Poet, essayist, novelist and scholar Meena Alexander died in New York City, her home since the 1980s, on November 21. Her poetry remained stepped in her Indian roots as well as embracing her many homes, including the time she spent in Sudan and England. These six poems from her book Atmospheric Embroidery, published in 2015, show how Alexander’s verses embodied both the deeply personal and widely political.
Wads of ice-cream glisten on Route 6.
We stroll into summer, thoughts thrust into a bramble
Oriental bitter-sweet pocking the hedges,
Fists in pockets, lemonade dripping from a child’s hem.
In Boetti’s embroidery, in his mapping of the world
Everything is cut and coupled,
Occult ordering – silk and painted steel
Sun and electric moon, butterfly and naked man.
In The Thousand Longest Rivers
The Nile is the hardest water
Then comes the Mississippi – Missouri.
Once we lived by brilliant waters
Suffered the trees’ soft babble,
Fissures in magma.
Already its August –
Season of snipers in the heartland,
Season of coastlines slit by lightning
And smashed bouquets of the salt spray rose.
Now I think it’s a miracle we were able, ever
To put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking.
I was a child on the Indian Ocean.
Deck-side we dance in a heat-haze,
Toes squirm under silver wings.
Under burlap someone weeps.
Amma peers out of the porthole,
Sari stitched with bits of saffron,
Watch out for flying fish
Our boat is bound for Africa.
They have goats and cows just like us,
Also snakes that curl
Under the frangipani tree.
Remember what grandmother said?
If you don’t keep that parasol
Over your head
You’ll turn into a little black girl.
Where is she now,
Child crossing the livid sea?
I must speak to the shadows.
Piercings of sense,
Notes lashing time
Ecstatic self hidden
In the ship’s hold
Solely in darkness:
Anchorage of divinity.
On the South Indian coast
In eighth century heat
Tiruvalla copper plate
Marked the morning hour
Before the sea clamored
And the shadow of the body
Lay twelve feet longer
Than Sita herself,
With sacred fires – passage
To a kingdom beyond
The peepul trees.
Where are those refugees
Amma did not want me to see,
Gunny sacks and torn saris
Stitched together with cord?
Breath of my breath, bone
Of my bone, dark god
Of the Nilgiris,
Who will grant them passage?
I was blindfolded and had only the mercy of the sea
(And sprigs of jasmine in my arms).
The journey was awkward: lines blown inward, syllables askew.
Gulls nestled in torn pages.
There were many languages flowing in the fountain.
In spite of certain confusion I decided not to stay thirsty.
When we got to that country, a war was going on
A mound of stones grew outside our window frame.
I was five years old and tried to understand what was happening.
My soul ran away with me.
Forests with branches torn off, mouths that split open into my mouth,
Eyes that mirrored mine, ears torn off, few birds warbling.
Close at hand, afloat on water, a tall cliff scarred with glyphs,
Visionary want, attuned to nature’s substances.
Rock and ruin, pathways of salt, scents of crushed jasmine,
Returning me to what I cannot bear to remember.
Grandfather lies in wait for me.
I cannot see.
My voice is young and burnt
My voice is a bramble berry squashed on stone.
All afternoon I lay curled in a hole
In the bamboo grove where cobras rove.
No one knew.
Rove – How did I learn that verb?
From my Scottish tutor –
She rapped my knuckles hard.
A swan in a bag, worth two in the lake.
A stitch in time saves nine.
She taught me some such things.
Who will bring me sweetmeats,
Swirl henna on my palms?
Who stokes sugarcane with kerosene
Binds cords of broken rope?
Dark sisters in the sky, their wings are torn.
They have stumps for wrists.
They sing Hosannas to our Lord.
Black Sand at the Edge of the Sea
Soon I will be given to earth,
Folded in a death squat
Together with pig marrow,
Swan’s down, thread-leaved sundew,
Pitchblende sucking bones in.
Where is grandfather now?
My friend says think of old Walt
Bent over his dead enemy –
Touching lips to encoffined flesh.
So where do they live
The twin sisters Night and Death?
Will they wash the ground clean?
Excerpted with permission from Atmospheric Embroidery, Meena Alexander, Hachette India.