I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven
—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”
Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”
I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?
Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:
Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.
We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.
—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”
Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:
She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.
This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.
Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:
I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.
—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”
At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:
Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.
Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.
This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.
Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.
Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.