Meena Alexander, an Indian-American émigré whose poetry holds the wounds of our recent history with lyrical ferocity, was once asked by a woman in northern Colorado, “Why do we have poetry?”
Alexander’s answer, “we have poetry, so we do not die of history,” is grafted onto the beginning of her newly published book of essays, Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009). The dislocation of which she writes in this book is topographical and moral, outer and inner.
“I have lived here in these dense, canyon-ridden, subway-gouged streets longer than anywhere else in the world,” says the 58-year-old author of six books of poetry, referring to Manhattan, her current home. “But in memory I often see a seascape, green-gold, darkening to indigo.”
From age 5 to 18, Alexander shuttled back and forth from Kerala in south India (she was born into a Syrian Christian Keralite family) to Sudan, where her father worked as a meteorologist. This childhood of arduous journeying would connect her in the future to the uprooted of Asia and Africa, whom she would encounter as a graduate student in England and later in America.
“I am living in a metropolis where different parts of the world often come together in extremely vivid, recalcitrant fragments,” she says. “There are people walking around with ethnicities no one else has heard of, with languages inside them that no one else knows. This has brought out an extraordinary emotional response in me because there is such a compression in New York City of this teeming world.”
Burnt into some of Alexander’s New York poems is the violence that interrupts the lives of nonwhite immigrants. In the Central Park segment of “Rumors for an Immigrant” in the poetry volume Raw Silk, Alexander turns her attention to the “police execution” of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo:
In the lake rumors flicker, make
Allen Ginsberg leaps from the reeds
holding hands with a young man
dead already, turned into a star,
shot forty-one times by police as he
stood in his own doorway.
Gently loiter, he sings.
On his charka Gandhi strums a tune:
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Gandhi slips in and out of Alexander’s poems as witness, anchor, and fellow exile. She was raised in a Gandhian family, and regards him as her moral muse. Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson, Ramu, her close friend, told her, “Gandhi was like you. He was away (from India) so much of his life. When he came back from South Africa, he had to understand his country all over again.”
His exile was also that of the nonviolent man in a violent world. It is to Gandhi that she turns in her Gujarat poems, written after her visits in September 2002 with Muslim survivors of the Godhra massacres earlier that year. In retaliation for the torching of a train in Godhra City that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from the holy city of Ayodhya, Hindu mobs set upon Muslims in Gandhi’s state of Gujarat, killing nearly 800, gang-raping Muslim women, and hacking to pieces homes, businesses, and mosques.
The Gujarat poems, a cycle of poems in Raw Silk under the heading, “Letters to Gandhi,” have been emotionally embraced by Indians in this country and in India. They were published in India’s second-largest English-language newspaper, The Hindu, which keeps them on its Web site.
“Lyric With Doves,” one of the poems, contains these lines:
It rains in your city,
in an ox-drawn cart.
Alexander finds in Gandhi the crystallization of the uprooted person’s empathic potential. She wrote of him to Keralite author Paul Zachariah: “Without his travels in South Africa he would never have come to an understanding of the horror of Untouchability.”
“My poems come into being as a palimpsest of multiple landscapes,” she tells her interviewer in the faculty lounge of Hunter College in Manhattan, where she is a distinguished professor of English. (Webster defines “palimpsest” as “something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface,” which certainly seems to apply.) Many of the students she passes in the halls, stylishly slouching against lengths of glass, are Third World immigrants, who like her have arrived in this country after periods of residency in multiple lands.
The acclaimed poet shares with other nonwhite immigrants the troubled social dance around color and the placement of origins. Dark-skinned and sari-less on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Alexander is taken for a Latina and expected to speak Spanish. Worse still, one of her students was once correctly taken to be an Indian and had eggs thrown at her by skinheads.
Alexander, in her essay, “Bordering Ourselves,” in The Shock of Arrival (South End Press), a 1996 book of poems and essays, will not reveal the student’s real name. “Her name does not matter, but she might be you or I. What she went through matters terribly. Rumana had to figure out how to live her life after that episode. How to walk the streets, how to enter public space.”
Like “Rumana,” Alexander’s dark skin sensitizes her to often tricky border crossings within America. She writes of how, in nearby Harlem, sometimes perceived as “another country,” her dark skin helps her “pass.” But out in the countryside is a different story. The signs stuck on passing motorcycles warn her: “500 years after Columbus, keep out foreign scum.”
The subtitle of The Shock of Arrival is “Reflections on Postcolonial Experience.” Born in 1951, four years after India won its independence, Alexander admits to being shaped by postcolonial radicalism. As a young poet, she was strongly drawn to Sarojini Naidu, one of the leaders of Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign against the British, who wrote her poems in the language of India’s oppressors.
“How had she been able to put the language of colonialism to such intimate use?” Alexander asks in her essay “In Search of Sarojini Naidu,” also found in The Shock of Arrival. “What had it cost her?” Alexander herself has wrestled with “the violence implied in the very language I used: English.”
Alexander’s path through that language was softened by two Americans. In childhood, she encountered the work of Emily Dickinson, the mystical garden that was her tingly “secret.” Later came Walt Whitman, whose expansive, democratic incantations drive her to ask: “How could I have come to America without Whitman?”
In Poetics of Dislocation, Alexander’s focus is not just on the strangers from elsewhere, but Americans dislocated in their birth land: Yusef Komunyakaa, the African-American poet from Louisiana, who grew up as an internal exile in the segregated South, and Joy Harjo, a Native American poet who writes of the dispossessed.
“She [Harjo] has a sense of this landscape prior to colonization, prior to the building of cities and the kind of American empire we are used to thinking about,” says Alexander.
Alexander sees herself and poets like Komunyakaa and Harjo as belonging to a “distinctly American,” early 21st-century school of poetic dislocation. One doesn’t have to be a hyphenated poet to belong to this school, but hyphenation and dislocation are well-mated in America.
In “A Durable Past,” yet another essay from The Shock of Arrival, Alexander reflects, “Everything that comes to me is hyphenated: a woman-poet, a woman-poet-of-color, a South-Indian woman poet who makes up lines in English, a postcolonial language, as she waits for the red lights to change on Broadway.”
Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based freelance writer.