Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
The Terrifying Condition of the Human Heart

Meena Alexander’s work shimmered with beauty but always—always—the tension of violence quivered just beneath

By Kazim Ali

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.


Meena Alexander was one of a kind. Her accomplishment in poetry was barely seen in the United States the way it was seen globally. I have attended literary festivals in India with Meena and she is pure rockstar there—always surrounded by crowds of people wanting to talk to her and have her sign books. Meena’s poetics and aesthetics are better understood in the context of the literatures of India and Sudan, the two landscapes of her childhood and where she learned English as a language. She also wrote movingly in her recent book of prose, The Poetics of Dislocation, of the unsettling impact that the ocean crossing from Kerala to Africa had upon her as a child, unsettling her in some deep and fundamental (ironic to use that word) way.

She has written extensively, in particular in her memoir Fault Lines, about the violent nature of her introduction to the language of English. It seems this may have led her to her doctoral studies on revolutionary writers in the canon of English literature, Mary Wollstonecraft—the mother of Mary Shelley and wife of social thinker William Godwin, whose own novels and essays presage modern feminism by a hundred years or more—as well as Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William Wordsworth, who is now recognized as being as great a writer and stylist in the language as he, though her work was solely in the notebooks and diaries and daybooks she kept during her life, a period in which those quotidian forms were the only literary forms available perhaps to women not of royal or noble status. In fact as it turns out, Alexander’s career would chart a desire for, then a rejection, and finally abandonment of the Wordsworthian ideal.

She wrote in a wide array of genres: poetry, fiction, personal essay, memoir, academic critical study, even in short lyric essays before we had that term to describe the form. After publishing two respected books of academic criticism, Meena published poetry in both India and Canada. Her first American book, Shock of Arrival, announced her relinquishing of genre distinctions. Though she always considered herself above all and before everything a poet, Shock of Arrival contains a collage of essay, prose fragment, poetry, and academic criticism as well as both real and imagined interviews.

Alexander’s rejection of the Wordsworthian ideal is more fully explored first in her short and brilliant novel Nampally Road, but more extensively in her second and more complex novel Manhattan Music. The heroines of these books, academic Meera Kannadical and Manhattanite Sandhya Rosenblum, cannot find peace within the received political or social structures of the world in which they find themselves and both chafe against traditional gender strictures that circumscribe their potential. Nampally Road was the narrative of the failure of that potential: its plot followed Meera’s attempts to teach a class on Wordsworth at a university in Hyderabad while the students were preparing protests against police brutality and sexual assault of a woman from an outlying village. How can a novel published twenty six years ago be still so absolutely contemporary in the questions it raises? Manhattan Music is to me the quintessential 1990s New York novel: Sandhya, married to a white man and called “Sandy” by his friends, falls in with a crowd of poets and performance artists and tries to find her own way to personal expression with them.

Meena Alexander was an unusual figure of course: somewhat of a child prodigy, she left Sudan for university in England at age fourteen and graduated and went off for her doctoral studies by the time she was eighteen. Highly accomplished, she was (anyone who knew her knows!) an incredible beauty, very glamorous—seemingly without much effort in that casually high-femme South Asian way—whether draped in silk saris and high heels or kitted out in a tailored kurta paired with skinny jeans and silver sneakers. She loved captivating an audience, nearly girlish in the way she sometimes interacted with the people around her—you could see it in her body language, the way she fluttered her hands like birds, or tossed her hair, or ducked her chin coquettishly, the way when she sat she’d pull up her feet and tuck her ankles beneath her. Her work shimmered with beauty but always—always—the tension of violence quivered just beneath. A boy would have a streak of blood on his shirt, a metaphor would seem oddly askew, a little disconcerting. One haunting figure that roams through her work is a girl who eats stones—holds them in her mouth and slowly swallows them.

Alexander experienced violence—personal, familial, social, political—in her movements across the country of India and across the world and back. Like Marguerite Duras, she adopted what might be considered a particularly feminist narrative strategy: that of telling the same story or a story of the same time or moment from multiple perspectives or even from the same perspective but revealing new truths each time. She realized this most fully in the 2003 edition of her 1993 memoir Fault Lines, which rather than extend or revise the original, simply included a second half, with many of the same chapter titles, retelling the story from the first half but anew.

From India to Africa to England to India again to the midwest, she crossed many borders before she found her home (she mightn’t describe any place as “home”) on the northern part of Manhattan. My partner, Marco Wilkinson, was once a horticulturist at the Cloisters. Soon after Meena and I became acquainted she discovered this and from that moment on, she would appear in the gardens and Marco—charmed by her charms as countless others were—would take her on tours, showing her the flowers and trees and plants he cared for. On one trip, I was along with them and some bees were buzzing around the bee-balm as Marco explained the plant’s properties. Meena said, “Oh I must be careful not to be stung, I’m terribly allergic.” With concern I asked, “Tell us where your epipen is in case we have to use it.” She laughed her tinkling laugh and said, with either shame or humor or both, “Oh, I never have one with me so if I’m stung it will be bad!”

There’s a moment in Meena’s searing Fault Lines (you MUST read it) where she pauses on a street corner in Manhattan. The light has changed but she can’t bring herself to cross. She’s suddenly paralyzed. She doesn’t know who she is, where she is, what she is. It’s the most painful condition of the migrant, the nomad. Most of the people who I talk to about that scene fall into one of two groups. Either they have no idea why it is that she has suddenly stopped stock-still on one of the busiest street corners in the world and find the scene unintelligible and bizarre, or they quietly acknowledge that they, too, often feel the same way: lost in a world that does not know them and that they do not know.

Meena’s lyrics and essays and novels tackle that terrifying condition of the human heart in the most universal of terms. I feel that in the coming years and decades of climate-change induced migration crisis, this work will become more and more and more relevant as more people are forced to move by changing environmental conditions—weather, shore lines, etc.—of their own homelands.

Meena always paired beauty with crisis. One was not more important than the other. In a painful essay from Fault Lines (she also published a poem on the same theme that appeared in her book Raw Silk) she describes the days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Not wanting to wear her sari in public though she had an event at Hunter College that night, she placed the sari in her satchel and took the subway in Western clothes, slacks and a blouse. When she arrived at Hunter she went to the women’s room and spread the sari out and dressed herself. What’s interesting to me is that in the essay she describes carefully folding the sari and placing it into a plastic bag and sliding it between her books so it wouldn’t get creased, while in the poem she describes the sari as being placed into her satchel “crushed into a ball.” One account may be truthful to what she actually did but the other is truthful to how she felt to be doing it.

Meena was a truth teller, a singer of choruses, the most beautiful bird in the garden. Her voice was like a high clarinet, her bearing was regal, her affect generous and kind. I once saw her at the Hyderabad Literary Festival holding court at a reception, speaking French to two professors from France, English to me and another poet there, Hindi with the festival organizer, and Malayalam with some visiting writers from Kerala. She lived in many languages at once, in many countries at once, and in many conditions at once. She was cosmopolitan, beautiful and brilliant. I will miss her.