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Meena Alexander


There is an uncommon light in the sky
Pale petals are scored into stone.

I want to write of the linden tree
That stoops at the edge of the river

But its leaves are filled with insects
With wings the color of dry blood.

At the far side of the river Hudson
By the southern tip of our island

A mountain soars, a torrent of sentences
Syllables of flame stitch the rubble

An eye, a lip, a cut hand blooms
Sweet and bitter smoke stains the sky

Invisible City

Sweet and bitter smoke stains the air
The verb stains has a thread torn out

I step out to the linden grove
Bruised trees are the color of sand.

Something uncoils and blows at my feet.
Sliver of mist? Bolt of beatitude?

A scrap of what was once called sky?
I murmur words that come to me

Tall towers, twin towers I used to see.
A bloody seam of sense drops free.

By Liberty Street, on a knot of rubble
In altered light, I see a bird cry.


In altered light I hear a bird cry.
By the pit, tor of metal, strut of death.

Bird song yet. Liturgie de cristal.
Flesh in fiery pieces, mute sediments of love.

Shall a soul visit her mutilated parts?
How much shall a body be home?

Under these burnt balconies of air,
Autumnal duty that greets us.

At night, a clarinet solo I put on:
Bird song pitched to a gorge, a net of cries.

In the news, a voice caught on a lost line:
`We’ve even struck the bird’s throat.’


I am writing a simple set of directions,
a map to no place in particular:
at the head of the stairs turn right,
when you find yourself at the end of the landing
swing open the bare door -- bare meaning
scraped free of vermillion lacquer --
in the white room at the window's edge
polished free of grime, is a mirror.
Where all that is falls
pictureless, abyssal.
What turns and echoes?
What burns the inner ear?
A spot on the mattress
propped up on the floor,
darkness by the basin,
a snip of hair
bronze in a sudden
bend of light
and on the upturned bucket in the corner
a bottle of antimony,
a silver stick at its rim
beckoning her eyes,
the pupils brilliant indigo,
edgy, inscrutable.
What the mirror never finds
is vanishing.
Somehow you hear a voice cry
in lost vernacular:
Where is God these days?
You answer with tilting hands, a child again
and turn to face a wave of light
at the mirror's edge.
You know it can pitch houses over,
shred staircases, landings, floors
into splinters of molten wood:
eternal evanescence.


You set it up: an armature of bamboo
doors wide open, threshold in sparks.
What does it mean to summon up ancestors
make them responsible,
make them speak to us in the way a body
lined with flame might, had it voice?
Best perhaps at the water's edge
on a mound lit at the rim with flares.
Muse of memory, maker of sense
barely lit by mirror or lens,
your house is a package of reeds
flickering in a lake at twilight.
What would it cost to etch
your supernal architecture?
What pitch of gravity?
What squaring of loss?

Civil Strife

The ink was very old,
palm leaf brushed with the bruise of indigo.
In ancient silk I heard a bird sing
the body's emptiness, a sari swirling on a twigtip.
In the mirror I saw a girl turn into a tree,
Her fingers blossoming freckled petals,
greedy hands tore at her,
she fell handless footless into a ditch of dirty water.
Soon there was an altercation
in the frame of things
I could not tell when the threshold stopped,
where barbed wire would work its bounty.
A child's toe starred crimson,
bullets in guava bark,
civil strife
crowding the rivers

I had to tell myself that birdsong
in a partitioned land
is birdsong still.
And if moving were not music
of its own accord
I might have stuck forever
at the mirror's rim,
seeing a child see a naked thing
split from a misty tree
her self as other parting company.
But the monsoon broke ,
the river coursed upredictable.
Black water drew me home.
In my own country
I saw cotton, linen, silk
blown into threads,
the bridge of belonging
cherished flesh
burst into shards of thingness,
a summer surplus,
a bloodiness.
I felt all this fall out
of any possible business of the ordinary.

Yet what was the ordinary but this?
In the tale the girl-tree is recognised,
her scent inexorable draws her lover on.
Moving metamorphosis.
Yet what could this mean to me?
I sought out the philosopers, read Nagarjuna:
If fire is lit in water
who can extinguish it?
In trains and planes,
whose quicksilver speed kept me alive,

I murmured after Heraclitus: One summer day
at the water's edge I set out in search of my self.


Already it's summer
a scrap of silk floats
by a vat of indigo.
Ai, that monsoon wind!
Each shadow has its muse.
No one can read your hand writing.
I almost wanted it that way
then came memory--
knee back, tiny toe,
thighbone brushed in blood.
Each shadow makes a ruse.
My script hovers
at the edge of the legible.
O muse of migrancy
black rose
of the southern shore!
Already it's summer,
clouds float in silk,
I search for my self
in the map of indigo.

Gold Horizon

She waited where the river ran
that summer as the floods began --
stones sinking,
fireflies murmuring in paddy fields,
herons on stumps of tree
the axe planted
where little else would work
and everywhere the mess of water.
So you have entered a new world.
her voice was low, growling even.
There was nothing humble in her voice.
Sometimes the dead behave in that know-all-way,
ploughing the ruts of disaster,
their unease part of our very pith ,

what the axe discovers marrow and meat to us.
So what's it like there? she asked.
I replied: As the Hudson pours
the river wall clings with glinting stones.
Yet what's so bright
makes for odd imaginings.
Sometimes I feel as if a metal bowl
had split, dented by blows from a woman's fist
and bits of spelling lessons,
shards of script
struck from a past locked into privacy
-- this is the immigrant's fury, no,
who understands my speech,
further what is my speech? --
dropped, pounding as rice grains might.
You think that bowl's your head
your words a crypt!
Look at your feet!
How can you stand addressing me?
I heard her laughing bitterly.
What's with you ? I shot back
What's with the dead, sheer jealousy?
Her fingers waved a whitened scrap,
paper or cloth I could not tell.
She held it out to me:
Take! Eat!
I saw the sari that bound her
dropping free,
feet cut at the ankles,
severed from calves and thighs,
slicked with red earth.
Water poured in short streams
over her mutilated parts.
She stood, shored by a single elbow
against a mango branch.

Place names splinter
on my tongue and flee:
Allahabad, Tiruvella, Kozhencheri,
Khartoum, Nottingham, New Delhi,
Hyderabad, New York ,
the piece work of sanity --
stitching them into a single
coruscating geography
(a long drawn breath
in an infant's dream might work)
ruined by black water in a paddy field.
We wrestle on wet ground,
she and I, living and dead,
stripped to our skins,
naked, shining free in
the gold of a torn horizon.
Our thrashing is not nice.
Her ankle stumps shove against my eyes.
Words bolt, syllables rasp --
an altered script,
theatre of memory
I could never have wished.
Breathless I search for a scene ,
a mile of city blocks,
iron bridges scraping short hills,
asphalt pierced with neon plots,
the rage of sense:
Bodegas in the Barrio,
Billy's topless bar,
Vineeta's Video Store crammed with cartons
of Nutan and Madhuri
-- `Kya, kya hum kon hai? Idher hum kon hai'
`Namal ivide ara? Ivide namal ara?' --
The mixed up speech of newness,
flashing as a kite might,
pale paper on a mango branch.


She waited where the river ran,
that summer as the floods began.
Is this mere repetition,
or the warm sprawl of time,
inscribed in limestone?
Who can cry back into a first world
a barefoot child on a mud forking path,
fields gold with monsoon water,
haunt of the snail and dragonfly?
What makes the narrative whole?
Beneath my cheek I feel
her belly's bowl
thick with blood,
the woman who waits for me.
Are these her lips or mine?
Whose tongue is this
melting to the quick of migrancy?
I touch raw bones,
the skull's precise asymmetry.
As rivers north and rivers south
soar into tongues of mist
parting all our ribs
I hear voices of children
whisper from red hills:
An angel, you have caught an angel!


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