George Kalamaras's poems appear in Best American Poetry 1997, Boulevard, Epoch, The Iowa Review, New Letters, Sulfur, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Heart Without End (Leaping Mountain Press, 1986) and Beneath the Breath (Tilton House, 1988). His first full-length collection, The Theory and Function of Mangoes, won the 1998 Four Way Books Intro Series in Poetry Award (selected by Michael Burkard) and was published by Four Way Books in 2000. Among his awards are a 1993 NEA Poetry Fellowship, the 2000 Abiko Quarterly (Japan) Poetry Award, and two writing residencies at the Hambidge Center for the Arts. In 1994 he spent several months in India on a Fulbright Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship. His scholarly book on Hindu mysticism and Western discourse theory, Reclaiming the Tacit Dimension: Symbolic Form in the Rhetoric of Silence, was published by SUNY Press in 1994, and his articles appear in The International Journal of Hindu Studies, and elsewhere. He is associate professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. The Bitter Oleander recently published a 35-page feature of George's work, including an extensive interview with him (Vol. 6, No. 2). Other recent features include those in Pavement Saw (No. 5) and Spoon River Poetry Review.

The poems on this page appear in The Theory and Function of Mangoes. They are reprinted here with the permission of Four Way Books.


Three Poems by George Kalamaras


You've always loved fruit, but now
drinking cut glass seems more logical.

It's not that you're afraid, really, or
for that matter weak. Only that you're

overly intellectual about things
like cholera. Or the composition

of music, say, at Manikarnika Ghat,
the cremation grounds on the Ganges

where strange reed instruments contract
feathers of vultures perched on temple

towers. How the skin of a mango
baked at the exact degree of sun,

fed with night soil and water-buffalo piss,
could contain a microorganism that can kill

you, here, on the other side of the earth.
You've loved the color orange for a long

as you can remember. But enough's, well,
not really quite enough, as you stare

at those innocent orange globes
on the wooden cart on Lanka at the height

of the season in Banaras and wonder how
emptiness would finally feel. You want to suck

the blood of India once and for all, die
on a Friday of dysentery, and step out of the tomb

on Sunday, just to show the folks back home
you could survive. But they'd burn

you, probably, without giving you a chance,
rake your ashes through the river-bottom

mud, and hand your wedding band back to your wife.
It's for her, you tell yourself, you're

not hungry today for fruit. But you recall
the care she takes in peeling away the thick

juicy skin with the Swiss army knife, and sucking
the core. It's your core, naked like that,

on her tongue, on the old green desk, exposed
like a word with which she's trying to come

to terms, like a moment of sexual
mathematics that can no longer account

for the simultaneity of the position
and momentum of a wave, bald

like a photon in a vacuum diagram,
like the definition of a discourse

that does not contain the theory
and function of a mango. Where in your

vocabulary, you wonder, is a count of the syllables
of emptiness. Of dehydration, Of some-words-

Of O.K.,-so-maybe-

It's not that you're
totally scared of the wound. You've spent

many years reading Hernández, thinking, at times,
that you actually were Miguel, eyeing your thirty-third

birthday with suspicion, the knives in the kitchen
drawer with increased affection. But you're past all that

now by several years, headed into your forties
like a mole struck from a tunnel, like an onion

dragged from a root cellar, tentacles of hope
lifting green limbs into light. Is it enough

to simply fantasize about mangoes, take
their roundness to bed, revolve them around

the space of your brain like voluptuous
electrons as you ease yourself to sleep,

cup them like ventricular hips? Or will their threat
of cholera force you to take precautions,

even in dream—slide their orange firmness
into gigantic condoms, imagine

that they have been touched
by no other in fourteen years, rub

their smooth blond belly-fur
without breaking the skin, kiss the stem

without tonguing the core?
You've always loved fruit, you recall,

as they crawl to you from the wooden cart,
as they beckon in front of a leper

who darts out of your periphery
into an alley filled with goat shit,

as they position themselves beneath the buzzing
of flies: permanent, firm, and magnificent

like the ruins of Rhodes. You consider, finally,
the advantages of eating something known

only by weight, by two syllables, say,
rather than three or four. Have always craved

just one wild night of slosh and juice,
of the wound left open, of even an hour

alone with the color orange. Have craved it,
for as long as you can remember.


A tiger approaches full moonlight
in a river, drinks currents

in slow, even laps, leaps from reeds
the next afternoon, covering a deer

with the buckshot of sudden
and prolonged starlight. A boy

with hypoplasia of the left arm shakes
hands with a wandering sadhu and dreams

of orange silk that night, can hear bones
in his face snap and dress for sleep, his wrist

widen, fingers of his left hand worming
toward moonlight. A fish-seller in Agra

eats carp and has visions of a Chinese
emperor cleaning his nails, a concubine

nourished only on toothpicks
and lentils. The magnetic fields

in the hypsographer's head remain
elevated, even hen he no longer examines an atlas

of the Himalayas. Can you really ever return
home? Can you board that plane in Delhi, stop

in London, and not carry back mist
on Albert Street as snow to South Bend, Indiana?

Peer out across the river. Ganga unwinds
its rich slow cobra fire for miles, muddy

brown and wide. Feel moonlight in your tongue
when you drink from a tin cup, a deer forming

a new constellation in the night sky. Hear
your limbs shift with the earth's plates

when you sleep, when you shake hands
with the dark robe of a monk

in Kentucky. Turn on a lamp,
analyze star-charts, recall lying down

in a holy man's grass hut in Banaras,
his right index finger held inside your navel

for the longest minute of your life. Map the rise
and fall of your breath at sunset

as you measure the pause in each passing
field. See a carp floating gold

over the Himalayas, darkening
wheat, following you home.


A bus driver from Delhi to Agra
says he plays tabla. Four of his fingers
are stumps, cut roughly above the knuckle.

I've got five children, he says,
and four who are no more. What happens
to our losses? Do they fly away

like the green parakeet you let escape
into towering oaks while cleaning the cage
when you were six? Do they cling

to ponds on the underside of the cup, partially
hidden but warm? A carp floats gold
through the smoky Delhi sky, the shade

of a dead pig at dawn. Something is always
covered in mud. The scent of her
voice, the plaid of that wool skirt

she wore that rainy afternoon when she asked
for forgiveness, and you sat, silent,
drawing on a cigarette. A shift in polar light

can darken Bihar, make birds brittle
as water-buffalo chips set out to dry
on sides of huts. A cold, gold leaf

on a jungle floor is not gold, is not
the floor. An astronomer lecturing
on the merits of primitive star-charts

is not the night sky in a cave but a form
of grace, body-bound but smart, caught
in the net of his mathematics. You draw

a hexagon in the mud and count
your failures. You count your fingers
to make sure. Mistakes blossom

like rare and familiar flowers, hothouse blood,
huge piles of gravel at the roadside
steaming like fresh bones from a hunt.

You want off the bus. You want to drown
yourself in the stagnant monsoon
pools of a rice field, smother in warm

water-buffalo shit, witness for yourself
a gherao, where the workers finally unite,
surround the evil landowner like a ring

of musk oxen, and threaten him
with spears of asparagus.
But all you see are those women

who carry huge gravel pans
on their heads, who report pelvic
pressure in their early thirties

from walking up and down
stone stairs balancing heavy pails
of milk, whose babies thirst for wood

and glimpse at birth the flight
of a green parakeet, the texture of oaks.
Something's always having its way

in mud, hidden in the crack in the gourd
of the sitar you bought in Banaras, stitched
in the tabla's goatskin, gripping

the steering wheel of a bus and guiding it
all the way from Delhi to Agra to Delhi,
through the heat, through starlit holes.

With the four lost souls of one's
youth. With the shade of her skirt
and scent of wet wool, even now—year later—

when you reach to touch your wife. With a tip
of asparagus freshly pulled from mud,
no longer hidden and harmless, but real.