Meena Alexander: Home is elsewhere

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 12, 2012
Meena Alexander: Home is elsewhere

Glenn Horowitz Bookseller has just published Shimla, Meena Alexander’s latest book of poems. It’s an edition of fifteen pages, limited to 150 copies, signed by the poet out of which 125 are bound in red handmade wrappers and are string tied and tagged at USD 40.00 whereas the rest 25 are bound in patterned cloth and selling at USD 125.00. The visual experience is crucial. Shimla comes through beautifully through a frame of 6.25″x9.25″. Set in Shimla and in the Viceregal Lodge, which is now known as Rashtrapati Nivas, the book is indeed a cycle of lyric poems which speak of the poet’s longing for the summer heaven of India, Shimla.
Writers Workshop, a publishing entity from Kolkata (then Calcutta), published Meena Alexander’s first book of verse. Two years later, she published her second from the same platform:
Poetry is place,
Reach out and touch your fingernails,
Your skin
Weep, weep at sightless wings

(Without Place, 1978)
This was Meena Alexander thirty-six years ago in Calcutta, just a newly published writer. Professor P.Lal of Writers Workshop, who she met in Hyderabad, published her first book, a single lengthy poem in 1976. She lived in India for five years, taught at several universities, including the University of Delhi and the University of Hyderabad, and during those five years she published her first book of poetry: The Bird’s Bright Ring. That book of poems was published from Writers Workshop at 162/92 Lake Gardens, Calcutta 700045, India; that book of verse was also hand-set in Times Roman typeface and printed on an Indian-make hand-operated machine by Chandra Shekhar Mondal at the Mondal Printing Works, Diamond Harbour, South 24 Parganas on paper manufactured in India. That book of verse was also hand-bound by Tulamiah Mohiuddin with handloom sari cloth woven and designed in India.
Thirty-six years later, in 2012, Meena Alexander’s Shimla has been published in New York from Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, and is set in Rilke types of the Nonpareil Typefoundry with the cover being designed by Jerry Kelly.
Born in Allahabad, India, raised in India and Sudan, Meena went to study in England at the age of eighteen. Right before she came to India, after graduating with a BA Honors from Khartoum University in 1969, she had earned a PhD in English in 1973at the age of twenty-twowith a dissertation in Romantic literature at Nottingham University. In 1980 following her visiting fellowship at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, she moved to New York City and has remained there till date. She is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York and teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College and the Ph.D.Program at the Graduate Center.
Meena’s autobiography ‘Fault Lines’(Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 1993, which was revised in 2003 to add new content) offers a clear vision of a woman trying to strip “free of the colonial burden” (page 74). . She has eight volumes of poetry to her credit, including Illiterate Heart (2002), which won a 2002 PEN Open Book Award.
As much as she speaks of migration and her diasporic sensitivities in her recent poems, such as “Late, There Was an Island”, poems like “Triptych in a Time of War,” deal with the aftermath of the traumatic events of September 11, 2001 as well.
The Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell have influenced Meena Alexander, who has always written about migration and its impact on the writer.
Among her best known works are the volumes of poetry, Illiterate Heart (2002) and Raw Silk (2004). Her latest volume of poetry is Quickly Changing River (2008). She has edited a volume of poems in the Everyman Series, Indian Love Poems (2005), and published a volume of essays and poems on the themes of migration and memory called The Shock of Arrival: Re?ections on Postcolonial Experience (2006). Her book of essays, Poetics of Dislocation, was published in 2009 by the University of Michigan Press as part of its Poets on Poetry Series.
Today, in New York, Alexander is still all about memory, longing and nostalgia…
In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria,
Coughing into emptiness, and it came
A west wind from the plains with its arbitrary arsenal:
Torn sails from the Ganga river.
Bits of spurned silk,
Strips of jute to be fashioned into lines,
What word stake-sentence and make-believe,
A lyric summoning.

(Poems, uncollected)
In her apartment on 190th Street in North Manhattan, where I met her in August 2010, Meena Alexander was still a poet of melancholy and memory. Till date, she refers back to her early work with a certain degree of hesitation. In fact, none of her official biographies have any mention of her first two. Upon my insistence, she shared bits and pieces from her past…
Her first collection of poems was written in 1975 and published in 1976. Meena had sent the transcript to Professor Lal and he had gladly published her. Apparently, she had heard Professor Lal mentioning to his friends that Meena would be greatly appreciated at some point in her life. Meena calls her first book an “interesting experiment”.
Just back from England, Meena had joined the activists’ platform along with the grandson of Gandhi. The first book, she states, remains precious for her and she fondly recollects having sent many copies of the book to all her relatives, not caring to know whether they had gone through her labour of love.
It is the second book, Without Place, out of which she had not expected to meet a reader in Hyderabad who seemed to have been awe-struck by the content and style.
She, however, continued speaking passionately spoke of her more recent works:
Quickly Changing River (dedicated to her mother);
Raw Silk which speaks of 9/11, Iraq and has letters to Gandhi
House of a Thousand Doors
Illiterate Heart
River and Bridge
Poetic of Dislocation: collection of essays
Today, Meena Alexander recollects her friendship with Meenakshi Mukherjee and Jayanta Mahapatra, both writers who wrote for Writers Workshop. Meena also mentions Kamala Das, her dear friend upon whose demise she wrote an Op Ed on in Biblio. She also talks about her absolute passion for the poetry of Jibananda Das, with whom she shares the same longing and melancholy and whose date of birth is in close proximity to hers. Throughout the conversation, she refers to the angst of the South Asian poets and moves on to add that Jibananda’s sensibility, his longing for an impossible existence combined with his love for the lateral world and his poetic landscape set against the backdrop of nature are what she remains attracted to the most. Therefore, in one of her recent book of poems, she has dedicated a whole poem to Jibananda Das’s Nine Swans.
Meena quotes her friend Jayanta Mahapatra with whom she shares the same emotion of not minding sitting in front of a blank page for hours staring at drafts, amazed by the labor and intricacy the fabric of a poem offers.
Till date, there is a calming amalgamation of history and memory in Meena Alexander. As much as she remembers an open terrace (Lady Dufferin’s Terrace) from the South, as much as she remembers her bamboo grove and her suite 19 at the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, as much as reminisces about the lichis and the Hanumans on Lady Dufferin’s Terrace, she also hangs on to her Today that offers her fresh air from her very own Bryant Park and her desire for clinging on to the “memory of the place where Basho walked” (Near Sendai). While Meena indulges in her Morning Ritual, she still wonders about Basho and suddenly jolts back to reality to look at the “forked path to this moment” and ends:
Trees have no elsewhere.
Leaves very green.
Meena Alexander seems to have been looking for a way to heal her heart ever since she first began to write poetry. In House of a Thousand doors, she watches a:
“A poor forked thing”, kneeling all her lifetime…
Imploring the household gods
Who will not let her in.
In Shimla, she is no different when she imagines Lord Curzon’s daughter whispering in the deodar leaves, unraveling her hair, writing to her “Dear Diary”, sadly pining away for her lover: ” I do not know who he is anymore” and then continues her quest:
“She needs Hanuman with his herb of healing
But the clouds won’t part.”
Home to Meena Alexander is also an alien terrain.
Meena , on Question of Home in answers that her home was a separate space with a promise:
I turned five on the steamer as my mother and I traveled from Bombay to Port Sudan, to meet him (father). I still think that birthday on the waters of the Indian Ocean has marked me in ways utterly beyond my ken. It has left me with the 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. I think of Mallarme who spoke of the image as an absente de tous bouquets. For me that is what home is. And our internal migrations become the music, wave after wave of it, that give it a fragile and precarious hope.
Isn’t that always the case? Don’t we all reconcile with one space and still long for a home in another? Meena Alexander in New York is as much the Meena in India wanting to have her book cloth bound, wanting to have the tactile feeling on the cover of the book that speaks of her beginnings, almost thirty-six years ago. At the end, poetry has no other home than desire.

Rubana Huq is a poet, researcher and columnist.