“Teetering on a Necessary Boundary”: Tony Trigilio examines George Kalamaras’ Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors

Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, George Kalamaras, The Bitter Oleander Press

For those already familiar with George Kalamaras’s work, it should come as no surprise that his fourth full-length collection of poetry, Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, portrays the meeting of East and West in glimpses of meaningful cacophony rather than as scenes for artistic colonization. The book emerged from a 1994 Fulbright Fellowship in India and reads as an extended maturation of the experiences initially chronicled in his first collection, The Theory and Function of Mangoes. Kalamaras has been a student of the traditions of India for 36 years and has practiced Hindu yoga for almost 25 years. Rather than write as just an observer (and, thus, flirt with aesthetic imperialism), Kalamaras composes with the honest gaze of a religious writer making art from the intersection of devotion and doubt.


The poems are smart, warm, and technically sharp. Kalamaras’s relentless use of the second-person “you” in his interior pilgrimage could be an alienating gimmick in the hands of a less polished writer. Instead, the pronoun of direct address accumulates throughout the book as a nimble mode of self-scrutiny. No matter our varied religious backgrounds, the body is our shared, universal heritage in these poems. In What is Open the speaker’s tonguing of his raw canker sore (a recurring image in the book for India’s ability to disinhibit the body) reminds him that, no matter how far he might physically be from his home in Indiana or how deeply felt India might be, each experience is one in which “[y]ou melt at this moment of mixed blood, / the incision point of sun in rain.”(31) This incision point is a stable, albeit prickly, frame of mind to which the traveler aspires. Yet stability is not possible in the deliberate dialogic messiness of this speaker’s journey as he loses a little of the self and continuously refashions subjectivity in nearly every poem.


Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors is suspicious of our desire for mastery, especially in the important sequence of poems that includes A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things, A Theory of the Origin of Birth, A Theory of the Choke of Dust, and A Theory of the Shape of Palms.  These poems are not idle, navel-gazing excursions as their titles suggest; instead they grow more tactile as the speaker’s pilgrimage continues, reconsidering the abstracted “function of the confusion of things” as, eventually, the embodied experience of “the choke of dust” and “the shape of palms.” A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things establishes this tension between abstraction and physicality with the speaker imagining his sudden death and eventual cremation in an Indian charnel ground:

                   . . . .  You feel your skin begin


to burn, the fragment of time called Me

drop away, Mother Ganga clock through


your no-longer-ticking heart.  For hours and hours,

rich volcanic lapse spins black butterflies


that catch the Banaras breeze like bits

of burnt air, that settle tiny birds


into the hair of a passing stranger, in the dhoti

folds of a pilgrim with brass bowl, that bathe


the banks of this most holy river

with the dark light of your death. (51)

Kalamaras’s kinetic line trajectories move with circularity, befitting the cyclical logic of the Subcontinent rather than the propositional logic of the European tradition. The speaker’s imagined death shines a “dark light” on cycles of creation and destruction, on seeds planted in the holy river Ganges and continually reborn as “a sadhu in holy Hardwar, // a computer analyst in Eureka, California, / a cowboy on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a flea in the fur // of a Mongolian pony, some swatch of dust / above an Indiana doorway.”


For Kalamaras, collage is both an instance of broken syntax and a way to re-suture meaning from the fissures of language. He re-imagines the traditional narrative of discovery in the lyric poem with innovative linguistic and structural schemas enacting in the poems the disorientation that accompanies the dizzying cultural exchanges of this particular journey. After all, the speaker in these poems is half a world away from his home; he is ash at the banks of the Ganges and dust above an Indiana doorway. The title poem of the book is a collage itself as material from the first section of the poem reappears in the second section cut-up and rearranged as a way of linguistically dramatizing the cyclical nature of death and rebirth in Hindu tradition. In this way, the misapprehensions of speech become just as valuable as our fictions of lyric transparency:  I am an underwater underside, you hear in the street, // certain you’ve mistaken the scrape of a bicycle tire / for salt.” (The Underwater Underside, 44) In one of the most important poems of the book, Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve, Kalamaras extends linguistic chance and play to the sacred speech of mantras. “What makes a word or phrase / change or skew?” he asks.  The answer is spatial and experiential as much as it is verbal; it emerges in the way the body moves in space and in the way a word can “consummate the curve / of sound you now mouth to be.” (121)


Like most of the poems, Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve is composed through enjambed couplets, staging the meeting of East and West in fractured lines and the self-reflecting white space between stanzas. However, the poem also incorporates traditional quatrains and Olson-like projective lines (reminding us just how closely the score of Projectivist Verse on the page resembles the one speech-breath-thought of Ginsberg’s East-West fusion). Like Kalamaras’s Buddha in Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve, the poems unfold in a landscape where postmodern indeterminacy collides with sacred language. What remains from this collision is a malleable self mapped in variable speech:

          [. . . .]  Or do you need something more?  The shift


and vowel of two letters more?  You consider those two

remaining sounds, n and a, rolling them into a single point


of negation:  na.  India-na, you say, India-

na, you repeat over and again, mouthing the syllables


in the slow motion of a goldfish testing borders

of a bowl. (123)

As a space of play and linguistic flux, the “India/Indiana” pun projects onto the subjunctive world of the “as if,” suggesting that the visions of this pilgrimage are, at best, provisional. Unlike conventional poetry of the sacred, these poems prefer variance over verity:

          [. . . .]  India-na, you tongue once more, as if


you are saying no to dust, sweat, religious wars,

quiet, poverty, Pepsi, peace.  As if none of these exist


back home.  As if you are affirming Indiana — a place

you’ve never really loved — and dismissing what you know


of where you are right now.  And where you are is

at Ashoka’s pillar, moved by the cut of the letters


charting The Middle Way, but unable to decipher

the script.

The poem dramatizes the Buddhist middle-way between attachment and aversion, chronicling how the uncanny and troubling can be quotidian in both India and “India-na.” At any moment in the book, a holy man might emerge from isolation and, remarkably, lift a stone block with a cloth tied to his penis “to demonstrate / his transcendence of sexuality.” (The Milk of Shadows, 24) You might drop dead suddenly on a Banaras street as in A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things and be reborn as dust mites Indiana, or you might find yourself reduced to trading malaria pills on the black market for your lunch (The Lamps are Brought In). The speaker cannot master the uncanny residue of his cultural exchange in a land that he knows, ultimately, is not his own. With Indiana always in the offing, the speaker’s pilgrimage blurs the boundaries between West and East into the “shape of dissolve” that is crucial to this spiritual practice.


It is too easy for the critic to argue that the Western artist who writes about Asia is succumbing to an “easy Easternness,” as one of the earliest reviewers of Ginsberg’s Buddhist-inspired poems once wrote. For a poet such as Kalamaras, the writing process is inextricable from spiritual “dissolve”: writing is not a dissolution of the self, but an investigation of the allure and limitation of self-attachment. The result is a linguistic and spatial “dissolve” that is much scarier than the transcendentalist religious experience—and is something readers of contemporary poetry have come to expect. In the Orientalist narratives that emerge too often from Western writers, the cultural colonizer recasts Asia in relation to himself, but in Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, Kalamaras teeters necessarily on a boundary between ambiguity and certainty knowing, “You can’t imagine ever going home / and you can’t stay” (Icon, 95).


Tony Trigilio’s recent or forthcoming books include the poetry collection The Lama’s English Lessons (Three Candles), the chapbook With the Memory, Which is Enormous (Main Street Rag), and the anthology Visions and Divisions:  American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (co-edited with Tim Prchal; Rutgers University Press).  He teaches at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the program in Creative Writing – Poetry and co-edits the poetry journal Court Green.