Dual Citizen of the Pen
In novels, several volumes of poems, essays,
and a memoir, Fault Lines, Meena Alexander has explored
a life lived between two worlds. One is that of her native Indiashe
was born in the north-central city of Allahabad and her mother
tongue is Malayalam, which is spoken in the southwestern state
of Kerala. The other culture is that of New York City, where
she is a Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College
and the Graduate Center.
Alexander continues to explore the experience of exile in her
latest collection of poems, Illiterate Heart,
from Triquarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University
Press. It has already won a PEN Open Book Award.
The draw of two cultures is apparent in the Malayalam words
scattered now and then in her linesand also in the moving
Elegy to My Father, which is dedicated (as is the
volume itself) to Kannadical George Alexander. In fact, the
poem was composed in two worlds: As I finish this poem,
a warm rain falls. There is lightning in the air. The makings
of a storm. My father loved storms. He called them natures
glory. I began this poem in New York City, and now exactly
a year after his death I am in Pandan Valley, Singapore.
born at the Gangas edge.
My mother wrapped me in a bleached sari, laid me in stiff
reeds, in hard water.
I tried to keep my nostrils above mud, learnt how to use
my limbs, how to float.
This earth is filled with black water, small islands with
bristling vines afford us some hold.
Tired out with your journals you watch Mira crouch by
the rough stones of the alley. Her feet are bare, they
So much flight for a poet, so much persistence. Allen
Ginsberg, where are you now?
Engine of flesh, hot sunflower of Mathura, teach us to
glide into life,
teach us when not to flee, when to rejoice, when to weep.
teach us to clear our throats.
from Indian April
by Meena Alexander
Presented here is the second part of a four-part poem, Indian
April, composed in memory of another CUNY Distin-guished
Professor and an enthusiastic embracer of Far Eastern culture,
Allen Ginsberg, who visited India in 1962. The April of the
title is in fact a Central Park April. As Ginsberg lay
dying I was reading his Indian Journals very carefully,
just after arriving back from participating in Poetry
Africa in South Africa, and that April I would walk
through Central Park on the way to my Hunter office.
Mira refers to the mystical poet/ princess Mirabai,
born at the end of the 15th century. She is a great favorite
of Alexander, perhaps because, as Alexander notes, Mirabai left
her home and roamed across borders to sing love poems to Krishna,
the dark god. The Mathura mentioned in the poem is said
to be the home of Krishna.