Summary of Birthplace with Buried Stones
With their intense lyricism, Alexander’s poems convey the fragmented experience of the traveler, for whom home is both nowhere and everywhere. The landscapes she evokes, whether walking a city street or reading Basho in the Himalayas, hold echoes of otherness. Place becomes a palimpsest, composed of layer upon layer of memory, dream, and desire. There are poems of love and poems of war — we see the rippling effects of violence and dislocation, of love and its aftermath. The poems in Birthplace with Buried Stones range widely over time and place, from her native India to New York City. We see traces of mythology, ritual, other languages. Uniquely attuned to life in a globalized world, Alexander’s poetry is an apt guide, bringing us face to face with the power of a single moment, its capacity to evoke the unseen and unheard.
Praise for Birthplace with Buried Stones
“With one hand on the things and textures of the material world and the other reaching into the mysteries beyond us, Meena Alexander does what poetry does best, conveying us from the Known to the Unknown with grace and formal care.” — Billy Collins
“‘We have poetry / So we do not die of history,’ Meena Alexander writes in this fully realized book of Lamentation and Memory, this collection of ancient places, shadowed by ghosts, but also filled with splendors, sacred gardens, beautiful singing.” — Edward Hirsch
“Whether they spring from memory, history, that which lives in the world or that which lives chiefly in the imagination, the poems in Birthplace with Buried Stones lead us into the presence of stark, unmitigated, uncontestable beauty-a beauty capable of “swallow[ing] us whole.” But they also prove something unsettling — the violent evidence of history, the inescapable reality of death, the scars inflicted by desire. Alexander expertly casts her gaze upon the places where poetry-and here I mean deep feeling, weighty insight, inexhaustible inquiry-exists: in “that which is all around and will not let us be.” — Tracy K. Smith
Poems from Birthplace with Buried Stones
Click on a title to navigate to the poem.
I sit in a patch of shade cast by a pipal tree.
Each morning I read a few lines from The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Where did Basho go?
He entered a cloud, and came out the other side:
Everything is broken and numinous.
Tiled roofs, outcrops of stone, flesh torn from molluscs.
Far away, a flottila of boats. A child sucking stones.
There is a forked path to this moment.
Trees have no elsewhere.
Leaves very green.
I remember the scarred spine
Of mountains the moon slips through,
Fox fire in a stump, bushes red with blisters,
Her question, a woman in a sweatshirt,
Hand raised in a crowded room —
What use is poetry?
Above us, lights flickered,
Something wrong with the wiring.
I turned and saw the moon whirl in water,
The Rockies struck with a mauve light,
Sea creatures cut into sky foliage.
In the shadow of a shrub once you and I
Brushed lips and thighs,
Dreamt of a past that frees its prisoners.
Standing apart I looked at her and said —
We have poetry
So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.
I try to remember a desert town,
Mirages at noon, at dusk a dusty lawn
Bottles of gin and scotch, a mathematician
To whom I spoke of reading Proust all summer long.
His mistress stood on tiptoe wiping his brow with her pent up silk,
Her sari, hot green rivaling the neem leaves.
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.
A lifetime ago grandmother Eli wore gold,
Stepped off a boat into a paddy field and vanished.
Ink inches forward in her diary.
Place absolves us, distances startle,
Turmeric pounded on stone, crushed fenugreek
She kept in a jar by her bedside. Why, no one knew.
When the neem starts to flower, we’ll use the petals for chutney.
Gandhi is coming out of jail soon.
Two rupees for a new teapot, we need it badly.
Three for a sack of sugar.
Fear humps in me—a pregnancy.
Who will do the embroidery on my little’s one’s skirt?
Canyons of dirt crop up in a tree lined garden
Doorways slide into rubble.
Where is grandmother now?
I need a golden ratio for loss.
Can Fibonacci’s theorem ease the hazard of memory?
Under cloud cover I enter Combray.
Proust approaches wrapped in a Fortuny robe:
On his knobbly knees
Two peacocks woven in silk
Sip from a vase set in a field
Emblazoned with syllables of Sanskrit.
She leans against his shoulder, my grandmother,
The nationalist who has burnt her silks.
She wears finest khadi draped about her heels.
She follows him into his cork-lined room.
He finds a dry twig, sets it in a glass.
Shreds of green surround the central aureole,
A haboob blows, shutters explode.
Grandmother’s gold, sunk in time’s flood,
And in the dusty capital
Where I spent my early years,
A boy soldier bathed in his own blood.
For My Father, Karachi 1947
Mid- May, centipedes looped over netting at the well’s mouth.
Girls grew frisky in summer frocks, lilies spotted with blood.
You were bound to meteorology,
Science of fickle clouds, ferocious winds.
The day you turned twenty-six fighter planes cut a storm,
Fissured air baring the heart’s intricate meshwork
Of want and need —
Springs of cirrus out of which sap and shoot you raised me.
Crossing Chand Bibi street,
Named after the princess who rode with hawks,
Slept with a gold sword under her pillow,
Raced on polo fields,
You saw a man lift a child, her chest burnt with oil,
Her small thighs bruised.
He bore her through latticed hallways
Into Lady Dufferin’s hospital.
How could you pierce the acumen of empire,
Mesh of deception through which soldiers crawled,
Trees slashed with petrol,
Grille work of light in a partitioned land ?
When you turned away,
Your blue black hair was crowned with smoke –
You knelt on a stone. On your bent head
The monsoons poured.