It's afternoon, dark already at the cross roads,
A sudden storm of bikers, men in leather, motors snarling,
Flags spurt skywards
I freeze in place at the metal barricade, the seam of sense unpicked,
Brown body splayed.
In the aftermath of light, what proof is there of love—
Buoyancy of the soul hard to mark apart from the body
Its tenuous equilibrium, wave after wave of arrival,
And questions in revolving air, as if life depended on
Such flammable notations.
You come, your white sari with the blue border blowing,
Just as I saw you first, head bare, a sudden turn
On asphalt, you hold your arms out
As if in a palash grove and call to me —
Come over here — Sometimes the bleeding petals bring down a house
Bring down a Republic.
That is what happens when children are bought and sold for money—
Ghee to burn her with. Teen taka. Ten rupees. Ek taka one rupee.
That is the cloth to cover her with.
Camphor for the burning. Bhang to make her drowsy.
You stand so still on a road where motorbikes throbbed,
Your hair open to the savage wind
(Later I try to follow tracks of feet, touch cold cotton
That lashed your flesh in place) —
Brood, and it will come, a seizure of sense, a reckoning,
Write with chalk, sticks of lead, anything to hand
Use a bone, a safety pin, a nail, write on paper or stone
Let the poem smoulder in memory,
In the desolation of time write
How one stood utterly straight, inked in the bubble with a woman’s name
Way at the top of the paper ballot, felt her own hand tremble.
This was in the schoolhouse with empty metal desks
One set her nipple to the infant's lips
Felt her hearts sprout wings, flit over the barbed wire
Fence of the immigration detention center.
One whimpered in her sleep, Mother, I think I am a tree,
I trail my roots behind me, the man with bad hair will axe me down.
Another daubed her face with white paint,
Set herself up in cage outside the museum, hung a sign round
Her own neck — We are the barbarians come to live amongst you
Some of us speak this language.
Then hoarse already, you whispered, Come closer to me
You who were born in the Gangetic plains a year after mid century
Consider the fragility of the horizon
The arc of stars into which your father raised you.
When you fall, as surely you will one day
Try to swim forward into blackness
Arms pointing to where you imagine the vault of heaven to be
As Draupadi did, a great throated cry she made in the forest of palash trees,
Only the birds could save her, they picked up her cries
Remember Antigone, who anointed her brother’s corpse with dirt
To keep away the wild dogs
She too made bird sounds, guttural cries.
Go to Standing Rock, where people mass outside their tents
In splintering cold, to guard the quiet springs of water.
There the palash blooms —
Tree used for timber, resin, dye, tinting the nails of the love god
On its leaves names swarm —
Anna Mae Aquash , Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Julia de Bourgos countless more
Thrust from earth's core, from the shadow of musk deer,
The green throat of the humming bird,
In the honeycomb of light, they step forward to be counted.
(For Mahasweta Devi)
December 1–10, 2016 New York City
Meena Alexander's most recent volume of poems is Atmospheric Embroidery (New Delhi: Hachette India, 2015). An expanded edition of the book, with new poems is forthcoming from TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2018. Also see meenaalexander.com. You can read more poems by Meena Alexander in Guftugu and in ICF.
Poem © Meena Alexander