Jonathan Harrington

Review of Indran Amirthanayagam’s The Migrant States; by Jonathan Harrington

Indran Amirthanayagam has published nineteen books of poetry and recorded two albums with Haitian musicians.  He is both a US diplomat and a citizen of the world who writes poetry in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, French and Portuguese.  From the rousing preface to the final poem this widely published poet’s latest book, The Migrant States, is sure to be welcomed by his loyal fans and bring more readers into Indran’s far-flung world.

The book is both an homage to Walt Whitman as well as the American continent itself from one immigrant’s point of view.  The poems in The Migrant States, like Whitman’s, are characterized by long, tumbling lines that have a unique melodic force that compel the reader forward to what is often an arresting conclusion.  Amirthanayagam is never didactic, rather his poetry moves toward an understanding of some aspect of the human condition in a way that makes us sigh with recognition at the conclusion of each poem.

Describing his own verse in The Migrant States, the poet writes, unfairly, in “This is No Time for Criticism”:  “I realize my lines are not lyrical…They are flat, a body shot on the street visited by paramedics…”  This striking image itself disproves the poet’s self-criticism and illustrates how lyrical, and relevant, these poems really are in the distinctive way in which Amirthanayagam handles the English language.

The book is divided into six sections.  The first section is dedicated to Walt Whitman who embodies, to Amirthanayagam, the aspirational spirit of America (open, embracing, democratic) that so many immigrants come to the U.S. to find and are so often disappointed when they do not find it, especially in the toxic age in which we live.  Many African-Americans, on the other hand, have never enjoyed America’s embrace at all.  Nevertheless, Whitman writes:  “Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.”

Whitman’s democratic spirit lives on in The Migrant States.  As an immigrant and a poet who also represents the USA abroad as a diplomat, Indran Amirthanayagam has written a truly American book of poems.  He is a proud heir to a legacy that stretches from Whitman to Allen Ginsberg.  Amirthanayagam’s embrace is even wider than Whitman’s (or Ginsberg’s for that matter) since this poet’s America is not a single country but the continent itself that stretches from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego.

Break the locks, unleash the mind. Walt Whitman has left Paumanok.

He is abroad. He is sitting among us, in our soul. He flies the post

with pigeons and the giant freight planes. He hops freight trains

and rides into Mexico. He is on a P & O Cruise visiting Saint Kitts

and Barbados. He has joined the merchant marine. He sails

into Guantanamo. (Walt, 200)

At eighty three pages, this book covers quite a bit of ground.  This extremely prolific poet writes toward the end of this collection in “Getting Over Suicide” that “…nobody writes ten poems in a day, but my personal best/is seven I protest, and I am under observation and there are no sharp/objects, or even long sheets to twist, to escape through the window…”

The poems can sometimes take a highly personal view but then turn and speak for an entire community:

“We have been running for so long. We are tired. We want to rest.

We don’t want to wake up tomorrow and pack our bags. We have gone 10,000 miles. We have boarded a row boat, tug boat, bus, freight train. We have a cell phone and some bread.” (The Migrant’s Reply)


As Walt Whitman writes: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”  But he also writes: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”


This contradiction is found in Amirthanayagam as well.  In poems like “Curtain Call” where the subject matter is the withering away of colonialism in places like Belize, and the poet’s own Ceylon, the poet’s view is expansive.  But his imagery is very specific in poems like “Prelude” in which he sketches an impressionistic portrait of Manhattan.  It is expansive in its attempt to capture the vitality of the streets of Manhattan, but in so doing, the poet zooms in on precise details such as:


“…a tailor who survived the number/ branded on his arm…”


Many of the poems, like Whitman’s, are written in long lines of free verse.  There is an exuberant optimism in The Migrant States.  For example, “Written in Advance” is a joyful celebration of Thanksgiving.  Sound like a subject for a serious contemporary poet?  No!  But he pulls it off with enthusiasm, humor and meaningful social commentary.

“…before you make your arrest, before you take me away in that van with sirens and chains. Yes, off with the nuisance but listen to me deep in your soul. I will have my day in court and on the street. I will be heard in the halls of the hospital too. And even if you try to gag me, I have written these words and they are in the mail to all the editors of the great land where turkeys and bison roam.”


On a more personal note, the poet gracefully accepts the passage of time in “Batting, In Love”:

“If we could just play cricket until we become old…”

There is something endearing about this sentiment and as a metaphor serves as an admonition to keep playing even as we age…to keep in the game.  But above all, have fun.

The poems in the third section of the book come from the French language Haitian weekly newspaper, Haiti en Marche.  Indran writes a weekly column for the newspaper called “Poetry at the Port,” in which he presents a poem he has written in Haitian Creole or French and provides his own translation into English.  In one of those poems, “The Avocado Season is Over,” the poet offers this advice:

“…Accept reality. Don’t live anymore in fantasy. You are getting along in years but have only spoken Creole for two. You have a great long life ahead. Think. Reflect. Tell all the new families Congratulations Good luck. Then write again about your life in Haiti when the avocado was in bloom.”


With an abundant sense of humor in poems such as “Until Death,” Amirthanayagam aims not so much at the foibles of society but the absurdity of the human condition itself.  In facing the inevitability of death, this poet is determined to sing:

“…you had mastered

the four-beat line, and three years later you were fronting a punk band screaming four-beat boogie, and

I think that is enough autobiography for this poem which cannot end but in writing or dying.”


Indran Amirthanayagam always chooses writing over the death of the soul.  But still he confesses in “When I Left Punk and Took Holy Orders,”

The band dropped me for my original songs. They wanted to play covers, earn a bit at parties, They made excuses. I cried quietly turning rage into shame, became a scribe then in the monastery of poetry.


If there are any quarrels with the book one might say it has the odd, too-private, too hermetic a poem. But there are so many gems here, and so much depends on one’s taste, that what may strike flat one reader may be the favorite poem of another.

Nevertheless, readers of The Migrant States should celebrate the fact that Indran Amirthanayagam renounced Punk (or Punk renounced him) to become not just a “scribe….in the monastery of poetry,” but, indeed, a poet of the world.

Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems ( The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.