Underworld Lit

Simultaneously funny and frightful, Srikanth Reddy's Underworld Lit is a multiverse quest through various cultures' realms of the dead. Couched in a literature professor's daily mishaps with family life and his sudden reckoning with mortality, this adventurous serial prose poem moves from the college classroom to the oncologist's office to the mythic underworlds of Mayan civilization, the ancient Egyptian place of judgment and rebirth, the infernal court of Qing dynasty China, and beyond—testing readers along with the way with diabolically demanding quizzes. It unsettles our sense of home as it ferries us back and forth across cultures, languages, epochs, and the shifting border between the living and the dead.

I

In the inky, dismal, and unprofitable research of a recent leave of
absence from my life, I happened upon a historical prism of
Assurbanipal that I found to be somewhat disquieting. Of an
enemy whose remains he had abused in a manner that does not
bear repeating here, this most scholarly of Mesopotamian kings
professes:

         I made him more dead than he was before.

         (Prism A Beiträge zum Inschriftenwerk
         Assurbanipals ed. Borger [Harrassowitz 1996] 241)

Prisms of this sort were often buried in the foundations of
government buildings, to be read by gods but not men. Somewhere
in the shifting labyrinth of movable stacks I could hear a low dial
tone humming without end. In Assurbanipal’s library there is a
poem, written on clay, that corrects various commonly held errors
regarding the venerable realm of the dead. Contrary to the accounts
of Mu Lian, Madame Blavatsky, and Kwasi Benefo, et al., it is not
customarily permitted to visit the underworld. No, the underworld
visits you.

II

I lost in dark would

“Good effort, Aom,” I scribble in red. “Please visit ESL Lab ASAP.”

Yesterday’s learning diagnostics balanced on my knee, I await the
#33 in a sunlit plexiglass shelter. At the far end of the bench, a girl
in a deconstructed peasant blouse frowns into her phone as if it
were an ancient hand mirror.

Once upon a time something something?

“For heaven’s sake, LaDonté,” I pencil in the margin.

My students are all over the map these days. I rub my temples for a
spell, the bench beneath me thrumming with traffic. The pages
flutter and settle like a stunned wren rearranging itself on my lap.

In the middle of life, I found myself lost in a forest of shadows.

Out of nowhere, my bus splashes past, out of service. My
benchmate stuffs her belongings into a bursting purse and storms
off with a curse. It looks like I’ll have to reschedule with Song yet
again.

Translate the opening of the Inferno into Standard American
English. You may refer to your notes. Stay calm. Good luck.

III

For the past several years, I have taught an introductory course on
world literature at the university where I am presently employed.
The offering has frequently proven to be a disappointment, both to
myself and to the students—some in headscarves, some
occasionally dressed in fatigues—who register for this seminar in
order to satisfy their Humanities requirement:

       As far as classes go, it was an almost painless
       experience.

       The instructor is fairly intelligent and enthusiastic
       about the material but is unreceptive, even
       intolerant, of anything that is not a poem or a poem
       in prose form.

       Made me question things, including the value of
       higher learning.

       (https://classes.xxxxxxxx.edu/loggedin/evaluation.p
       hp?id=16882)

Looking over the feedback last summer, I began to consider a

different approach. There would be new assignments, self-
assessments, and regularly scheduled office hours this time around,

followed by a transitional withdrawal of black gowns through the
spring morning mist. And because I know comparatively little of
this world, I’ve decided to work my way up from below.

IV

HUM 101. Introduction to the Underworld. [Cross-listed with
Divinity and Comp Lit]. In this course, students will be ferried
across the river of sorrow, subsist on a diet of clay, weigh their
hearts against a feather on the infernal balance, and ascend a
viewing pagoda in order to gaze upon their homelands until
emptied of all emotion. Texts will include the Egyptian Book of
the Dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Mayan Book of the
Dead, the Ethiopian Book of the Dead, and Muriel Rukeyser’s
Book of the Dead. The goals of the seminar are to introduce
students to the posthumous disciplinary regimes of various
cultures, and to help them develop the communication skills that
are crucial for success in today’s global marketplace.

All readings in English. Requirements include the death of the
student, an oral report, and a final paper.

V

I promised my wife that I would call Dr. Song today. After putting
Mira down for her nap and slipping outside for a smoke, I lifted the
receiver. The sound it emitted, which I have heard without pause
countless times before, seemed to me otherworldly now, like
somebody’s finger playing on the wet rim of a crystal bowl in a
derelict theater before the wars.

It’s hard to say how long I stood there listening. It may have been
seconds or seasons. The rings of Saturn kept turning in their
groove. For reasons beyond me—our seminar had already moved
on from late medieval Europe to developing world underworlds—I
dialed 1-800-INFERNO, and before the first ring, a woman’s voice
answered in heavily accented English.

“Is it you?”

“I think so,” I replied. Outside, the honey locusts sprinkled their
pale spinning leaves in real time. Focusing on one as it fell seemed
to slow the general descent.

“Oh creature, gracious and good,” the faraway lady recited, as if
reading, against her will, from a prepared text, “traversing the
dusky element to visit us / who stained the world with blood.” I
could hear rain trickling in a gutter spout on the other end of the
line.

“Please,” I said into the receiver, “remove my name from your
list.”

VI

While outlining the requirements for our first critical essay of the
term, I notice a hand rising in world-historical time at the back of
the classroom.

“What if I’m ideologically opposed to revision?” asks the red-
headed boy in a “New Slaves” t-shirt.

A city bus unloads its pageantry outside the window. A handful of
sparrows erupts from the equestrian statue on the quad. I remember
Sun Tzu’s advice to humanities instructors, which I review on
index cards at the outset of each academic quarter.

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

“What exactly is your ideology?” I ask, stroking my beard.

“I’m a Zen Naxalite crypto-Objectivist,” replies my interlocutor.
“How about you?”

I have no choice but to improvise. “Pro-recycling, anti-genocide?”

A voice from beyond my peripheral vision says, “You’re nothing
but a pseudo-Kantian neoliberal mirage with meta-narcissistic
tendencies.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I'm not.”

“Yes. You are.”