Nature feeds Meena Alexander’s seventh collection of poetry and suffuses its central roots. Dhanladhar peaks, pipal tree, green parrot wings, cockatoo, munshi, grasshopper, Kurinji flowers, cows, camels carry us to an intense universe that is Other to much modern English poetry. Yet, because India is part of Alexander’s childhood and continuous returns as an adult, she can revisit and explore nature in memory as well as fact, as Wordsworth did. Stone, dust, fire are not ornament, travel detail, or invoked for symbolic comparisons. They course through Alexander’s life, giving her the authority to return them to poetry as origins and sources. Almost by accident we register the contrast when bottled water, a squirrel down the chimney, blue spruce, a black walnut appear as details in her poems. Words are different in feeling, sound, color and history for her when situated in North America. For most writers, what the mind selects is deeply affected by place. Imagine ‘dust’ in relation to New York City, or ‘fire.’ It would be difficult to see them as redolent constants, omnipresent in memory. Alexander, who has always written in English, brings, in this volume, a haunting pitch to what English poetry can offer as its own. Ungovernable and healing nature finds defining space in a postmodern landscape.
Migrations, wars, loves form her broad, overarching question: “what are we to make of experimental geographies?” Underlying her phrase, ‘experimental geographies’, are physical dislocations, new societal and personal maps. Some are voluntary, many convulsive and forced. Articulating her daunting and incomplete conclusions, ancient and modern lexicons mix as the poet transverses past and present. “Syllables tumble/ in a milky river// Babbling mother/ font of memory.” Everpresent is a general sublimnal instability that may transform into light or darkness. Possible moods of menace ripple nearly as often as Alexander’s uses of silk and tulle. “A square of pigeons and parrots on loose stones,/ Hammer-toed quail and horsemen/ desperate for conquest”. Loose, hammer-toed, desperate catch, in what seem to be nearly inevitable adjectives, the potential for destabilization from one line to the next.
Sharp contrasts abide in Alexander’s life from India to New York City; yet the physical world that she knows from India provides signposts for universal questions that memory raises and history insists upon. She is a witness to fixed societal clashes and ones involving relations between women and men. As part of her female lexicon, Alexander uses “chifon saris,” “hunks of burlap," “mild cotton,” “mud on the hem” -- all references to Indian women’s clothing, as well as standing for the politics of Indian independence, signs of class, evidence of young girls’ flights into passion -- but these details go further. They carry wide-sweeping empathy and vision, as well as the suffering and violence locked in defined roles. She laments for the “… seven week creature/ Paddling inside, scraped out.” Her language can burst into vivid, unrelenting images of women being coerced and forced: St. Lucy, “her throat a column of tears”../“still clothed in savage reeds.”
Yet the strength of her work is its rejection of intellectual positions. Her images carry graceful movements that envelop the reader as experiences with their unknowable consequences.
“A space without history—
At the rim of the pond grandmother loosens her sari,
Her skin glistens, utterly bare. No one remembers this.”
The stanza creates a subtle tone of wistful mourning: the contrast between “glistening skin” and the impact of “utterly bare” inches in and then the image settles in different light. The intimate hope and sound connections in the words “loosen” and “glisten” and the expanse that continues in “utterly” complicates, suddenly, as if by the act of baring her skin, the act of undressing, the woman is exposed in a moment without interpretation. It should be an intimate moment of pleasure. But space in line one. rim in line two and no one remembers in line three, turn the glistening into something nearly tragic. There is beauty, and yet her solitary act lends weight to bare as depletion, as well as exposed. And that no one remembers is a fact, even if it may be invented. There is need, longing, waste; those moments are lost unless they are imagined.
One of the pleasures of her poems is how meaning flows through, from and among lines and stanzas. Her pacing follows the colorings of feeling and when the tone grows too poetic, she knows how to lighten it with impish humor. “I came into this world in an Allahabad hospital,/Close to a smelly cow pasture.”
Several of Alexander’s poems have been set to music including “Impossible Grace,” included in her collection. While it is not possible in this brief space to even skim the passages that work as musical structures, here are several progressions from a poem in the Jerusalem cycle, “ Garden in Nazareth.” The scene is a visit to the Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali before he died. It is illustrative of the volitility that Alexander has made her own.
Already birds are flying into your garden,
Lark and quail, sand in their wings.
The garden in front, the desert not far.
Somewhere a bus is burning.
The sand in the wings, the desert not far would be redundant if it were not for the garden and the burning bus. Together with the repetition of garden, played off against the desert and its conflicts, harsh realities that even mark birds, we have a complete summation of history, a situation and mood. The venerable man that she is visiting is in bed, dying. He is moved by her coming. He wipes a tear, she adjusts his blanket. Lost for words after she has compared his poems to a garden, she continues speaking to him:
The birds, I say, there are many birds in your garden.
Your face lights up. Sunlight on your face.
A thread of gold breaks the sky.
You stretch out a hand
Reaching for a world we have not seen,
A life of sound and circling sense
Vivid air, the wound of mist,
A woman boils milk, on an old stove,
Pours it into a metal cup,
Hands it to a man just back from the fields.
The sound and repetition of the images—the thread of gold that breaks the sky, an unseen life of sound and circling sense--grounded by the rhythm of ritual action, boil milk, pour into metal, hand it to the man, create a mood of benediction. The birds that are coming to the garden, the repetition of their appearances, the light in Ali’s face—is it from the sun, or from inside? The mood, exquisitely paced, is defined by movements in and out, stretching, reaching, circling, a life not seen, but of sound, vivid air, and the wound of mist balanced and defined by the real world. The phrase “perpetual benediction” is the fulcrum balancing both worlds. It holds up Ali’s art, his perception of the invisible, and the blessing of living.
The book’s three parts take us from India and New York to Jerusalem, to a final group of deeply felt poems about the demands of love. While the poet frequently surprises with flashes of mechanized, modern life, subways or “jets pumping hot whorls of air,” her matrix is one defined by natural laws that by instinct and ‘reason’ bind humans to ethical order. In the last section in a poem called, “Lost Garden” she arrives at a nearly Shakespearean conclusion that “there is nothing to see but nakedness.” Inside the observation there is acceptance, dry as the desert, full of birds with sand on their wings. Alexander’s whole book can be seen in this courageous, brave light. She touches on the mysteries of nakedness with humility. In a beautiful poem called “Cantata for a Riderless Horse, she says: “ Raised on betrayal /I could not bear to be happy.// “Survival of the fittest parts of the self/ I thought was what was called for.” “But love too has its daring,/Its unbegotten species of sense making.// I come to you now,/ Dirt in my hair”…
Meena Alexander‘s language for experience -- “storm-red,” “coveted” “willing to bomb,” “smeared with ash” the “voile,” “pink tulle” and the everpresent “spittle”-- tells truths about family, nation, justice, passion and memory once they have been torn, mixed and changed. Her ability to express the “larger chaos” brings us directly into our complicated world, where she finds nature’s presence basic to understanding human order. She leads us to feel “what we can scarcely conceive with our minds.”