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Alexander, Meena

ALEXANDER, Meena


Nationality: American (originally Indian). Born: Allahabad, 17 February 1951. Education: Unity High School, Khartoum, Sudan, graduated 1964; University of Khartoum, B.A. (honors) 1969; University of Nottingham, Ph.D. in English 1973. Family: Married David Lelyveld in 1979; one son and one daughter. Career: Tutor in English, University of Khartoum, 1969; lecturer in English, University of Delhi, 1974, and Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad, 1975–77; CSIR Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 1975; lecturer, 1977–79, and reader, 1979, University of Hyderabad; visiting fellow, Sorbonne, Paris, 1979; assistant professor of English, Fordham University, Bronx, New York, 1980–87; assistant professor, 1987–89, associate professor, 1989–91, and since 1992 professor, Hunter College and the Graduate Centre, City University of New York. Visiting assistant professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1981; lecturer in writing, Columbia University, 1991–99; visiting university grants commission fellow, English Institute, University of Kerala, Trivandrum, 1987; writer-in-residence, Centre for American Culture Studies, Columbia University, New York, 1988; poet-in-residence, American College, Madurai, India, 1994; MacDowell Colony Fellow, 1993. Awards: National Endowment for the Humanities travel grant, 1985; New York State Council for the Arts grant, 1988; poetry award, New York State Foundation for the Arts, 1999. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, 1155 Camino Del Mar, Suite 515, Del Mar, California 92014. Address: English Department, Hunter College, City University of New York, 695 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10021, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

The Bird's Bright Ring. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1976.

I Root My Name. Calcutta, United Writers, 1977.

Without Place. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1978.

Stone Roots. New Delhi, Arnold Heinemann, 1980.

House of a Thousand Doors. Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1988.

The Storm. New York, Red Dust, 1989.

Night-Scene, the Garden. New York, Red Dust, 1989.

River and Bridge. New Delhi, Rupa, 1995.

Play

In the Middle Earth. New Delhi, Enact, 1977.

Novel

Manhattan Music. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1997.

Other

The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism. New Delhi, Arnold Heinemann, 1979; Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1980.

Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley. London, Macmillan, 1989.

Nampally Road. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1991.

Fault Lines, New York, Feminist Press, 1993.

The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience. Boston, Southend Press, 1996.

*

Critical Studies: "Exiled by a Woman's Body: Substantial Phenomena in the Poetry of Meena Alexander," in Journal of South Asian Literature (East Lansing, Michigan), 21(1), winter/spring 1986, and "The Inward Body: Meena Alexander's Feminist Strategies of Poetry," in Feminism and Literature, edited by K. Radha, Trivandrum, University of Kerala, 1987, both by John Oliver Perry; "Poetry, Language and Feminism: The Writings of Meena Alexander" by K. Raveendran, in Kala Gomati (Kerala), October 1987; "Meena Alexander's Poetry" by Konnakuzhy Ittira, in Mathrubhumi (Kerala), 1989; "Meena Alexander" by Denise Knight, in Reworlding: Writers of the Indian Diaspora, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1993; "Towards the Creation of a Vital Aesthetics: A Survey of Contemporary Indian English Poetry and Criticism with Special Reference to Meena Alexander" by Sumitra Mukerji, in Journal of the School of Languages, III, 1993; "The Poetry of Multiple Migrations" by Hema Nair, MS., January/February 1994; "The Barbed Wire Is Taken into the Heart" by Ketu Katrak, in An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by King-Kok Cheung, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997; "Portrait of Meena Alexander" by Erika Duncan, in World Literature Today, 73(1), winter 1998.

Meena Alexander comments:

Sometimes people one has just met will say, "What sort of poems do you write?" It seems fair enough as a question, but I am always hard put to reply. Poems about childbirth, poems about my grandparent's small town in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, poems about coming to America, short poems, irregular sonnets, long poems, poems of sexual desire, all of that would be true. But even to say that seems such a bits-and-pieces answer—after all what can one do except move in memory to the dense particularity of each poem? But perhaps I can try now to sketch out a rough map, an internal geography, as it were, formed by the poems.

The volume of poetry House of a Thousand Doors I think of as a beginning. The grandmother figure in it is drawn from memory and dream; she stands as a power permitting me to speak in an alien landscape. The sense of newness, of the persistent difficulty of another landscape, another life, becomes in those poems part of a search for a precarious truth. My two long poems The Storm and Night-Scene, the Garden, both published in 1989, were composed side by side in roughly a year and a half, starting in 1986. Together they form part of a poetic autobiography. The first moves from a vivid childhood memory, my father's father tearing down the ancestral house in Kozencheri to build a modern one. It moves then to the repeated passages away from that first home, taking in airports, dislocations, war. It ends with a "bitten self / cast back into its intimate wreckage." Night-Scene I think of as female, dealing with the molten stuff that lies between a mother and a daughter, between a daughter and her maternal home. This poem, which was performed off-off-Broadway in 1988, is set in my mother's ancestral house in Tiruvella in contemporary India. The language takes in the roughness, the crudity of speech. Unlike The Storm, which contemplates, frames, this poem swallows chaoses. I think of it, foolishly perhaps, as "unformed," though readers have seen a persistent patterning in it. In my own mind it is related to the poem "Passion," composed in 1986 about the aftermath of childbirth. Now I am working on a series of short poems, 14 to 20 lines in length, which bring together the two landscapes of my life, that of rural Kerala and that of Manhattan, city of subways and dark underground passages.

*  *  *

In the 1980 essay "Exiled by a Dead Script," Meena Alexander articulates the dilemma of the Indian poet writing in English. Calling Indian English "a nowhere language," Alexander suggests that the poet "necessarily grasps himself as exiled … estranged from the place around him, whose body cannot appropriate its given landscape." In words strikingly similar to those of the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, whose "Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space" was taken by a generation of Canadian poets to articulate their postcolonial condition of silence, Alexander writes that Indian English poets must "resolutely refuse exile, the language itself must transform. It must contort itself to become mimetic of muteness—their muteness which is appropriated as the poet's own." She suggests that her and others' writing in India is marked by two sorts of "terror""babble" and "non-sense"-explained by the imperial history of English in India, which "will always remain a colonizing power till those whom it oppresses steal it for themselves, rupture its syntax till it is capable of naming the very structures of oppression."

Thus, Alexander's own poetry is marked by a tension between different traditions of poetry, history, myth, and language. A highly imagistic poetry, her work attempts, at times somewhat romantically (Alexander's academic expertise in English romantic poetry often resonates in her own creative work), to make sense of and create a place in the various worlds the poet finds herself inhabiting:

   I learn song is being:
 
 
   That song might be being as Rilke dreamt
   I sing for all who work head bent
   close against the great red sun
   who labour tooth nail sinew bone
   against glass metal paper stone
   through sting of sand and lash of snow
   they carve this rock to make a sky to breathe in
   They forge that land
   where Song has second place
   and Being thrives alone.

Images, syntax, and structures reminiscent, then, of Coleridge and especially Eliot, of Rilke and Neruda, for the reader trained in a European tradition, are also inflected by Indian rhythms, syntax, structures, and stories. In addition, some of Alexander's best early poetry uncovers the contested space between individual memory, national history, and the poet's attempt to re-create being and identity through writing. In the long poem The Bird's Bright Ring, for example, Alexander's typical use of blood, flowers, salt, birds, animals, and other images finds effective and powerful juxtaposition with the consequences of British rule in India:

   The writhing subsides
   but the dark space
   still cuts the air
   my sight
       you said
   "It was here the shadow fell
   the shadow of the British soldiers
   here
     here
      they dragged their guns
   over the slope to the cleft of the Ridge
   1857 a cold bad winter and they broke our backs."
   …. …. …. …. …. …..
   "Not only shadows fell that cold hard winter
   But bruises like down from hidden veins of porphyry
   as the belly of the mother
   was torn open
   wrought metal
   cold cannon
   sharp cleft
   of bayonet and sword…"

Later in the poem, as in other of her verses, contemporary politics also interrupt, often violently. The fourteenth poem in The Bird's Bright Ring, for example, consists only of documents: a calendar advertisement, a call for protest, and a newspaper article describing police violence in 1974. Such disjunctures between a poetry rich in imagery and the poet's/speaker's explicit concerns mark the skepticism and hybridization of much postcolonial poetry. In a review of her work Ben Downing has written, "Attracted to both the 'hierarchical unity' of Indian tradition and a modern, Western poetics of rupture, Alexander is faced with the difficult necessity of mediating between them."

This process of poetic mediation and meditation becomes more marked with Alexander's double exile, brought about by her immigration to the United States. Alexander herself suggests that the poems "Hotel Alexandria," "Broadway Poem"—"my first 'American' poem"—and "Waiting for Rain" are attempts to bridge internal cultural displacement and the fragmentation of identity that comes with it. These early "American" poems "permitted an erasure of difference," momentary consolation, even though they simultaneously speak of "the gulf of not-knowing, a pit, a placelessness" that has doubled and redoubled upon the existing placelessness of being a postcolonial Indian English poet. Although exploring the "discrepant nature of what I found myself to be in America," Alexander has continued to use predominantly Indian images, content, and myth and history.

Alexander's speakers, always female, attempt to articulate these discrepancies by recalling and rewriting specifically female experience. I would argue that, indeed, Alexander is a feminist poet. (Again, her academic work bears out this assertion.) Her populism, her return to the political and historical moment, is often addressed to and for women: "Women of Delhi / You do not see how centuries of dream are flowing from your land / And so I sing knowing poetry to be like bread." The collection I Root My Name, containing more intimate poetry, reflects the pain of a woman's experience, as, for instance, in "After the Wedding": "I did not think I would try to die / when yesterday they hennaed my hands / in the patterns of stars and moons / and flowers, for joy."

A longer poem, "A Mirror's Grace" in Without Place, rewrites the story of Cleopatra, linking the position of the female speaker/poet to that of Cleopatra who, like the postcolonial poet, finds herself rendered inauthentic in a patriarchal language:

   This is a poem about Cleopatra
   she did not tell her brilliance
   to its mirrors, so broke his wings…
 
 
   A poem by a woman, wiping
   her voice dry of fire
   and flood, reining it
 
 
   to speech which is not hers
   though its syllables
   cut her dusty footsoles.

The poet's remembering through poetry takes the shape of childhood reminiscences in which women—sisters, mothers, and especially grandmothers—figure prominently in the creation of the self. Alexander explains that her "House of a Thousand Doors" is about a poeticized grandmother, citing the poem "Her Garden" to "explain the haunting inexistence of my grandmother": "She died so long / before my birth / that we are one, entirely / as a sky disowned by sun and star: / a bleakness beneath my dreams." For Alexander the recovering or uncovering of personal and cultural history through poetry is archaeological, and the mother or grandmother is a figuration of that unearthing: "Why do I turn to her? … Answering my own question backwards. There seems to be no-one else. No-one else, that is, from whom I can draw both the lines of ancestry and poetry. And she both is and is not real." Mother/grandmother/sister also symbolizes for the poet her "mother tongue, which is pure speech." For Alexander this is Malayalam, a language in which she is illiterate and upon whose oral, or childhood, patterns, she overwrites English, "the colonial language which I must melt down to my purposes."

Alexander's work The Storm continues in the project of rescuing and re-creating memory. Perhaps more clearly autobiographical than some of her other poetry, this poem is narrated in fragments, echoing in title, in structure, and in the opening metaphoric scene of burial the modernist dream of "shoring fragments against one's ruin," the feminist dream of creating a sense of self and identity through the fragments of a life remembered, and the ongoing poetic project of celebrating and decrying the postcolonial fragmentation of self/ culture/nation. It thus aims to create new hybrid and fluid political and personal identities. In this way Alexander manages to provide another temporary appearance of closure and resolution, attempting in her poetry to translate, "in the old sense of transporting, of ferrying across," "the gap, the cleft there between wordless intimacy and functioning script [which] is so co-equal in intensity with the fissures, the sudden cracks in my daily life." The Storm thus provides the poetic illusion of mediating between "pure" experience and the act of poetic re-creation:

   With the bleached mesh of root
   exposed after rainfall
   my bitten self cast back
   into its intimate wreckage
   each jot poised, apart, particular
   lovely and rare.
   The end of life delved back
   into the heart of it all.

—Aruna Srivastava

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