NITESH NARNOLIA | 26 NOVEMBER, 2018
‘The Task of Poetry Is… to Reconcile Us to the World’
Meena Alexander, Indian-American Poet, Essayist, Dies at 67
There is no homeland anymore
All nations are abolished…
The poet who lamented on violence, cruelty and brutality in homeland and hostland, Meena Alexander died in New York on Wednesday, 21 November 2018 at the age of 67. An esteemed figure in the literary world, Alexander was fighting cancer when she died peacefully in the morning.
She received the PEN Open Book Award in 2002 for Illiterate Heart (2002). Her books of poetry Stone Roots (1980) and House of a Thousand Doors (1985) marked her presence in the Indian literary world.
Later, her decision to make the United States her permanent home, made her an important Indian-American poet. In her poetry and essays she calls herself homeless as well as at home in multiple places at the same time. She wrote in her essay ‘Poetry: The Question of Home’: “Lacking just one single place to call home and shorn of the hold of one language I could take to be mine and mine alone, I felt stranded in the multiplicity that marked my life, its rich coruscating depths only forcing me – or so I felt – into grave danger.”
Alexander was born in Allahabad in 1951 to Malayali parents and spent her early life in south India and Sudan. Continuously travelling between the two places during her childhood, she was left with a sense that “home is always a little bit beyond reach, a place both real and imagined, longed for, yet marked perpetually as an elsewhere, brightly lit, vanishing.”
The kind of dislocation and exile she experienced, geographically, linguistically and in the politics of her sexuality, is well reflected in her poetry. As in her life, which included multiple border crossings, her poems crossed traditional disciplinary boundaries and generated interdisciplinary dialogues.
Meena Alexander was a true diasporic voice expressing its own diasporic experiences in poetry of uprooting and exile, alienation and identity, memories and trauma, separation and loneliness.
In her teenage years she changed her name from Mary Elizabeth to ‘Meena’, her home name since birth. She would say later: “I felt I had changed my name to what I already was, some truer self, stripped free of the colonial burden.”
A large part of her poetry as well as prose reflected her acute awareness of the concerns of migration, border-crossing and political violence. In an interview with the Kenyon Review she stated: “In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist. I believe this very deeply and I see it as an effort to enter into the complications of the moment even if they are violent, but through that, in some measure, the task of poetry is to reconcile us to the world – not to accept it at face value or to assent to things that are wrong, but to reconcile one in a larger sense.”
Her poetry is truly cerebral, captivating readers to disentangle the webs of complexity in it. Ethnic uprising, violence, and class-clash are some of the issues that find place in poems such as ‘The Bird’s Bright Ring’ and ‘Raw Silk’.
The events of Godhra, Naroda Patiya, the conflagration of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon are some of the events through which Alexander reflected violence, sorrow and suffering in her poetry.
The depiction of reality in her poetry is so touching it can bring tears to readers’ eyes.
In her poetry Alexander seemed to transcend personal concerns and worries to embrace the universal perspective. The beauty and brutality, the calm and ferocity of her poetry are really soul-stirring.
Even her last poem, ‘Krishna, 3.29 AM’, which she posted on Facebook on 31 October 2018, reflects her concern for migrants, and can also be considered her goodbye message to her family, friends, followers and fans. She asks, “Will I ever write another? I do not know but I keep open to the voices that speak to me even in this illness…
The many births you have passed through, try to remember them as I do mine
Memory is all you have.
Still, how much can you bear on your back?
You’ve lost one language, gained another, lost a third.
There’s nothing you’ll inherit, neither per stirpes nor per capita
No plot by the riverbank in your father’s village of Kozencheri
Or by the burning ghat in Varanasi.
All you have is a writing hand smeared with ink and little bits of paper
Swirling in a violent wind…
The child who crosses the border water bottle in hand
Fallen asleep in the aisle where backpacks and sodden baskets are stashed.
Out of her soiled pink skirt whirl these blood-scratched skies
And all the singing rifts of story.
(The poem was also published in Poetry, October 2018.)
Meena Alexander had been ailing for some time and her demise is a huge loss to the literary world, and to the thousands of people whose lives were touched by her presence. Amritjit Singh, author and professor of English and African-American studies, and a friend of Alexander’s, writes in his eulogy for her: “She expanded our sense of how our identity in historical specificity has the capacity to link with, morph into, other larger interwoven identities to form coalitions that are transformative. Folks who breezily dismiss ‘identity politics’ have much to learn from Meena Alexander!”
Her writings will always inspire the coming generations, especially migrants reflecting upon their sufferings and sorrows, in homeland and hostland both.
(Nitesh Narnolia is a Rajiv Gandhi Senior Research Fellow (PhD) at the Centre for Diaspora Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, India).