Code and Chalice

October 15, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Melanie Almeder on “Virus” by Amit Majmudar

If only I could catch such a poem from a doorknob anywhere in my town during flu season. If only we all coughed in such poetry as Majmudar’s “Virus”.

Just as I am about to say, on a more serious note (though his poem itself is full of playful linguistics), “this poem is a restless provenance of naming,” I realize, no,

the poem is a distillate. Any restlessness has been extracted, then infused into the will of the poem, into its very architecture, into the exacting logos of the syntax…

What is the nature of a virus? The poem insists: one metaphor does not suffice to describe a virus. Let the metaphors mix. Let the naming accumulate. Let it escalate.

After all, a virus mutates, slips free from the noose of syntax, from the vessel of metaphor or singular claims… and into, what, next?

This Poem’s Genome: Hybrid of litany, ode, couplet, psalmic invocation…

Detail from “This Poem’s Genome”/”Litany”:

—Tells off the virus and does so in such articulate precision, the virus becomes an object of admiration. Not unlike the way Milton wrote the devil.
—Elevates virus from its crass, quotidian slobber to its earliest instilled writ not only to survive but also to sail the maelstrom. (And Virus, all the while unthinking!).

“Virus” is a lyric poem as a code mutating the twenty-line length of the poem…

Tell me there are no longer those who think the lyric form a kind of irrelevancy? Who think that rhyme schemes are mere mini-foreclosures in the land of conservative poetry?

Because this poem is the only kind of anarchist I trust.

And then the leap into the anagogic at the end of the poem:
the virus thusly archived, what is the virus’ message? Not revealed. Not named.

. . .the message
All the Muses sing:

Purity of heart
Is to will one thing

The final lines frighten me. It may be a case of  ‘sometimes I diagnose the literature and sometimes the literature diagnoses me.’ But see how those lines refute resolution? How they will not tell me something I feel, urgently, I should know?

The message of the Virus, of the Muses singing, is a cipher.

The muses know that purity of heart is only to will one thing. In a world of things.

Any Muse worth its invocation must know: language is a virus. A perpetual for-better-and-for-worse contagion, incursion, and alteration.

What then is the metaphysics of authoring the viral?
Not a boat. Not a midwife. Not if language is a virus.

Because a poem like this asks me to think, to look up from the text at my world, and think, I wonder about our Muses and their singing. How the Muses of these months of news disquiet. How they must needs evolve.

I do not, however, look to poems for news. Nor do I look to them for cure. I do love their anti-viral properties. The way they resist the easy reproduction of easy thought. This is the double joy of this poem, “Virus”: it could not easily be reproduced.

This poem asks me to pose a larger question about writing: When we sit to write what do we will?

The news this week reports, among the fires and the drownings, among the geniuses and savage, irresolute warmongers, that scientists have discovered a 100-million-years-old virus in a body. Such latency. Such persistence. The good scientists are dreaming in their precise ways about how to break open its code, and to alter it so that they might be able to better a life, or to prevent a cancer, to add time to these necessary, vexed vessels we occupy.


Melanie Almeder’s first book of poems, On Dream Street, won the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize. Her poems appear in a range of journals including Poetry, Seneca Review, and Cortland Review.

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