In this drab, dissonant winter of resurgent plagues and despots, Indran Amirthanayagam’s newest collection, Ten Thousand Steps Against the Tyrant, comes as a needed antidote to pessimism and despair. Author of over twenty books, written in five different languages, Amirthanayagam composed most of the poems in Ten Thousand Steps over a year ago, while the world was still confronting the first tragic tsunami of the pandemic and while Americans wrestled to save their democracy from permanent derailment. Published by Broadstone in 2022, this poet leaves the reader no doubt as to where he stands — in line after line, on page after page, he sounds the trumpet to herald a new day.
“Let us roll America…
“Because we have
to get back on the road
to the promised land…”
Certainly, Amirthanayagam understands the peril of our present age, but he also apprehends its promise in In Love and Poetry:
“ …we are going to write
our songs in these days
of the plague until
we see light come up
above the trees on fire,
the befogged clouds. Until
the back of beyond.”
In public readings, live and online, Amirthanayagam delivers selections from his book without pause between the poems, without explanation or apology. So, this is a book intended to be read straight-through, as though it were written on a roll of tracing paper, a la Kerouac. Indeed, the authors’ approach fits well into the Beat tradition, which traces back in turn to the ecstatic visions of William Blake and Walt Whitman, and farther still, to the exegetical exhortations of John Donne. Some of the work verges upon prose, although too brief to count as essays — call them prose poems, or better, call them meditations, musings. Amirthanayagam straddles genres and breaks down the artificial bounds we too often impose on the literary endeavor. One might imagine some of these poems printed up as broadsides to be pasted on subway walls or nailed to cathedral doors. In We Are Going to Pennsylvania Avenue, the poet writes.
“We are not going to stop.
We are going down to Pennsylvania Avenue
to 1600 to be precise. We are getting on buses
and trains. We are walking on Rock Creek Trail…”
During a recent online reading, Amirthanayagam acknowledged, “Some editors say to me that these are not poems, they are political statements.” Then, he added, “I say to them, ‘Go fly a kite.’”
Surely, if politics is personal, then politics belongs in poetry — to insist otherwise would be to appropriate a privilege not given to most of us. But these are not mere screeds — Amirthanayagam writes with tenderness as well as passion. Here are words he addresses to a colleague after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg:
“There is a time to mourn and a time to review the cards
and cast them again on the table trusting God
to guide your hand, to say this pencil
you left with roses, chrysanthemums,
lilies, in a riot of passionate flowers before the Supreme Court,
will be picked up by a girl after the period of mourning…”
While many of the poems refer directly to our recent Presidential election or to the pandemic, Amirthanayagam’s reach is broad. He writes on the murder of George Floyd, on the 545 children separated from their parents at our southern border, of soup kitchens, of rainbows, and of his family.
“God gave you a son and daughter
father and mother, brothers,
a sister. Your parent brought
you up. Now it is your turn
to care for mother in her old
The poet goes on to muse:
lucky to have children. What
about those whose kids
have been taken away, shot…”
Look past the political here; much of this poet’s work rises from the heart, from a deeply spiritual sense of compassionate solidarity with the downtrodden, the lost. And perhaps it is because of those deeply held beliefs that this book never casts the reader onto the shoals of despair, but instead pulls the reader upward into the light.
Amirthanayagam’s unbridled optimism may strike the reader as painfully poignant now, a year into the new American administration which began with such great hopes. For what are we to make of that promise as we stagger up this steep path strewn with obstacles — a relentless virus, an unrepentant authoritarian insurgency, deception, and dishonor everywhere. “I’m waiting for the blowback on these optimistic poems,” Amirthanayagam has observed. But if one regards this volume only as a historical artifact, a chronicle of but a brief shining moment in the eye of an endless storm, then the reader must miss the point entirely. The poet is not delivering a eulogy! This is a clarion call — though the words were written in 2020, they speak to us now — in 2022. Our souls are sorely tried by these times, but we must not succumb.
The flame may seem fragile,
small, almost nothing at all,
but as you carry it from room
to room in the dark …
… the Sun is waiting
around the corner of morning,
to come on stage, to rise.
So, to quote the poet, “Let us roll…” We cannot give up now. Amirthanayagam has provided us with a road map forward.
W. Luther Jett, author of Little Wars, Everyone Disappears, Our Situation, and Not Quite. Find him at http://www.lutherjett.com