Quickly Changing River (2008)
Praise for Quickly Changing River
“Quickly Changing River is an alluvial force of surprises reaching near and far, always beckoning us closer and closer to its urgent and magical source. From the collection’s first poem to its last, ‘Cosmopolitan’ to ‘August 14, 2004,’ there’s a movement here that challenges and enchants. Meena Alexander is a truth-teller who knows how to make language do anything and everything she desires.” — Yusef Komunyakaa
“These are poems of rich and satisfying detail — gingko trees and water taxis, the pearly feathers of pigeons. But the real strength of this book goes far beyond detail. however lyrically rendered. These poems are a sustained elegy for homelessness, for the displacement at the heart of human life. Meena Alexander is an eloquent and ambitious poet.” — Eavan Boland
Poems from Quickly Changing River (2008)
Click on a title to navigate to the poem.
You want a poem on being cosmopolitan.
Dear friend what can I say?
Sometimes I cannot tell mulberry skin
From blood on the hands of children.
Nor stop myself from tugging a cloth
Where ghostly knives, cups, forks flutter
Where stones surrender to the hunger of exiles.
Yesterday I jumped the metal door confusing D train for A,
Doors clashed, I tore a sleeve, saved my arm.
Pacing the ill lit platform
I heard the bird of heaven call.
A cry huge, indigo,
Bursting the underground tunnel.
A simple enough bird
Whose voice alone forces it apart.
A dun coloured thing feathers moist
It likes best to perch on green tamarind
Or on a bamboo branch.
The kind of bird you see painted
On palmyra fans
Or at the rim of raw silk
Furnishing a woman’s garment.
As the A train spun in I saw claws
Scoring a stubble field,
Rails melting into bamboo hit by a lightning storm..
Ill suited for that train
And where ever in the world it might take me,
I set both hands to the tunnel wall.
In cracks of the broken wall I touched dirt, moist, reddening.
It came to me foolish perhaps,
Yet insistent as night wind after a storm has passed.
Slow sweet tapping on the tympanum:
This is where your home is laid
Scales unsung and secret geography.
Odd questions massed in me.
Who knows my name or where my skin was torn?
If I could would I return to Kashi?
And might the queen of trumps intercede for me?
On an island, in a high room,
On a kitchen table, by a chopping board
I set a book you once gave me, The Travels of Mingliaotse.
That ancient sage whispers in my ear:
I have seen the sea changed three times
into a mulberry field and back again into the sea.
Rice blades in a muddy field,
Fretted gold bands fit for a dowry, tiny pearl edged coffins.
So something else is wordless, as Chekov might have said.
Amma is fearful her babies will be girls,
But she wants them to be the sisters she never had,
Three girls skipping in the graveled courtyard, tugging painted spools of thread.
Three sisters, as in the play she read, holding hands, longing to flee.
First sister melted her eyes into stones so no one could see,
Under her breath she sang songs of the monsoon wind.
Second sister trembled like a fox when its fur is stripped,
No one could bear the cadence of her cries.
Third sister took a strip of silk from grandmother’s wedding sari,
Called out to the man in the crescent moon
Sky Tailor come, its time to set up your sewing machine on amma’s verandah,
Time to snip the monsoon mist, stitch us pale blouses, help us make do.
Makram who loves the wild horses of Jebel Marra,
Tesir and Prakash
Remember me, the girl with a scar on her knee
The oldest of three sisters
Who fled a white house in Hai el Matar,
A girl who came to school too young and couldn’t sleep?
At night I dreamt a sailboat on the Nile.
The boat caught fire, we perished together
Four friends lost in that underworld pharaohs sought.
We reached for each other
Through the torn petals of our mother tongues.
Now my sorrow and my love smoulder in a foreign language.
– I am she come from where I crave again to be —
Beatrice, girl who died too young,
I read those words thumbing through stacks of poetry
In a library by the Nile. The books have vanished
From the window ledge where I placed them a century ago.
Have they burnt the library?
Nostrils of the wild horses of Jebel Marra
Are filled with ash.
In a city where two rivers meet
Makram, Prakash, Tesir, remember me.
Closing the Kamasutra
In another country at the river’s edge
We lay down in whispering dirt,
Then tried to fix a house with hot hope.
If we live together much longer
I’ll become a cloud in my own soul.
Sweet jasmine floats in a bowl,
A keyboard harbours insects
(Mites in secret laying white eggs).
I must light frankincense to smoke them out
Else the alphabets will fail.
It is written in the Kamasutra —
They embraced not caring about pain or injury,
All they wanted was to enter each other.
This is known as milk-and-water.
Aletheia ( Girl in River Water)
First I saw your face,
Then your whole body lying still
Hands jutting , eyelids shut ,
Twin nostrils flare, sheer
Efflorescence when memory cannot speak –
A horde of body parts glistening.
Your were feet at an angle
Stuck in a tainted stream,
And under your ankles the spectre of a horse,
Its chestnut mane lopped off,
An ordinary creature in a time of war,
Hooves blown, trying to make do.