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.
Oh Meena! In my mind she is still smirking at me in the audience of a poetry reading, a knowing smile when she overhears yet another person mispronounce my last name during those awkward moments of making small talk just before the reading begins. Meena who knew instinctively what my tight smile meant before she ever knew my own poems. That’s the kind of poet she is—already legendary to me when we first met in person back in 2007. That’s the kind of poet she was (see? How I still instinctively type IS in the previous sentence)—after a full day of teaching, she made it to Manhattan to see me read at Housing Works. She heard that my father was from Kerala (where she was raised), and I had just released my second book. She was simply curious about me, she said.
Meena was the very first poet I discovered who named places and sounds and smells and sights from Kerala, the emerald green, southern-most coast of India. Kerala, land of my father’s side of the family. Kerala, a place I love so deeply in my veins and lungs but never saw in any poems brought into my classes, or any book I could find in our suburban libraries. You have to understand I made it through twenty-plus years of schooling and no poet from India was ever brought into my classroom. You have to understand I was once in a workshop where my cohort wanted me to italicize the word mango because it was too “exotic.” You have to understand, when I saw her use the word Kerala in a poem (long after I finished grad school), I wept. The sweetness and song found in Meena’s poems have been a balm and salve for me. From the alluring simplicity of an afternoon snacking on lychees, to a haunting recollection of the horrors and cost of what it means to attend school in other parts of the world, Alexander’s poems map out emotional and physical terrains I didn’t know I needed to see. She cheered me, asked me to let her know when I was next in NYC so we could have lunch. What sweetness in her taking notice, when she absolutely did not have to. What sweetness in her voice when she asked me to tell her about my visits to Kerala.