Out of Place: Poet Meena Alexander and the Shifting Terrain of the Migrant Experience

By Hirschfield, Robert | Sojourners Magazine, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Out of Place: Poet Meena Alexander and the Shifting Terrain of the Migrant Experience


Hirschfield, Robert, Sojourners Magazine


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MEENA ALEXANDER, an Indian-American emigre whose poetry holds the wounds of our recent history with lyrical ferocity, was once asked by a woman in northern Colorado, "Why do we have poetry?"

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Alexander's answer, "we have poetry, so we do not die of history," is grafted onto the beginning of her newly published book of essays, Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009). The dislocation of which she writes in this book is topographical and moral, outer and inner.

"I have lived here in these dense, canyon-ridden, subway-gouged streets longer than anywhere else in the world," says the 58-year-old author of six books of poetry, referring to Manhattan, her current home. "But in memory I often see a seascape, green-gold, darkening to indigo."

From age 5 to 18, Alexander shuttled back and forth from Kerala in south India (she was born into a Syrian Christian Keralite family) to Sudan, where her father worked as a meteorologist. 'This childhood of arduous journeying would connect her in the future to the uprooted of Asia and Africa, whom she would encounter as a graduate student in England and later in America.

"I am living in a metropolis where different parts of the world often come together in extremely vivid, recalcitrant fragments," she says. "There are people walking around with ethnicities no one else has heard of, with languages inside them that no one else knows. This has brought out an extraordinary emotional response in me because there is such a compression in New York City of this teeming world."

Burnt into some of Alexander's New York poems is the violence that interrupts the lives of nonwhite immigrants. In the Central Park segment of "Rumors for an Immigrant" in the poetry volume Raw Silk, Alexander turns her attention to the "police execution" of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo:

  In the lake rumors flicker, make
   luminous habitation.
  Allen Ginsberg leaps from the reeds
  holding hands with a young man
   from Conakry,
  dead already, turned into a star,
  shot forty-one times by police as he
   stood in his own doorway.
  Gently loiter, he sings.
  On his charka Gandhi strums a tune:
  I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Gandhi slips in and out of Alexander's poems as witness, anchor, and fellow exile. She was raised in a Gandhian family, and regards him as her moral muse. Mohandas Gandhi's grandson, Ramu, her close friend, told her, "Gandhi was like you. He was away (from India) so much of his life. When he came back from South Africa, he had to understand his country all over again."

His exile was also that of the nonviolent man in a violent world. It is to Gandhi that she turns in her Gujarat poems, written after her visits in September 2002 with Muslim survivors of the Godhra massacres earlier that year. In retaliation for the torching of a train in Godhra City that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from the holy city of Ayodhya, Hindu mobs set upon Muslims in Gandhi's state of Gujarat, killing nearly 800, gang-raping Muslim women, and hacking to pieces homes, businesses, and mosques.

The Gujarat poems, a cycle of poems in Raw Silk under the heading, "Letters to Gandhi," have been emotionally embraced by Indians in this country and in India. They were published in India's second-largest English-language newspaper, The Hindu, which keeps them on its Web site.

"Lyric With Doves," one of the poems, contains these lines:

  It rains in your city,
  The heart's
  flung back.
  torn bodies
  clattering
  in an ox-drawn cart. … 

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