Culture

'The Angels Will Call on Me' – Meena Alexander, Indian-American Poet, Dies at 67

Having lived in India, Sudan and the United States, Alexander said she found herself at home in languages and in poetry.

“You lean sideways, touch my cheek–
Let’s live in Kochi by the sea

Find a house with a white balcony,
I think the angels will call on me.”

Meena Alexander

India-American poet and essayist Meena Alexander died on Tuesday, November 21, in New York. Author of the PEN Open Book Award-winning poetry collection Illiterate Heart (2002), Alexander ranked among the most well-known post-1980s Indian English poets. She arrived at the Indian poetry scene with her collection of poems Stone Roots (1980) and House of a Thousand Doors (1985). In the wake of her decision to make the United States her permanent home, she soon became an important Asian-American poet.

In her poetry and essays, though, she called herself homeless as well as at home in multiple places at the same time.

“Lacking just one single place to call home and shorn of the hold of one language I could take to be mine and mine alone, I felt stranded in the multiplicity that marked my life, its rich coruscating depths only forcing me—or so I felt—into grave danger,” she wrote in her essay ‘Poetry: The Question of Home’.

Born to Malayali parents in Allahabad in 1951, Alexander was raised in South India and Sudan. Her childhood, she once wrote, was spent travelling between India and Sudan. This, she said, left her with a sense that “home is always a little bit beyond reach, a place both real and imagined, longed for, yet marked perpetually as an elsewhere, brightly lit, vanishing.”

She returned to India to teach briefly at the University of Delhi and the University of Hyderabad before moving to the US, where she taught at Columbia University – along with her husband, David Lelyveld, a distinguished historian of modern India. She was lately a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center/Hunter College, CUNY.

A native Malayalam speaker, she spoke French, English, Sudanese Arabic and Hindi, and it was in language that she said she found herself at home. It was language, she says, that helped her find sustenance in her art and swim in unchartered waters.

“It took me quite a while to realise that I did not have to feel strung out and lost in the swarm of multilingual syllables – rather, that the hive of language could allow me to make a strange and sweet honey, the pickings of dislocation.”

A large part of her poetry as well as prose writing therefore reflects her acute awareness of the concerns of migration, border-crossing, and political violence.

“In a time of violence,” she said in an interview with the Kenyon Review, “the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”

In the aftermath of India’s nuclear missiles test in 1998 she wrote:

In Pokhran’s desert
a bright bomb
carves soil
into feverish ruins

The wind is slow
torn leaves variable.

Truth has a deeper hold
than perishing.

She published several collections of poetry, including Birthplace with Buried Stones (2013), Atmospheric Embroidery (2018). Her other books include a memoir, Fault lines (1993), and novels, Manhattan Music (1997) and Nampally Road (1991).

Her essay collections include Poetics of Dislocation (2009) and The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996).

She authored several books of literary criticism, including Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (1989) and The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979). She edited the volume Indian Love Poems (2005) and the forthcoming Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing.

Though she had been ailing for some time, Alexander’s passing shocked many in the Indian literary scene. “I will miss her,” tweeted novelist Amitav Ghosh, calling her an exceptional poet and human being.

“I’m re-reading Meena’s own copies of Quickly Changing River and Raw Silk, which she inscribed and gave me, almost ten years ago, after an event I organised for her in Bombay,” said the poet Ranjit Hoskote. “Looking at those inscriptions, I found myself thinking of the hand that wrote them, a hand that we will never again shake or see forming words.”

Alexander’s poetry, Hoskote said, has a “marvellous ability to knit a sense of place with a sense of loss and hope through the most vibrant yet restrained cascade of images. Her images were lavishly visual, yet held in check by the flow of her cadence. Her language drew as much on English as it did on Hindi and Malayalam – I always heard, in her poems, patterns of breath that seemed to come from sources in Gangetic India, where she spent part of her childhood, and her ancestral Malabar. ”

A transcontinental poet, Alexandar was, said Hoskote, “a rooted and engaged cosmopolitan, whose commitments to several societies and their predicaments was palpable in word, phrase, tonality, and the lambent tautness of the sequences in which she often developed her poems… Meena has a place as much in American poetry as she does in Anglophone poetry in India – a place that is all the more important because she approached both scenes from an angle, as a passionate outsider who was also a compassionate insider.”

Alexander is survived by her husband, David Lelyveld and two children, Adam Kuruvilla and Svati Mariam.

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