The following is part of a series of essays and reflections published on The Margins in remembrance of the life and work of poet and scholar Meena Alexander, who passed away on November 21, 2018.
“And how does this consciousness work, here, now, for an Indian woman?
What multi foliate truth is stirring here?
What buried voices, quickening?”
— Meena Alexander, The Shock of Arrival
This past November, I pass out in the back of a car in Paris.
Only it’s not quite passing out. It is an episode. It could be more easily described as a panic attack. It is an aura that I surrender to and that I have not experienced in a long time, maybe nearly eight years. It is made worse by manic wakefulness. By not eating enough. By staying out until the early, cold hours of the morning. By inscrutable emotional stress.
It feels like falling if the sensation of falling was not downwards, but outwards and counter to gravity itself, my whole centralized being reeling towards every cardinal direction. When it’s happening, I look at my hands and they look like the hands of a corpse: dead and meaty. These episodes were diagnosed years ago in a small clinic in California as a kind of Dissociative or Depersonalization Disorder. What it means is that when I am feeling particularly stressed or vulnerable, my self departs. It feels neurological. There is a sensitivity to light, almost hallucinogenic. It can be terrifying. It is the reason I cannot drive.
It is, in some ways, like tripping. I prefer to align myself with drug culture rather than the crude pathologies of mental health. Too often it seeks to medicalize young women and people of color and their hysterical inabilities to cope with a world that seeks to destroy them.
No. This is not a mental health issue at all. It is a methodology of thought.
It is not an aberration of the mind. It is what it means to live in a world of “liquid modernity.”
And Meena Alexander understood it well. She called it “a mind in search of form.”
I read Meena as a young graduate student in California. I had moved from the east coast at the age of 22 to begin a PhD program and I did not know a single person in California or Nevada or New Mexico or anyone west of New Jersey, really, since most of my extended family don’t even live on this continent. Moreover, I found the expansiveness of the landscapes ferocious. Where some saw beauty, I felt something sinister in the spatiality. The mountain heads gazing in surveillance. The water, rough. The beached seals and whales, openly rotting, felt like the site of the abject.
In this environment, I was learning how to think more critically about sociopolitical structures. I wasn’t good at it for a long time. I thought I would come to graduate school to read about Irish modernism, not learn theories of consumption. I had never read Marx. I didn’t know who Foucault or Kristeva or Fanon were and I wasn’t quite sure why we were reading them. I probably said some unbearably stupid shit in that first year of graduate school. But I learned. My professors and classmates were patient with me. I kept myself open. I was reading about spectrality and Freud’s uncanny and took a class about subaltern studies by the wondrous scholar, Professor Bishnupriya Ghosh. Professor Ghosh was an acquaintance of Meena’s from back in the day and one of the first people I spoke to about my love of Meena’s poetry.
The class helped give me a frame to understand my own family history. In order to investigate its complexity, I had to read books about Indian independence, Portuguese colonization, British occupied East Africa. I had to trace the trade routes of the Indian Ocean where my grandpa used to play violin to entertain passengers crossing the sea. The readings about spectral lands and ghosts and traumatized nation-states felt very embodied to me.
My parents are third generation Tanzanian Indians. Their ancestors are originally from Portuguese colonized Goa, the smallest province in India. In the small town in Tanzania where they grew up they were Christian minorities, as over 90 percent of the community practiced Islam. They speak and sing in Swahili. Different grandparents spoke Portuguese, Konkani, English, Hindi. My mom became a flight attendant for Saudia Airlines. My dad eventually left Africa for London to become a doctor. They had lives that are so complicated, so messy, so illegible, that I don’t even know how to begin to explain them to people in the United States where, to be perfectly honest, the ruling identity politics often seeks to reduce the complexities of colonization and diaspora to legible forms of representation. They exist outside these narratives. Most of us do.
Throughout my first year of graduate school, I continued to have these episodes. I had to be escorted off the 101 in the middle of an episode. My mind felt literally blown. I had brain scans, went and saw a neurologist, and got put on anti-seizure medications for temporal lobe epilepsy for a few months. And then one day, I noticed that depersonalization was a phenomena I began to recognize in literature. I read it first in Sartre’s Nausea. And an even more recent example might be Elena Ferrante’s character, Lila, from the Neapolitan Novels, who experiences “disappearing borders.” The characters become decentralized or can’t tell the difference anymore between their hands or bodies and the external world, and their consciousness becomes a tight ball in the middle of the forehead. But it was Meena’s writing on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that allowed me to understand what these sensations of depersonalizing had to do with larger social and political realities.
Meena begins her essay, “The Shock of Sensation: On Reading The Waves as a Girl in India and as Woman in North America,” in her grandmother’s bedroom in Kozencheri. As she is taking in the sensations of her immediate surroundings, she opens up The Waves, and soon experiences “Woolf’s notion of scattered bits, sensorial beckonings.” In the novel, she recognizes something that she too has experienced… that solid walls could vanish. Her language of vanishing fascinated me. She goes on to describe the phenomena as a kind of dissolution, but is quick to suggest that such dissolution is also a site of liberation:
But perhaps it was this very dissolution of the bodily hold on things that allowed for the textured layering of spaces, sharp and disjunctive sensations, that wrapping themselves, one over the other, could free the woman writer from an imprisoning social world … I realize how my reading The Waves quickened my girl’s mind, a mind in search of form. The sharp disjunctions of space, the shock of motion, the edginess of sensation, even a violence to it so that the self can scarcely discover an underlying continuity in the flow of consciousness, all this sparked a quick recognition in me… (Poetics of Dissolution 63).
Here, Meena demonstrates a poetics of dislocation that was not based in the amnesia of lost, fractured, or forgotten homelands, but rather on the intrusion of those fragments into life. This is an important distinction: to think of a continuity that interrupts. It sounds, almost, paradoxical. But she would move in elliptical leaps between a vivid scene in New York to a train in India, a boat ride across the Indian Ocean to the “rim of the South China Sea.” And then she would interrogate herself as to how these juxtapositions made up a life, made up a consciousness. I am drawn to her poetic interrogation in the stated epigraph at the beginning of this essay, her curiosity about our protagonist, a displaced Indian woman, a protagonist I never really saw growing up. I loved the phrases “multi foliate truth” and “buried voices.” It felt like there was a choir of competing knowledges ringing out, some “above ground” and leafy, others subterranean, buried. Meena also often used the poetics of l’ecriture feminine, her “stirring” and “quickening” reminiscent of an impregnated body. This felt important to me as a young graduate student, to see the enactment of theory in poetry even if part of it might have seemed biologically deterministic.
There are not many poets who I read who were as accomplished thinkers and voracious readers as Meena—a poet who wrote about countless philosophers and writers from Adrienne Rich to Frantz Fanon to Agha Shahid Ali to Emily Dickinson. But Meena was a poet and scholar of internal exile and she drew on many genealogies to self-mythologize. She dwelled not only in illegibility, but also the way that time always continues to reorient identity in a fraction of a second. In Poetics of Dislocation, she writes:
Contemporary American poetry exists in a vital mesh of filiation. The international movements of migration and settlement in the United States, as well as the existence of internal exiles, those who feel displaced as minorities within their own land, have created a pulsing, throbbing net of meanings within which the poet can exist, within which shetries to make sense. (4)
Metaphors of relationality such as the “net” were not uncommon when Meena was a student herself, but it was her insistence on the vitalist “pulsing” and “throbbing” that illuminates how such distributed models of subjectivity possessed a kind of mysticism. She suggests this while citing the work of Édouard Glissant, the philosopher and poet from Martinique, and his concept of “Elsewhere.” She writes, “The poet draws his sustenance from Elsewhere. Poets who were born, or lived in the ‘the Elsewhere’ enter into the explosive network of relation, a notion, partly mystical, stitching up the erasures that Otherness might enforce” (4). She describes this mode as “a lyric movement that undoes the teleology of narrative” through an epiphany that disrupts time or duration itself.
Later in the book, she suggests this is the plight of “the girl child cast out,” a girl “forced outside the loop of time.” In her state of peripherality, the girl child must stitch together what she can using what she knows, such radical new epistemologies and world-building always finds its origin in something fractured. Nobody wants to feel illegible to themselves. Meena gave me a language to understand the intrusion and dissolution and “Elsewhere” of myself at my most vulnerable in the heightened, almost mystic state of feeling out of my body and outside of time. Every time I come back to myself, it feels like an arrival. And like all arrivals, there is novelty to face and cope with. In her opening of The Shock of Arrival, Meena writes: “The shock of arrival is multifold—what was born in the mind is jarred, tossed into new shapes, an exciting exfoliation of sense. What we were in that other life, is shattered open. But the worlds we now inhabit still speak of the need for invention, of ancestors, of faith” (1).
Before I left for Paris, the Asian American Writer’s Workshop asked me if I’d like to moderate a panel with Meena as the feature writer. I felt so torn wanting desperately to finally meet her. I had to say no given that I would be out of the country, but I shared my enthusiasm and earnest regret at missing such an opportunity.
I didn’t know she was sick.
I thought there would be another time.
In her essay on “Violence, Mourning, and Vulnerability,” Judith Butler suggests that who we mourn publicly tells us who we value culturally. Dear Meena, I mourn you here in the great afterlife of the internet and also, more sorrowfully, curled up in an armchair, looking out past my fire escape in the East Village on a dreary New York day. As a street in the Lower East Side begins to shape shift to Hill Road in Mumbai, I mourn you. As I beat a cliffside wind overlooking the vast drops at Big Sur, I mourn you. And if I dissolve when the push of the world comes in on me, I know now it is a form of longing, or rather, a longing for form.
I want to end with one of my favorite essays by Meena entitled “Questions of Home,” where she writes of Allen Ginsberg’s last days of life and how she imagines him meeting, in some other realm, one of her favorite poets, the 15th century Indian mystic, Mirabai of the the Bhakti movement. She writes:
A few years ago the poet Allen Ginsberg passed away. The week that he lay dying I read his Indian Journals with great care. I was struck by the clarity of place in his writing even as the Rajasthan of his imagination splintered into brilliant surreal fragments. Each day I took the book with me on the subway and getting off at Columbus Circle I pulled it out of my bag as I walked the few blocks uptown, by Central Park. Once or twice on my way to catch the cross town bus at Sixty-fifth, I sat on my favorite rock in the park, close to the street. I spread out my things, book bag, pen, paper, water bottle, and I read his journals again. I was near the park when I got news of Ginsberg’s death.
I shut my eyes. I saw him in Rajasthan. He was walking with Mirabai in the heat. It was Rajasthan and it was not, it was Central Park and it was not. I saw Mira approach him by the black rock. Together they walked toward the lake.
I like my favorite people to meet, even if they are separated by thousands of miles and several centuries. So it was with these two poets. In “Indian April,” an elegy for Ginsberg, I draw them together in the shining space of the imaginary— Mirabi and Allen Ginsberg and then, in the great silence of the invisible world, I hear them talk to each other. (Poetics of Dislocation 120)
The other night, I walking through Central Park during a snow-apocalypse. I entered at 110th century, Cathedral Parkway, right at the Northwest end of the park, the exact opposite of where Meena made her entrance fifty-one blocks south. I couldn’t see even a foot in front of me, the snow was so torrential. It was night and the mouthy yellow plows were spitting feet of snow in every direction. It was Central Park and it was not.
And I thought of Meena thinking of Allen.
And I thought of all the dead who I wanted to introduce her to, their buried voices quickening.