poetry

Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu

By RAVI SHANKAR | 1 March 2015

ABOUT THE POEM In ‘Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu,’ Ravi Shankar attempts an audacious poetic cross-hatching in one of the most challenging poetic forms in English: the terza rima. Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, is recalled by the American lyric speaker among the jostling crowds of Kathmandu, and echoes of his words and memories of his image are braided into scenes of labour, democracy and devotion in a country “on the other side of the world” from Jefferson’s own arena.

Shankar’s sense of pace and rhythm are infectious: as much as the mind wants to dwell on the details of the poem’s argument to extract its meaning, so the eye and ear want to speed forward to hold the poem’s sound on an even keel. As the poem draws towards its ringing close, the speaker, via Jefferson and Kathmandu, holds up his own little “book of wisdom” for this world: the poem.

 

Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu
by Ravi Shankar             

“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government,
those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations,
perverted it into
         – Thomas Jefferson, Preamble to a Bill for the More General Diffusion
                                                                                of Knowledge (1778)

Packed in Thamel into a beat-up tempo, that minivan
            which serves as public transportation in Nepal,
                        I’m thumbing your visage on a nickel near the tan

faces of seekers and trekkers, the various people
            of foreign descent who throng the dusty road
                         in saffron shirts and rudraksha malas, the steeple

up ahead really a stupa where we stop to unload
            passengers and accept others. Here, I think of you
                         TJ, in the faux-Gilbert Stuart portrait that stood

smelling of agar from petri dishes plus an old gym shoe
            odour that never seemed to dissipate from the halls
                         of my high school named for you where I went through

facial hair, trigonometry, punk rock, soccer balls,
            SATs, angst, in short the whole gamut of adolescent
                         failure and triumph. Now, standing in front of stalls

selling Himalayan masks, frozen in poses of pent 
            up animal rage and wood-carved rictuses of wrath,
                         I remember how many long hours I once had spent

under your unnoticed gaze, working on some math
            problem or pining over the redhead I was smitten
                         with, carrying my dog-eared copy of Sylvia Plath,

dreaming myself a writer before I had even written
            a stanza worth rereading. It would be much later
                         at the University you built where I’d be bitten

by the bug properly, a sensation made ever greater   
            in the walks I would take traversing your serpentine
                         walls, alone, at home in my own mind the way a crater  

gives shape to a surface by suggesting what’s unseen,
            what might have been once, still what is yet to come.
                         I traced the rim of my own unknowing, still so green

but ambitious, questioning everything, trying to shun
            nothing, striking together stones to try to make a fire
                         that would burn brighter and deeper than a twinning sun.

Here now is Chitipathi the skeletal lord of the Funeral Pyre
            and Mahakala, the great black one, personal tutelary
                         of Kubla Khan, with flared nostrils, bared fangs and ire

to spare. And here you are on your plantation, Mulberry
            Row, where slaves worked as smiths, joiners, weavers,
                         carpenters and hostlers, each of whom has a story

untold on unmarked graves or in your writings. Grievers
            mourned your death on Independence Day but of them,
                         what? Here I am in Alderman Library working levers

of the elevator moving in half-floors slow as phlegm 
            seeping down a basin drain. Here you are in Paris wearing
                         yarn stockings, velveteen breaches, the exquisite hem

of your waistcoat like wild honeysuckle baring
            subtle blossoms. Here are all the dark bodies going
                         into ground after a lifetime of labour and you staring

from Mount Rushmore, me from under the flowing
            rim of the Annapurna mountains. Here are the Bill
                         of Rights, where Sally Hemmings does her light sewing.

I’m on the other side of the world and still
            can’t see clearly what has succeeded and what failed
                         in the grand American experiment. I eat my fill, 

no prayer bowl to beg from, yet have been jailed
            and bailed out, slurred, even refused service at a diner
                         250 years after you were born. I know I’m not nailed

to a cross, but why is it that I feel so much finer
            and more contented in a country ruled by Maoists
                         and Marxists than I do in the democratic, designer

shining city on the hill where all the Taoists, 
            Hindus, and Buddhists I’m meeting want to move
                         to regardless, to start new lives in the USA? How is it

possible that the Newari dancers’ ancient groove
            feels more timely than twerking, that I’d rather eat
                         dosas and dal than haute cuisine? No need to prove

an answer to those questions as they’re mine to read
            and puzzle out, but grown from a seed planted
                         at your plantation into a towering crop I now need

heed. Democracy is a fine ideal yet to be supplanted,
            but does it coexist with capitalism? Today I was told
                         a Nepalese proverb which might be loosely translated

as “cumin in an elephant’s mouth,” meaning how all gold
            shines valueless next to our own nothingness, how the priceless
                         figs we hunger for are impossible to be bought or sold.

I’ve secreted the nickel now into the folds of a torn dress
            a woman with child uses to collect rupees. She is our
                         mother from another life and you and I are no less,

no more than brothers. If even in this late hour,
            honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom,
                         then its epilogue must be compassion. Not power.

Ravi Shankar is an Indian-American poet. He is founding editor of Drunken Boat, one of the oldest online journals still active. His latest anthology is 2011’s Deepening Groove. ​He is an Associate Professor at Central Connecticut State University. 

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