Poems with an eclectic world view matched by intense lyricism.
In her latest poetry collection, Birth Place with Buried Stones, award-winning Indian English poet, Meena Alexander charts out a new territory with the strength of an eclectic world view matched by poetry of intense lyricism. History, legend and mythology jostle for space with poverty, hunger, violence and solitude. The fragmented self travels magically through past and present, and multiple landscapes: Allahabad, Tiruvella, Khartoum, Karachi, Nottingham, Manhattan, Shimla and Jerusalem for an elusive identity. For the persona in the present collection, walking the city street, or reading Basho in the Himalayas, the place becomes palimpsest.
The epigraph to the book, comprising an extract from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities brings in a conversation between Kublai and Polo dealing with Time, Landscape and Memory. It provides a context and lends character to the poems:
Kublai: I do not know when you have had time to visit all the countries you describe to me. It seems to me you have never moved from this garden.
Polo: Everything I see and do assumes meaning in a mental space where the same calm reigns as here, the same penumbra, the same silence streaked by the rustling of leaves. At the moment when I concentrate and reflect, I find myself again, always, in this garden, at the hour of evening, in your august presence, though I continue, without a moment’s pause, moving up a river green with crocodiles or counting the barrels of salted fish being lowered into the hold . . .
Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids . . .
Romanticism and post-colonialism constantly crisscross this world: Meera Bai must go hand in hand with Mary Wollstonecraft. Shimla is emblematic not just of a hill station and the Viceregal Lodge, but is seen populated by ghosts, shadowy figures like Lord Curzon’s daughter and Lady Dufferin writing to her mother. Past and present pass through the sieve of memory in a protean manner.
Similar experiences are encountered in the Jerusalem poems, the best of which is perhaps ‘Teatro Olympico’: Clouds sift a future that gods painted/In scarlet and gold can scarcely comprehend./Why search for the seven roads of Thebes?/There are fresh tragedies waiting for her.
Likewise, the poem ‘Cobblestones and Heels’ depicts searing violence and a conflict-ridden land that Jerusalem essentially is. ‘Indian Hospice’, in turn, is evocative of Baba Farid and the world of Sufi mystics, the poetic vision marked by piety and a gentle irony: Was it his mother crying O Farid, where are you now?/It’s what she did when he swung/Up and down, knees in a mango tree.
All travel must seek a return for home. Like Ulysses, the classic hero, Meena’s persona must inevitably return home, to Kerala and Tiruvella: Watching her, Amma whispered in the wind—Be real./Take a husband of good stock. As for love, it’s blind./Appa’s voice low—No dowry. You’re all you need,/Your own precious self.
Birth Place with Buried Stones is an achievement and a move forward. It is a book of ‘lamentations and memory’, ancient places ‘shadowed by ghosts, but also filled with splendours, sacred gardens (and) beautiful singing.’
Birthplace with Buried Stones: Poems; Meena Alexander, Triquarterly Books/Northwestern, $16.95.