Hog in Sloth, Fox in Stealth, Wolf in Greediness, Dog in Madness, Lion in Prey

February 9, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Amit Majmudar on “Work Experience” by Lance Larsen

In poetry’s mutual-backscratching world, everybody knows everybody else; so you’d do well to bet that my picking Lance Larsen’s “Work Experience” to recommend to you on this blog might well relate to some longstanding friendship, email correspondence, or Facebook friend-status. You’d be wrong. I’d never read his work before this poem; but somehow or another, Lance knows me. Because he has written a poem that seems, in the uncanny way good poems have, to have been written directly at me, across the distance, like a letter from a stranger that miraculously knows everything about you.

“Work Experience” takes the form of a litany of past lives, an excellent and specific “inhabiting” of nonhuman and sometimes nonliving bodies. The trope of the transmigration of the soul as the odd jobs of a migrant worker is beyond brilliant–the occult bit of wordplay, transmigrant-migrant, implicit in the poem. This was bound to resonate with the Hindu in me.
Frankly that would have been enough to set the poem apart for me; but then he goes and presents this in the flippant-eloquent prose block form of the mad scenes in King Lear. One sees, in the world, what looms largest in one’s own mind; and I see King Lear everywhere, on one hand, and on the other hand, not nearly in enough places. It was good to hear the echo, intentional or unintentional, of Poor Tom/Edgar here:

What hast thou been?

A serving-man, proud in heart and mind; that curled
my hair; wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of
my mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with
her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and
broke them in the sweet face of heaven: one that
slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it:
wine loved I deeply, dice dearly: and in woman
out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of
ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth,
wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.

Larsen’s exquisite (accidental?) metaphysical-lyrical interweaving of Shakespearean panache and Upanshadic doctrine manages, in spite of its highbrow and esoteric origins, to be perfectly contemporary in its concerns and tone. The speaker—“Well, let’s see….”—has clearly just been asked his work experience by a prospective employer, and he’s answering it with a casual defiance of the question, asserting his transcendence of toil in the field by recounting his spiritual autobiography. John Donne, who spent a tremendous amount of space doing the same “work” as this poem in his sole mini-epic Metempsychosis, would have been proud. Well done, or rather: Great work.

Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic nuclear radiologist who lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and twin sons. His poetry and prose have appeared in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Best American Poetry anthology (2007, 2012), The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-2012, Poetry Magazine, Granta, Poetry Daily and several other venues, including the 11th edition of the Norton Introduction to Literature. His first poetry collection, 0′, 0′, was released by Northwestern in 2009 and was a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Faber First Book Award. His second poetry collection, Heaven and Earth, was selected by A. E. Stallings for the 2011 Donald Justice Prize. He blogs for the Kenyon Review and is also a critically acclaimed novelist. Visit www.amitmajmudar.com for details.

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