Poetics of Dislocation (2009)
Summary of Poetics of Dislocation
Poetics of Dislocation sets the work of contemporary American poetry within the streams of migration that have made the nation what it is in the 21st century. Part of the University of Michigan Press’s award-winning Poets on Poetry series, Poetics of Dislocation studies not only the personal creative process Alexander uses, but also the work of other prominent writers. Alexander discusses what it means to come to America as an adult to write poetry, and her place—and that of others—in the collection of cultures that makes up this country. She outlines the dilemmas that face modern immigrant poets, including how to make a place for oneself in a new society and how to write poetry in a time of violence worldwide.
Excerpt from Poetics of Dislocation
1. Migrant Poetics
A migrant life lived through continents, across waterways and islands creates the space where I write – a space that infolds memory, marking whorl upon whorl of time, mutating palimpsest I have learnt to reckon with.
I write in solitude, using the materials of a shared life: pathways of sky and soil and water.
I write on paper pages, or in fitful electronic flashes that appear on a screen, or occasionally with a sharp stick on soil, just as I used to do as a child.
Like many others I cross as best I can ordinary streets filled with the rumour of war, airports decked out with barbed wire, underground places threatened by sudden explosion.
This day to day life is scored by the burden of discrepant nationalisms, fevered ethnicities. But it is here and nowhere else that the invisible life goes on, the life of dream and imagination that seeks its sustenance in and through the sensual body.
A woman’s body tracked through space, intact and bloodied, drawing out bit by bit in lived time, blossoming words, rare geographies of longing.
2. Crossing the Indian Ocean
I was with my mother on the S.S.Jehangir, crossing the Indian Ocean. Midway on the journey I turned five. Bombay was far behind and Port Sudan still to come. It was my first sea voyage.
Until then I had lived on solid land, on the Indian subcontinent and all my journeys had been by train or car or on small wooden boats on the canals and waterways of the coastal region I come from.
The sea cast me loose.
The sea tore away from me all that I had. In doing so, it gave me an interior life far sooner than I would have had otherwise, but at great cost.
I was forced to enter another life, the life of the imagination.
But it was not as yet the life of language.
I had few words at my disposal, and those I had came from several languages that cohabited within my head. What I felt as a child and held deep within myself quite exceeded the store of words within my reach.
This is something that I feel, even now as an adult. The struggle for words, the struggle to be human, is coexistent for me with the craft of poetry.
On my fifth birthday I was plunged into a world with no before and no after.
A child can fall into the sea, never to reappear.
A mother can appear out of the waves, only to vanish, reappear, and then vanish again.
The sea has no custom, no ceremony. It allows a theater for poetry, for a voice that cries out, that splits into one, two, three or more, chanting the figurations of the soul, marking a migrant memory.
The day I turned five, I stuck my head out through the porthole of our cabin and saw ceaseless water. On and on, until my eyes and neck hurt, I kept watch.
When I pulled my head back in I knew the sea was painted on the inside of my eyelids, would never leave me.
Sometimes the syllables of poetry well up, waves on the surface of the sea, and they burst as flying fish might, struck by light.
Sometimes I feel this is how I began, a wordless poet, a child on the surface of wide water with all that she loved torn from her, cast into ceaseless suspension.
The page on which I write is a live restless thing, soul-sister to the unselving sea.
3. Threshold City
Time works in us the way water works at the edge of the sea: there are ripples and eddies and the slow sedimentation of earth rounded off by water, sudden slips and plunges where waves crash, and sometimes underwater faults that suck the sea water out and send it soaring into a wall which comes crashing down on small human habitations built by the shore.
Time sucks and blows through us and sends us reeling.
Our bodies become living markers of time. Memory makes us hop and race and dance and flee.
Still, the present is always with us, and our poems transfigure place by marking time.
We write in order to live. We live in order to write.
Poetry marks a threshold, a dream state, by casting time into relief. In this way it spares us and permits our residence on earth.
Ontology can be understood as threshold.
The question of being, of openness to time, is the province of poetry.
Poetry is music that our bodies etch on the provisional solidities housing us, as ground is marked by the shadow of clouds, as unstable ground is constantly etched by water.
The threshold is a city, layer upon layer of brick and stone and painted wood, metal, semi-precious stones, a shield for our impediments, a buckler in the face of death, which is what the city hosts, even as life swarms and spills through it.
Allahabad, Khartoum, Delhi, Hyderabad, New York, cities I have lived in, which set up thresholds constantly overcome, inconstantly wrought as speed manufactures sites for contestation.
The body is a threshold, loved and scarred by other bodies.
We race through cities, past barbed wire, through transit lounges, across borders where memory of the sea dissolves as clouds in a mirror edged with gilt, touched by invisible hands.
Poetry is a threshold inscribing memory.
Memory tunes and untunes us.
It sings the visible and the invisible. The nervous knowledge of the body is raised as sung chords through lungs, throat , vocal chords, palate, tongue, teeth and lips, out into the blue air.
Poetry is a threshold inscribing mortality.
Once completed, the poem is borne to the edges of public space, of history. And there it survives, if it can.
At times the poem is hidden under a pillow, at times trumpeted abroad, at times burnt, at times cast into water.
I think of the Kalachakra Mandala created by Tibetan monks.(1) Once the painstaking work is completed, the mandala – made of hundreds and thousands of grains of sand – is borne aloft, cast into running water.
When the poem is done, its metrical consonances, its rhythmic images and sharp bounding lines cut loose, leaving us in penury.
We start all over again, searching out the zone where the body’s skin and the stones of the city meet, feverish threshold constantly renewed.
Our lines mark out unquiet borders, our words figure a palimpsest of desire, inklings of dark gold in poems of our season.
4 . In Time
Where does poetry come from? How to answer a question about the provenance of poetry, evoke a most elusive truth?
There are sentences that spell out an answer, lines that I have held onto for their signal power: I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. (2)
But now I think, what if Wordsworth got it utterly wrong? And what if there were no tranquility to be had? The poet lays out a picture of a mind in fluent motion, recollection as a boon that permits imaginative contemplation.
But what if instead of an emotion kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation something utterly disparate comes into being, quite apart from what memory grants, and we are faced with two figurations of feeling, one and the other utterly distinct, no dialectic possible and what emerges is the terror of consciousness, fierce sister to the sublime.
This separation of consciousness, a tear or rip in the fabric of time as it is sensed, brings us closer to traumatic knowledge which has no words to fit to its ghostly flesh till the poem flashes, a crystal of words swept high into air, easily shattered.
The poem, as I think of it now is a fragile crystal of breath, the silence at its core mirroring what was crossed out, mutilated, could never approach the condition of words.
A crystal of words luminous in time.
5. Island City
To build is in itself already to dwell – Heidegger3
I need this city to write in. The thought came to me with the sharpness of a hunger pang, with fierce excitement.
Newly arrived in New York City I was trying to make sense of towers of glass, steel and brick, underground passageways built for speed, overcrowded bridges, bristling sidewalks and all around the island, barely visible, the slow lapping of water from estuary, river and sea.
I was filled with wonder, how else shall I put it? But this coupled with a sense of shock, a feeling that I had hit ground on the other side of the mirror.
I understood early that to live on this island, I would have to write.
That the writing of poems might permit me to make a shelter for myself. I felt that otherwise, I would have nowhere to be.
It was a familiar feeling for me, a need to make ground, to build a dwelling space with words. The task of making the intricate structure of the poem could allow me space to live.
I found a job in a college that stands above a subway stop, its escalators and elevators packed with immigrant students. I felt I was living at the cross-roads of the world.
Sometimes I wandered alone, out into the streets, or sat by myself on a park bench. I saw buildings being torn down, the razing of small community parks, the erection of massive, overpriced condominiums.
I murmured lines I had learnt by heart as a child in school in a far country – .la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, hélas! Que le coeur d’un mortel4.
The electric grid of activity in the city became a scrim for poetry. From time to time elements of my past came to light, but always the here and now of my days and nights in the city made a translucence through which to glimpse the moving figures of the past, those objects and elements of sound and sense that structure the musicality of desire till the poem becomes sonorous space, lightbox of longing, choreography of voice, mortal architecture.
(1)The Kalachakra Mandala or Wheel of Time Mandala is a figuration for the blessing of time created by Tibetan Buddhist monks. It is formed by the patient pouring out of many colored sands. Upon its completion the mandala is cast into running water.
(2)William Wordsworth,` Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ (1802), William Wordsworth ed. Stephen Gill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) p.611
(3)Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York, Harper Colophon, 1971) p.146
(4) Charles Baudelaire, `Le Cygne’ Oeuvres Completes (Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1980) p.63
Published in Contemporary Women’s Writing 1:1 (2007) Inaugural issue
Read “Fragile Places” from Meena Alexander’s Poetics of Dislocation by clicking here