Essay About Meena Alexanders Fractured Identity

Meena Alexander

(India, 1951)   

Meena Alexander is a New York-based poet, novelist and essayist. She has authored eleven books of poetry and edited a book of Indian love poetry. Her new volume of poems, Quickly Changing River, is due to be released in February 2008. She is Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where she teaches poetry and poetics.

Alexander’s work has been widely anthologized and translated into several languages including Malayalam, Arabic, Spanish, French, Italian, Macedonian and Swedish. Her poetry collection, Illiterate Heart (2002) won the PEN Open Book Award and her memoir, Fault Lines (1993), was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 1993.

Born in Allahabad, India, Alexander divided her childhood between India and Sudan. When she was eighteen, she went to study in England. Not surprisingly, the themes of identity, migration and memory feature recurrently in her writing. Maxine Hong Kingston writes of her work: “Meena Alexander sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live, and places for which one needs a passport and a visa. Her voice guides us far away and back home.”

In ‘Blue Lotus’, the poem featured in this edition, the poet explores the fraught question of belonging and locates a spiritual residence where the red soil of the Pamba river in Kerala can meet the ash trees on a New York riverbank, where a ruptured identity can be healed by the ancient magic of language, where a piecemeal and broken membership (with all its attendant complications: “tribe, tribute, tribulation”) can be restored to a wholeness that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a place in the heart that is hospitable enough to accommodate a host of trans-cultural and trans-historical literary mentors: Wordsworth, Tagore, Milosz, Mirabai, Akhmatova and Rich.

It is language that makes this resolution possible. It is language that offers sanctuary. And it is language that offers strategy: a way to coax life out of rock, a way to make stones sing.

Language in Alexander’s poem liberates, empowers and eventually becomes a place in which to live. And thus “a short incantation” ends up becoming a “long way home”.

© Arundhathi Subramaniam

Selected Bibliography

Stone Roots, Arnold Heinemann, New Delhi. 1980
House of a Thousand Doors, (Poems/Prose) Three Continents Press, Washington D.C., 1988
River and Bridge, TSAR Press, Toronto/ Rupa, New Delhi, 1995
Illiterate Heart
, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 2002
Raw Silk, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 2004
Indian Love Poems (editor), Everyman's Library/Knopf, 2005

Manhattan Music, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1997
Fault Lines, Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1993
The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience, Southend Press, Boston, 1996


Meena Alexander: Website with Meena
Alexander's poems and interviews. Meena Alexander’s profile, some poetry and an essay by her – “Poetry: The Question of Home”
Sawnet: Profile of Meena Alexander with links to other websites with her poetry and prose.
The Kenyon Review: An interview with Meena Alexander by Ruth Maxey.
The Scholar and Feminist Online: “Zone of Radical Illiteracy:Poem Out of Place” – Reflections by Meena Alexander



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