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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Poetry

 

Meena Alexander


Meena Alexander is a prolific writer. Her poetry publications include
Stone Roots (l980), House of a Thousand Doors (l988) and two long poems: The Storm, A Poem in Five Parts (l989) and Night-Scene, The Garden (l992)). Her new volume of poems is River and Bridge (1995). Her prose writings include The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience, essays and poems (1996), Fault Lines, a memoir (1993), Nampally Road (1991), and a new novel Manhattan Music (1997). She is the author of The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979) and Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (l989). Her poems and prose writings have been widely published in magazines in the USA, UK, and India. Her work is also included in anthologies such as Making Waves: Writing by Asian Women (l989), Contemporary Indian Poetry (l990), Love Poems by Women (l990), Modern Indian Poetry in English (1991), Charlie Chan is Dead: Contemporary Asian-American Fiction (1993), The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1995), Penguin New Writing in India (1996), Sister to Sister (1996), Written by Herself (vol.II) ed. Jill Ker Conway (1996), and in the CD Rom series: American Journey. Selected poems and prose writings have been translated into Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and German.  See other work by Meena Alexander in this issue of Weber Studies:  ConversationFiction.

 

Gold Horizon

I.
She waited where the river ran
that summer as the floods began
stones sinking, fireflies murmuring
in paddy fields, herons on stumps of trees
the axe planted where little else would work
and everywhere the mess of water.

'So you have entered a new world'
her voice was low, growling even.
There was nothing humble in her voice.
Sometimes the dead behave in that know-all-way
ploughing the ruts of disaster,
their unease part of our very pith—
what the axe discovers marrow and meat to us.

'So what's it like there?' she asked.

I replied: 'As the Hudson pours
the river wall clings tight with glinting stones.
Yet what's so bright makes for odd imaginings.
Sometimes I feel as if a metal bowl had split
dented by blows from a woman's fist
and bits of spelling lessons, shards of script
struck from a past locked into privacy,
—this is the immigrant's fury, no?
Who understands my speech, further what is my speech?—
dropped, pounding as rice grains might.'

'You think that bowl's your head
your words a crypt! Look at your feet!
How can you stand addressing me?'
I heard her laughing bitterly.

'What's with you ?' I shot back
'What's with the dead, sheer jealousy?'

Her fingers waved a whitened scrap 
paper or cloth I could not tell.
She held it out to me: 'Take! Eat!'

I saw the sari that bound her
dropping free, feet cut at the ankles,
severed from her thighs, slicked with red earth.
Water poured in short streams
over her mutilated parts.
She stood, shored by a single elbow
against a mango branch.

II.
Place names splinter
on my tongue and flee:
Allahabad, Tiruvella, Kozhencheri, Khartoum,
Nottingham, New Delhi, Hyderabad, New York
—the piece work of sanity,
stitching them into a coruscating geography,
why a single long drawn breath
in an infant's dream might do,
—ruined by black water in a paddy field.

We wrestle on wet ground,
she and I, living and dead,
stripped to our skins,
naked, shining free in
the gold of a torn horizon.

Our thrashing is not nice.
Her ankle stumps shove against my eyes.

Words bolt, syllables rasp
an altered script
theatre of memory I could never have wished.
Breathless I search for a scene
mile long city blocks,
iron bridges scraping back short hills,
asphalt pierced with neon plots,
the rage of sense:
bodegas in the Barrio, Billy's topless bar,
Vineeta's Video Store crammed with cartoons
of Nutan and Madhuri
—'Kya, kya hum kon hai? Idher hum kon hai'
'Namal ivide ara? Ivide namal ara?'—

 The mixed up speech of newness,
flashing as a kite might,
pale paper on a mango branch.

III.
She waited where the river ran,
that summer as the floods began.

Is this mere repetition,
or the warm sprawl of time,
inscribed in limestone?
Who can cry back into a first world
a barefoot child on a mud forking path,
fields gold with monsoon water,
haunt of the snail and dragonfly?
What makes the narrative whole?

Beneath my cheek I feel her belly's bowl
thick with blood, the woman who waits for me.
Are these her lips or mine?
Whose tongue is this
melting to the quick of migrancy?
I touch raw bones, the skull's precise asymmetry.

As rivers north and rivers south soar
into tongues of mist parting our ribs
I hear voices of children whisper from red hills:
'An angel, you have caught an angel!'

June 29­August 20, 1996

 

She Started to Write Fragments

She started to write fragments
as much to herself as to another
(Did he live in her mind?)
(Could the mind hold its hope?)
She wanted to write:
The trees are bursting into bloom.
She felt it, though it did not come to her
in that particular way, the sentence endstopped.
Would he come in a feverish script,
form finicky with sense, sharp as a wave?
Or was that the wrong way around?
The hold of things was perpetually askew—
it surprised her as she tried to think it through:
that branch when she walked in the grass
level with her ankle, surprisingly stout
thrust out of a main trunk, a gash on it,
sore vermilion, cupped
in a bracelet of dew, black with desire.

 

Daffodils

Kasuya Eiichi, poet of Japan, knows a place
where daffodils bloom, a dark damp place,
where hair slit from heads of young girls
sharpens the wind, where a moon soars
over a cliff and syllables of speech
melt into petals—ochre petals. I will ask him
to take me there, into that swamp of dreams.
When underground water seeps into my wrists
I'll cry out through the mists:
Come, look, I'll not flash daffodil flesh at you,
I am older, I have two children now
my breasts are jugs of blood,
my hair black with silver running through
makes a pillow for my man, his thighs
cut from river mud, belly gold with longing.

(Note: This poem was inspired in part by Kasuya Eiichi's poem 'Daffodils' and also running through my head was that other poem about these yellow gold flowers, William Wordsworth's 'I wandered lonely as a cloud.')

 

Her Quest

Kashi in a room!
She whispers
it's a dream:

Honey in a mustard
seed—the bead
of truth hidden
in a stream

But the banyan
tree is bare, brown roots,
cling to air.

Shall I search for
a grace—a room
with white walls
where honeybees roam
wild and free?

Madre de Cristo
I am swimming
in the sea!
What will become
of us?
What will become
of me?

 

Man with a Pencil

—for Jatin Das

When he drew those massive
hooded women, cheeks, eyes, nose—
a city shifted its stones,
windows came ajar, doors flew open.

She saw a child on a swing
braids blowing in the heat,
women chopping baingan in a kitchen
a jamun tree fruit polished, pealing.

When he drew those toes
then circled thighs, arms, eyes
rain came down on the city.
She heard heels snapping,

Umbrellas poking at the sky
cotton sipping water... Chup, chup, chup
the saris went, dainty feet
reaching for the carts, bells jangling

And horses white, dripping
hooves reared in a festival of longing. 

 

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