A Time For Elegies
December 5, 2018
Image Courtesy: Plume
Meena Alexander, in The Shock of Arrival, recounts talking to her friend Zarina. “They refused to sell me gas… He said that I was Iraqi, that they would kill us all”, she says. This happened on 9th Avenue. Then she asks, “Who are we, Meena… Where are we? Where are our lives?” Alexander’s response to her question is whimsical; in fact, there is no answer. “I was silent as she spoke. I stood on the sidewalk next to her, staring at a patch of blue sky in between two skyscrapers,” writes Alexander. The visual image of the sky is perhaps a clue to her inner life as a writer, a life that traversed many continents, not unlike “a patch of blue sky” between borders.
She was born in Allahabad in 1951, a city whose name was changed to Prayagraj just months before her death. She moved to Sudan with her parents at the age of five and then attended the University of Khartoum in Sudan. Her first poems were published in Arabic translation. She recounts this time in an interview with Lopamudra Basu. She says, “…in Khartoum, where I also grew up, Arabic poetry was very important to me. My friends who were poets were breaking free of the classical forms and there was enormous excitement. But even earlier I had lived next door in Hai el Matar to the poet and scholar Abdullah el Tayib. I was a little girl but he would often recite Arabic poetry to me and it entered my consciousness so deeply.”
Alexander finished her doctoral work in Nottingham, England, where she developed an interest in Romanticism and Phenomenology. This scholarly interest would result in two books, The Poetic Self (1983) and Women in Romanticism (1989). She would eventually join Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as Distinguished Professor of English. Her first books of poems was published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta, the press founded by P Lal, a professor of English at St Xavier’s College. (Lal also published the first collections of some of the most renowned writers from India including Vikram Seth, A K Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel.) After finishing her doctoral work, Alexander returned to India and joined the English department at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She then moved to Hyderabad to teach at the Central Institute of English. Her years of teaching in India, from 1975 to 1977, coincided with the National Emergency; imposed by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, it led to severe restrictions in freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and other democratic forms of citizenship in India. The time she spent here would come back in her first novel, Nampally Road (1991). Writer Githa Hariharan makes this connection in her Foreword to a re-issue of the novel. Hariharan writes, “Nampally Road is the landscape Alexander’s young protagonist, Mira Kannadical, must negotiate on a quest that involves personal as well as political challenges, choices and discoveries. Nampally Road is also a place living through a particular time. The road is in Hyderabad, a city with its own distinctive history, physical and cultural feel, and hierarchies. The city’s present life is reflective of India in the grip of the seventies, a decade pinned to the collective Indian memory with the experience of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.”
In Hyderabad, Alexander met the American historian of South Asia, David Lelyveld. They married in 1979 and moved to the US. They moved to New York City where they lived in Manhattan since the 1980s. One of her novels, Manhattan Music (1997), is based on this city where she lived raising her two children, Adam and Svati, besides continuing with her writing and academic career. Writing for Svati Mariam in 2000, she wrote the poem “green parasol”:
My love my little phoenix
your mother the old
nest is quite undone:
soar over the Bronx river,
set fire to old straw.
Light up the broken avenues of desire.
Then be a girl like any other
in soft mist
in flowering sunlight
at the rim of stone gates
raise a green parasol
under a green tree.
She published several books during this period. They range from poetry collections to memoirs to academic books. Her collection, Illiterate Heart won the PEN Open Book Award in 2002. Her 1993 memoir, Fault Lines, was one of the best books for Publishers’ Weekly that year.
She wrote the Introduction to Truth Tales: Stories by Contemporary Indian Women Writers, published by Feminist Press in New York, which was the Editors Choice of Publisher’s Weekly, 1990. A critical collection of essays on her work, Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander, edited by Lopamudra Basu and Cynthia Leenerts, was published in 2009. This year, she published her last work as editor of Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on their Writing. Her last collection of poems published in India was Atmospheric Embroidery.
Rohan Chhetri commissioned the collection for Hachette India in 2015. The book was published in the US this year. Chhetri later went on to study poetry at Houston, where he is currently based, and met Alexander as a fellow poet when he was one of the Norman Mailer Fellows in 2016 at Pepperdine University in Malibu. She was their mentor for the three-week residency. In an email interview, Chhetri remembers the time he spent with her, “It was July, the summer they were blinding the children in Kashmir in the wake of Burhan Wani's death and the following protests. The campus was beautiful, Pacific-facing. It was almost disturbing to keep track of the news, watching images of pellet-riddled faces of children, and to be staying at a place so starkly pretty. The discord was visible in our talks again and again. We were both in a way trying to wrangle language and metaphor into making sense of the dispatches from home and the unbelievable brutality of it. And of course, what was in front of us: the looming fascism in the US. I wrote a bloated draft of a poem called 'Restoration Elegy', some parts of which she wasn't too enthusiastic about. She thought the details were gratuitous. She was right. It also tells you a lot about how she handled the idea of bearing witness and writing about violence and trauma. One day in the workshop, she brought Cavafy's ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. She was, at that point, I think, trying to grapple with, and complicate the idea, of the "barbarians" to write a longer piece. We talked about the poem for more than an hour. I find remnants of it in her poem ’Crossroad’.”
Chhetri’s words bring us back to an aspect of Alexander’s writing practice that is a common concern for Alexander in most of her poems: bearing witness and writing violence and trauma through the lyric. “Crossroad”, published in Boston Review (and published earlier in a slightly different version in the Indian Cultural Forum), is dedicated to the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. Alexander locates the poem in transit, the locale is not unlike own condition of in-betweenness of cultures. We get this sense from the first two parts of the four-part poem:
So there I was, almost at the crossroad
Stuck in a sudden storm of bikers, men in leather, engines snarling.
Flags spurt skywards.
I froze 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 unpicked,
Wave after wave of arrival
Etching questions in encircling air
As if life depended on such flammable notations.
You come, sari with blue border blowing,
Just as I saw you first, head bare.
A sudden turn on asphalt, you reach out your arms
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.
Children are bought and sold for money—
Ghee to burn her. Teen taka. Ten rupees. Ek taka one rupee.
Cloth to cover her with.
Camphor for the burning. Bhang to make her drowsy.
You halt at the crossroad, hair thrummed by a savage wind
(Later I try to follow marks of feet, touch cold cotton
That lashed your flesh in place).
“I froze at the metal barricade, the seam of sense unpicked,/ Brown body splayed” is a self-reflexive remark where she highlights the colour of her skin. “…[W]alking down a crowded sidewalk, descending the subway, there is always one’s body, which is marked as Other in this country”, she had written earlier, in her book The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996). The other figure in the poem comes into the same landscape that Alexander describes in the first part, but her presence is marked by a sense of relief, by an embrace. “[Y]ou reach out your arms” narrates the lyrical voice. The mood is sustained in the next lines. There is a desire to enter another landscape in companionship — “As if in a palash grove and call to me — / Come over here!” The next lines show Alexander’s deft handling of the political in the lyric — “Sometimes the bleeding petals bring down a house/ Bring down a Republic.”
In an interview with Basu, she talks about the ability of the lyric to travel and carry its voice of resistance with it. “The lyric poem is so tiny. It can be folded onto a bit of paper, put into a notebook, written on the backs of matchboxes. There is something about the portability of the lyric in a time of danger. For me, the lyric becomes the form par excellence in a time of crisis because it can be carried in memory. Also, it need not be bought and sold,” she says.
Several Indian poets, both her contemporaries as well as younger writers, remember Alexander and her writing with fondness. Shanta Acharya, Alexander’s contemporary, says she met her when had just been awarded to pursue a doctorate degree in Oxford. In an email, she said, “I met Meena at the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad, by which time she had completed her doctorate and I had just been awarded a place in Oxford to do D Phil. The last time we met was in London in June 2016 when we both received the Word Masala Award for Excellence in Poetry at the House of Lords. As a poet and writer, she has left a good body of work behind and will be remembered for her contribution.”
Sophia Naz who, like Alexander, is Asian-American, said in an email interview, she could instantly relate to her work because of the similarities in their situations. She said, “Freshly arrived in New York in 1988, it was an eye-opening experience to discover Meena’s poetry that not only mirrored the multiple dislocations of my life but also made this refracted fracture into a kaleidoscope of searing beauty. As embodied by the liminal nature of the name she chose for herself, Meena, which means fish in Hindi and “jeweling” in Urdu, she moved in and out of tongues with liquid ease to take the “hive of language and spin a particular honey”. She wrote: “Poetry is music that our bodies etch on the provisional solidities housing us, as ground is marked by the shadow of clouds, as unstable ground is constantly etched by water.” Meena taught me to fish in waters of many languages and that the most significant catch of all that poetry produces is the one in our throats.”
Arundhathi Subramaniam, who had read with Alexander and Vijay Sheshadri last month in New York, said she sensed an ending. She wrote over email, “We certainly knew it was coming when we met at the launch of her new anthology, Name Me a Word, last month. The event was at the Poets House in New York. Meena wrote me a brief message before the session to say things had deteriorated. Seeing her was confirmation. Physically, she was a shadow of herself. Otherwise, she was inspired; in fact, nothing short of luminous. The three poets reading that evening — Meena, Vijay Seshadri and I – knew there was something atmospherically distinct in that room. It was the indefinable surge of presence, of urgency, that suffuses a situation when mortality is no longer an academic issue. Poetry was a matter of life and death that evening. No one present could have been unaware of it.” But she remembered meeting Alexander eighteen years ago for the first time. Subramaniam’s recollection of the meeting brings back the luminosity that had shone out in spite of Alexander’s ailing health. She says, “I first met Meena in the year 2000. I have an image of us walking along the Tiber one summer afternoon, bathed in August sun – five Indian women poets in Rome for a poetry conference. Meena was the senior-most amongst us, and I the youngest. I remember a long conversation over tepid cappuccinos during which she told me of an astrologer who’d informed her that she had been a somewhat socially constrained Brahmin widow in an earlier lifetime. We laughingly imagined a life of unfulfilled wanderlust and thwarted ambition. She agreed that this lifetime had been abundant in its compensations.”
Chhetri, too, fondly remembers the encouragement Alexander gave him. Recounting his time in Malibu, he says, “We talked about Zagajewski, Berryman, Basho, a form she called day-book poems, and Homer that summer. One evening after the workshop all of us went for margaritas and I gave her a copy of my book. After just doing a hectic reading of the book across a few cities in India that summer, I was still a little embarrassed by it, and perhaps she saw my hesitation. She sent me an email the next morning: It’s a beautiful book and very moving. You must inscribe it for me. Shabash! She sent me her elegy on Rohit Vemula that she'd been working on or had just finished, and in our talks once told me how the letter he'd left behind had haunted her perhaps into writing the elegy.”
Alexander’s poem “Death of a young Dalit” was published in Guftugu. This, perhaps, is a time for elegies.
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