Biography of Meena Alexander
Meena Alexander (born 1951) is an internationally acclaimed poet, scholar, and writer. Born in Allahabad, India, and raised in India and Sudan, Alexander lives and works in New York City, where she is Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and at the CUNY Graduate Center in the PhD program in English. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, literary memoirs, essays, and works of fiction and literary criticism.
Meena Alexander was born into a Syrian Christian family from Kerala, South India. She lived in Allahabad and Kerala until she was almost five when her father’s work—as a scientist for the Indian government—took the family to Khartoum in newly independent Sudan.In 1964, when she was only thirteen, Alexander enrolled in Khartoum University, where she studied English and French literature. There she wrote her ﬁrst poems, which were translated into Arabic and published in a local newspaper. After graduating with a BA Honors from Khartoum University in 1969, she moved to England and began doctoral study at Nottingham University. She earned a PhD in English in 1973—at the age of twenty-two—with a dissertation in Romantic literature that she would later develop and publish as The Poetic Self. She then moved to India and taught at several universities, including the University of Delhi and the University of Hyderabad. During the five years she lived in India she published her first three books of poetry: The Bird's Bright Ring (1976), I Root My Name (1977), and Without Place (1978). In 1979 she was a visiting fellow at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. The following year she moved to New York City and became an assistant professor at Fordham University, where she remained until 1987 when she became an assistant professor in the English Department at Hunter College, the City University of New York (CUNY). Two years later she joined the graduate faculty of the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. In 1992 she was made full professor of English and Women’s Studies. She was appointed Distinguished Professor of English in 1999 and continues to teach in the PhD program at the Graduate Center and the MFA program at Hunter College. Over the years she has also taught poetry in the Writing Division in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. Since moving to New York, Alexander has been a prolific author, publishing six more volumes of poetry, two books of literary criticism, two books of lyric essays, two novels, and a memoir. She is married to the brother of journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld, and has two children.
Alexander is known for lyrical writing that deals with migration, its impact on the subjectivity of the writer, and the sometimes violent events that compel people to cross borders.Though confronting such stark and difficult issues, her writing is sensual, polyglot, and maintains a generous spirit. About her work, Maxine Hong Kingston has said: "Meena Alexander sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live, and places for which one needs a passport and visas. Her voice guides us far away and back home. The reader sees her visions and remembers and is uplifted." Alexander has been influenced and mentored by the Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das, as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell.
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: Reﬂections on Postcolonial Experience (2006). In 1993 Alexander published her autobiographical memoir, Fault Lines (significantly revised in 2003 to incorporate new material). She has published two novels, Nampally Road (1991)—which was a Village Voice Literary Supplement Editor’s Choice—and Manhattan Music (1997), and two academic studies, The Poetic Self (1979) and Women in Romanticism (1989). Fault Lines was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year in 1993. Illiterate Heart won the 2002 PEN Open Book Award.
Alexander has read at Poetry International (London), Struga Poetry Evenings, Poetry Africa, Calabash Festival, Harbor Front Festival, Sahitya Akademi (India) and other international gatherings. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Arts Council England, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council for Research on Women, New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation. She was in residence at the MacDowell Colony and has held the Martha Walsh Pulver residency for a poet at Yaddo. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the Sorbonne (Paris IV), Frances Wayland Collegium Lecturer at Brown University, Writer in Residence at the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University, University Grants Commission Fellow at Kerala University, and Writer in Residence at the National University of Singapore. In 1998 she was a Member of the Jury for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She has served as an Elector, American Poets' Corner, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York. She was the recipient of the 2009 Literary Excellence Award from the South Asian Literary Association (an organization allied to the Modern Languages Association) for contributions to American literature. In 2014, Meena Alexander was named a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
Her book, Poetics of Dislocation, was published in 2009 by the University of Michigan Press as part of its Poets on Poetry Series. Also in 2009 Cambridge Scholars Publishing brought out an anthology of scholarship on her work titled Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander.
The poems in her new book, "Birthplace with Buried Stones", "convey the fragmented experience of the traveler, for whom home is both nowhere and everywhere" .
Meena Alexander Poems
I was young when you came to me. Each thing rings its turn, you sang in my ear, a slip of a thing dressed like a convent girl--
I watch your hands at the keyboard Making music, one hand with a tiny jot, A birthmark I think where finger bone
Central Park, Carousel
June already, it's your birth month, nine months since the towers fell.
Snails circle A shed where a child was born.
from Raw Meditations on Money, 1. She Sp...
Portions of a mango tree the storm cut down, a green blaze bent into mud and they come to me, at dawn
I. So there I was, almost at the crossroad Stuck in a sudden storm of bikers, men in leather, engines snarling. Flags spurt skywards. I froze at the metal barricade, the seam of sense unpicked, Brown body splayed. In the aftermath of light, what proof is there of love- Buoyancy of the soul hard to mark Apart from the body Its tenuous equilibrium unpicked, Wave after wave of arrival Etching questions in encircling air As if life depended on such flammable notations. II. You come, sari with blue border blowing, Just as I saw you first, head bare. A sudden turn on asphalt, you reach out your arms As if in a palash grove and call to me - Come over here! Sometimes the bleeding petals bring down a house Bring down a Republic. Children are bought and sold for money- Ghee to burn her. Teen taka. Ten rupees. Ek taka one rupee. Cloth to cover her with. Camphor for the burning. Bhang to make her drowsy. Turmeric. Chandan. You halt at the crossroad , hair thrummed by a savage wind (Later I try to follow marks of feet, touch cold cotton That lashed your flesh in place). III. I hear your voice - Brood, and it will come, a seizure of sense, a reckoning: Write with chalk, sticks of lead, anything to hand Use a bone, a safety pin, a nail, write on paper or stone Let the poem smolder in memory. In the desolation of time write How one inked the bubble with a woman's name Way at the top of the paper ballot, saw her own hand quiver. This was in the school with empty metal desks, near Fort Tryon Park. One set her nipple to her infant's lips Felt her heart sprout wings, flit over the barbed wire Of the Immigration Detention Center. One whimpered in her sleep - Mother, I know I am a tree, I trail my roots behind me, the man with bad hair will axe me down. One daubed her face with white paint, crawled Into a cage outside the museum, hung a sign round Her own neck - We are barbarians come to live amongst you, Some of us speak this language. IV. Hoarse already, you whisper - Come closer to me. You who were born in the Gangetic plains A year after mid century Consider the fragility of the horizon, The arc of stars into which your father raised you. When you fall, as surely you will one day Try to swim forward into blackness Arms pointing to where you imagine the vault of heaven to be As Draupadi did, a great throated cry She made in the forest, Only the birds could save her, they picked up her cries. Think of Antigone, who anointed her brother's corpse with dirt To keep away the wild dogs, She too made bird sounds, guttural cries. Go to Standing Rock, where people mass outside their tents In splintering cold, to guard the quiet springs of water. There the palash blooms, Tree used for timber, resin, dye, Tinting the nails of the love god. On its leaves names swarm - Anna Mae Aquash , Balbir Singh Sodhi, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Julia de Burgos countless more. Thrust from earth's core From the shadow of musk deer, The green throat of the humming bird, In the honeycomb of light, they step forward to be counted.
I watch your hands at the keyboard Making music, one hand with a tiny jot, A birthmark I think where finger bone Joins palm, mark of the fish, Living thing in search of a watering Hole set in a walled garden, Or in a field with all the fences torn: Where I hear your father cry into the wind That beats against stones in a small town Where you were born; its cornfields Skyward pointing, never sown, never To be reaped, flagrant, immortal.
Birthplace with Buried Stones
I 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 words stake—sentence and make-believe, A lyric summoning. II I came into this world in an Allahabad hospital, Close to a smelly cow pasture. I was brought to a barracks, with white walls And corrugated tin roof, Beside a civil aviation training center. In World War II officers were docketed there. I heard the twang of propellers, Jets pumping hot whorls of air, Heaven bent, Blessing my first home. III In an open doorway, in half darkness I see a young woman standing. Her breasts are swollen with milk. She is transfixed, staring at a man, His hair gleaming with sweat, Trousers rolled upStepping off his bicycle, Mustard bloom catches in his shirt. I do not know what she says to him, Or he to her, all that is utterly beyond me. Their infant once a clot of blood Is spectral still. Behind this family are vessels of brass Dotted with saffron, The trunk of a mango tree chopped into bits, Ready to be burnt at the household fire. IV Through the portals of that larger chaos, What we can scarcely conceive of in our minds— We'd rather think of starry nights with biting flames Trapped inside tree trunks, a wellspring of desire Igniting men and gods, A lava storm where butterflies dance— Comes bloodletting at the borders, Severed tongues, riots in the capital, The unspeakable hurt of history: So the river Ganga pours into the sea. V In aftermath—the elements of vocal awakening: Crud, spittle, snot, menstrual blistering, Also infant steps, a child's hunger, a woman's rage At the entrance to a kitchen, Her hands picking up vegetable shavings, chicken bones, Gold tossed from an ancestral keep. All this flows into me as mottled memory, Mixed with syllables of sweat, gashed syntax, Strands of burst bone in river sand, Beside the buried stones of Sarasvati Koop— Well of mystic sky-water where swans Dip their throats and come out dreaming.
'It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves' Wallace Stevens I Twilight, I stroll through stubble fields clouds lift, the hope of a mountain. What was distinct turns to mist, what was fitful burns the heart. When I dream of my tribe gathering by the red soil of the Pamba River I feel my writing hand split at the wrist. Dark tribute or punishment, who can tell? You kiss the stump and where the wrist Bone was, you set the stalk of a lotus. There is a blue lotus in my grandmother's garden, its petals whirl in moonlight like this mountain. II An altar, a stone cracked down the spine, a shelter, a hovel of straw and sperm out of which rise a man and a woman and one is a ghost though I cannot tell which for the sharpness between them scents even the orchids, a sharing of things invisible till the mountain fetches itself out of water out of ice out of sand and they each take tiny morsels of the mountain and set it on banana leaves and as if it were a feast of saints they cry out to their dead and are satisfied. III I have climbed the mountain and cleared away the sand and ice using first my bare hands then a small knife. Underneath I found the sign of the four-cornered world, gammadion, which stands for migration, for the scattering of the people. The desolation of the mothers singing in their rock houses becomes us, so too the child at the cliff's edge catching a cloud in her palm as stocks of blood are gathered on the plain, spread into sheaves, a circlet for bones and flint burns and the mountain resurrects itself. IV Tribe, tribute, tribulation: to purify the tongue and its broken skin I am learning the language again, a new speech for a new tribe. How did I reach this nervous empire, sharp store of sense? Donner un sens plus pur etc. etc. does not work so well anymore, nor calme bloc ici-bas. Blunt metals blossom. Children barter small arms. Ground rules are abolished. The earth has no capitals. In my distinct notebooks I write things of this sort. Monsoon clouds from the shore near my grandmother's house float through my lines. I take comfort in sentences. "Who cares what you write?" someone cries. A hoarse voice, I cannot see the face. He smells like a household ghost. There can be no concord between us. I search out a bald rock between two trees, ash trees on the riverbank on an island where towers blazed. This is my short incantation, my long way home. William, Rabindranath, Czeslaw, Mirabai, Anna, Adrienne reach out your hands to me. Now stones have tongues. Sibilant scattering, stormy grace!
Death of a Young Dalit
In memory of Rohith Vemula (1989-2016) Trees are hoisted by their own shadows Air pours in from the north, cold air, stacks of it The room is struck into a green fever Stained bed, book, scratched windowpane. A twenty-six-year-old man, plump boy face Sets pen to paper - My birth Is my fatal accident, I can never recover From my childhood loneliness. Dark body once cupped in a mother's arms Now in a house of dust. Not cipher, not scheme For others to throttle and parse (Those hucksters and swindlers, Purveyors of hot hate, casting him out). Seeing stardust, throat first, he leapt Then hung spread-eagled in air: The trees of January bore witness. Did he hear the chirp From a billion light years away, Perpetual disturbance at the core? There is a door each soul must go through, A swinging door - I have seven months of my fellowship, One lakh and seventy thousand Please see to it that my family is paid that. She comes to him, girl in a cotton sari, Holding out both her hands. Once she loosened her blouse for him In a garden of milk and sweat, Where all who are born go down into dark, Where the arnica, star flower no one planted Thrives, so too the wild rose and heliotrope. Her scrap of blue puckers and soars into a flag As he rappels down the rock face Into our lives, We who dare to call him by his name - Giddy spirit become Fire that consumes things both dry and moist, Ruined wall, grass, river stone, Thrusts free the winter trees From their own crookedness, strikes Us from the fierce compact of silence, Igniting red roots, riotous tongues
Fragments of an Inexistent Whole
Inspired by Alison Knowles's "A House of Dust" 1. Syllables sieved through floating gates, Metal clack of printer Mortal rendition, Fortran - The future coming closer and closer House of broken dishes / by the sea / using electricity Black flash, strange as any me I might claim The already gone, its music barely audible 00-111 - 000 cut and sizzling, swiveling repetitions The mind falling from itself, into no where. The desire for place not to be denied What touch affords us, sempiternal hold. 2. Imagine a woman with a veil over her head, Black cotton or muslin Of the sort that my grandmother wore, the edge of her sari As she sat under the sun, by the well side. Already the veil covers the garden Mango trees split into the shape of harps. 3. The artist decides on materials, timber, tar, tumbleweed, Then light source - natural, electric, strobe, that sort of thing She decides on location - A bracelet, a brandishing of space Scores for a masked ball, the self and its others Clinging close, hips grinding, a distinct congress Precise rendering of rhyme or its uncoupling Underwater copulation = syllabic sense. The artist decides on persons - girls with jump ropes Boys whistling in the sunlight by hydrants gushing Hot metals, the planet soaked in ether, A scholar blinded by footnotes, scores of them, Men and women, faceless now, joyful and inconsolable Veritable census of the dead. 4. House of Dust / on open ground / lit by natural light Is that where I belong? Lord have mercy! Grandmother cried, when I was born This child will wander all her life. Grandfather tossed in a match The bush filled with smoke, gooseberry bush - With freckled leaves - Tat tvam asi - The deliverance of Sanskrit What I learnt without knowing that I did, Grammar of redemption Sucked from fiery space As grandmother's hands turn to dirt The sky - cerulean blue Sheer aftermath.
The periodic pleasure of small happenings is upon us— behind the stalls
Terrace deep as the sky. Stone bench where I sit and read,
For My Father, Karachi 1947
Mid-May, centipedes looped over netting at the well's mouth. Girls grew frisky in summer frocks, lilies spotted with blood.
Dog Days of Summer
In the dog days of summer as muslin curls on its own heat
And crickets cry in the black walnut tree
The wind lifts up my life
And sets it some distance from where it was.
Still Marco Polo Airport wore me out,
I slept in a plastic chair, took the water taxi.