the same times of day, the three hungers and the three meals, Eve’s nightly up down up down up down until Adam spouted like Old Faithful on a seismic timer—in Eden all this retained delight, every time, the same way the same story told the same way delighted the children: In the beginning was the word, once upon a time. In exile, boredom became possible. Music was the only language that could take them back, please them with repetition—though now even songs, they realized, could age. Repetition: Within a few years, Eve and Adam stopped speaking in verse. They longed for a new rhythm from moment to moment, which is the same thing as longing for no rhythm at all. The language of knowledge has always been prose.
She placed her affection, almost daintily, on the feverish forehead of lust. I wanted to inspire awe, like some dark alien obelisk discovered in the jungle: I wanted to be jawdropping. But here were kisses, gentle ones, kisses I had never asked for, kisses better suited to the cheeks of nephews, kisses that undercut my male aggression like long-stem roses slid down a riot gun. Later, when we broke up and the reproaches came out all at once, she told me that she hadn’t really wanted to, that I had been pushy, that she had worried she would lose me if she didn’t, that she wished she never had. Kisses. I realize now she was buying time.
Lucifer had no idea, when he decided to take the form of the serpent, how he would move once he was in it. The wingless, footless form seemed a perfect disguise for one who would be expected to enter either gliding or on tiptoe. The trick, once he laid prone on the ticklish grass, was not to lead with his front end, but to squeeze himself from the base to the head. The tongue spilled forward on its own, like toothpaste from a tube. So did the seven ounces of breath that comprised his hiss.
To give pleasure the mouth sacrifices speech. The conversation across the table that gave way to whispering on the futon gave way, at last, to silence. I did not speak because, for me, four months’ speaking had attained its goal. I had listened, too, listened always with this future silence in mind, though it seems calculating to accuse a boy that young of such calculation, even if the accuser and the accused are me and me. She tried to speak once, that first time, a couple syllables, or maybe one syllable that struggled twice to emerge. Everything comes out sounding the same, this mnmmn that is neither moan nor murmur. She could have been saying yes, or baby, or more, or Amit, or oh, or (we were both so young, we were boy and girl) no.
It wouldn’t have taken much. If she had said the word, I would have sucked myself back like a touch-me-not, touched. No means no, we were taught in Health class. No means no, said the Sex Ed VHS on the television our teacher wheeled into the classroom. No one ever taught us what silence meant. Silence means whatever the person not listening wants silence to mean. And I wanted hers to mean yes that afternoon between Rilke’s elegies and the rest of summer break. The second time, the third time, all the other times, she told me later, I wanted to. Just not that first time. And I, guilty, all I could do was murmur: I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.
O opens any ode. It is the default orison sung by heavenly choristers, the only letter that fashions the mouth in its own image, the original rabbit-hole of the original fall: Out of Eden, into Wonderland. In the room where I was first blown, a ceiling punkah turned furiously in the humid heat, and I stared up at its circular blur. It was over only when my mouth rounded itself to match hers and I shouted, loudly once and the second time more softly, in a decrescendo, O, o.
Adam’s sensitive hardness had a pull on Eve even before they found out pleasure could divorce itself from pelvis-to-pelvis procreation. Fellatio wasn’t just some corrupt, postlapsarian innovation. Before, in her innocence, she went down to learn more about him, the way she bent sometimes to inspect Eden’s earthworms and orchids. After the fall, Eve went down to fall farther, to fall all the way, to do nothing of use with the sacred tools of speech and sex. This was the pull toward him, but after the fall, there was also an opposite force at work the other way. Call it resentment. Adam noticed how her going down, quickening toward the finish, flipped its directionality. She wasn’t going down anymore—just repeatedly, and tenaciously, pulling away.
That afternoon, for whole minutes before it actually happened, the experience floated just beyond me, a ring of smoke. Asking the question, even leaving off the part that would make the question make sense, Will you, would have swished away everything by grasping it. And so I communicated what I wanted with a brush of my finger across her lips, my hands sliding onto her small shoulders, my back arching as I glanced down at myself as though here, between us, were a flesh wound that needed her nursing. It would have felt wrong to speak this want stronger than mere need, this curiosity too intense for questions. She never said no because I never asked.
Adam’s rhythm, standing behind Eve (their first experiments aped the apes), slowed down or speeded up on its own. His mind didn’t govern it so much as his pelvis, the anatomy autonomous. Whenever Eve took him in her mouth, though, questions of rhythm—how to set, sustain, modulate it—entered her head. She sped up toward the climax, mimicking Adam’s thrusting tempo, because she knew her endgame was to mimic nature. Before she sensed that tiptoe-tremulous shiver, and sometimes the unwelcome clap of his hands on her ears, she played with what would become meters: dactylic, halfway, halfway, all the way down; iambic, halfway, then down to the base; or Adam’s favorite, the emphatic spondee.
The ouroboros, the serpent sucking on itself, has been the envy of mystics and alchemists for centuries. It represents perfect sufficiency, pleasure given and received in equal measure, a creature that has formed a ring and married itself. One could imagine that ring tightening until the serpent became all head and the jaws everted into pure absence, like a reversible purse whose inner lining was the void. Which serpent appears in this symbol, it doesn’t take a leap to imagine. The tempter in the garden must have taunted Eve and Adam, afterwards, with this very same now-you-see-me trick, deep throating himself in a auto-da-fellatio, tasting of the one fruit more forbidden than the apple.
Rilke compares the tongue between the teeth to the heart between hammers. And the tongue is covered in nerve endings, sensing, in its cloister, more intensely than other parts of the body. When you place a part of yourself more sensitive than your tongue between someone else’s teeth, the one who kneels is not the one who surrenders. Any gesture of dominance or control, like the hand on the head that presumes to bless this genuflection, guide this descent, is just for show. The one who isn’t biting down is the one in charge. A girl named Nicole once ran our high school football team, and on Monday morning, when everyone knew, I could not detect anything like shame on her used face, only triumph, as though she were a warrior princess, and a rival army one by one had knelt to kiss her sword.
When I was young and could not bear to go slow, when holding hands across a table at Applebee’s and even making out felt like salt flats seen from a car going the speed limit, I couldn’t taste the desert we spooned together. It could have been apple pie, it could have been a wedge of wet clay. All the motions of the date took on the feel of running in a dream. When the time came at last, I placed myself in her mouth like a beating donor heart on ice.
A garden’s a garden only until something grows without permission. No plant is born a weed save in its gardener’s eye: What lives must live by design or not at all. Eden, willed wild, was never some Versailles, never some grid of green hallways and foursquare grottos. Eden had tangled ivies but no weeds until Adam and Eve dared to grow their own minds up. From that moment, they themselves became the first weeds in Eden—detected, dug up, and flung over the wall. By then, a sense of flower and weed governed how they looked at their bodies: Hence the figleaf meant to camouflage Adam’s new patch of loosestrife, Eve’s coarse triangle of crabgrass. In fact, the flesh stem of his penis itself came to seem a weed—one she could never, for all her kneeling and pulling, uproot.
Why not iron, why not marble, why not brass? Because desire, in all the old poems, is supposed to be a flame, and fire swallows wood. Because men, even at their most vulgar, prefer to liken this part of their bodies to something animate, organic: hence boner, hence cock, hence meat. Because wood, back when it was the trunk of a tree, dribbled sticky white sap and coursed at its pith with water. Because the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge had scaffolds, at least, of a common material, and because they were both wood they too could burn, could blossom, could rot.
A cutting from a fern grows the same fern in a different spot. Simply incubating Adam’s rib was not enough. Something had to be changed. Adam’s chromosomes were X and Y, Eve’s were X and X: A stubby appendage added to her genome, subtracted from her genitals. This zero-sum made all the difference. A body surfaced more finely, better insulated, more flexible—these were revisions made by a practiced hand, a second draft, fewer mistakes and fewer risks. A patient aesthetic came into play, too, flourishes neglected in the first version: an up curl given to each eyelash, a lighter voice in her throat, a deeper walnut dye for her hair, for her mouth more madder red.
What I wanted: To be held in her mouth like a secret. To be known, but not completely, not yet, not while I was still riding the bus to school every day. To gain knowledge without losing our innocence, or at least not all of our innocence. To do something serious in a way that could be played off as playfulness, afterwards. To dip myself into her like a toe into a pool, but safely, in the shallow end, where even if I fell I could find my feet and walk out. To taste sex the way the rich taste wine, treasuring it on the tongue before spitting.
On the last day of their innocence, Adam arched his back and groaned and rested his head on some stones, which in those days had not yet hardened themselves toward man, and remembered the shape of his head. Eve rose and, wiping her mouth, found him asleep. At this moment, the serpent emerged from a ravine. The serpent knew she would go looking for a stream or fruit-tree soon, to get rid of the aftertaste, and he had to intercept her early. Adam had just fallen asleep, so the serpent did not speak with his long serpent tongue. Instead he stuck it out and wagged it side to side, showing Eve what Adam had never yet, in his selfish innocence, done unto her. Eve held her hand out to the serpent, as she often did to geese and jaguars, and the breezy thwips of his tongue concentrated between her first and middle fingers. Unlike the geese, unlike the jaguars, the serpent was neither eating from her hand nor licking it. He did this with his tongue solely to give her a sensation. Eve had never received a gift before. She sat on the grass, a few feet from where Adam snored, to puzzle out her own delight. The serpent, his tongue still out and moving, crawled into her lap.
Amit Majmudar has published fiction in The Kenyon Review and poetry in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. His first novel, Partitions, was published in 2011. He is also the author of two poetry collections, 0˚,0˚ and Heaven and Earth, which won the 2011 Donald Justice Prize.
Nancy Mitchell, a Pushcart Prize 2012 recipient, is the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut, (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, Great River Review, and are anthologized in Last Call by Sarabande Books.