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Fragile PlacesMeena Alexander, Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009)
Fragile Places
1.
The poems in Raw Silk were composed in the aftermath of two Septembers, one
and the other making a figure of eight, time torqued into a loop, space severs —
September 11, 2001, in New York City where I live and September 11, 2002 when I was
in Ahmedabad, visiting relief camps for the survivors of ethnic violence. What does it
mean to belong in a violent world? It’s a question that keeps coming back to me.
What follows is drawn from a notebook I keep to jot down what comes to me as I
write, aspects of the everyday, intrinsic portion of the haunting we call history.
In arranging the manuscript, I was troubled by what it might mean for a book of
poems to draw so deeply on narratives of violence, yet there was no way out if I was
going to be true to myself, by which I mean true to that inchoate, utterly voiceless
subjectivity that lies buried within , too deep for tears. Yet it is with this part of ourselves
that we reach out to others, and in this bodily reaching, lit by the power of the senses, we
are allowed to remember. Such memory, etched into the visible through beauty, allows us
to be reconciled to our wounded, perishing earth.
*
A poem plays in my head, as much for its musicality as anything. Yet its matter
is close. My mind moves to another country, to which we are bound in the terrible
intimacy of war. But it is not of war of which I wish to speak, nor of streets filled with the
despair that comes in the aftermath of the burning of children instead of paper. I want to
speak of the task of poetry, and what place the poem might have in the wreckage we
humans can make of our shared world. A poem called `Mozart 1935′. In it Wallace
Stevens addresses the poet: `be seated at the piano.’ Even if stones are thrown in the
streets, even if there is a body in rags being carried out, the poet must sit at his piano.

And the lines rise to a magnificence Stevens could muster at need:
Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.
I think this poem has been in my head in a hidden buried way all these days. I read
it first in Khartoum where I first read so many poems that are still important to me. I was
in the library by the Nile. There was gunfire in the streets, civil unrest. I was a teenager
then and anxious to make sense of the world and only the near mystical twists and turns
of the poem could afford me that `starry placating’ Stevens evokes. Now my mind moves
to another country, to which we are bound in the terrible intimacy of war. But it is not
just of war I wish to speak , nor of streets filled with all the desperation that comes in the
aftermath of the burning of buildings, the burning of children instead of paper. I want to
think of the task of poetry, what place the poem might have in the wreckage we humans
can make of our shared world.

A month ago, March 2003, I bought two black notebooks. In one I pasted out the
pages I was printing of the cycle of Gujarat poems written after a visit to the relief camps
there, camps that housed the survivors of ethniccarnage. All the poems including `Letters
to Gandhi’ had come in an overflow of emotion that kept me from sleep. I needed the
security of a boundary , covers within which I could turn pages and take flight from poem
to poem.

I had to move back and forth between the poems to make a deeply personal sense
out of that chaos. A week or two later I started another notebook which I labeled `Raw
Silk’ and in that book I set drafts of three poems which also came to me at great speed, a
wind smashed bouquet, pain and grief at the destruction of war, joy in the face of beauty
that can sustain us. Some of the images that came to me echoed those that had blossomed
in my head in the days and nights of a Delhi winter when I sat in quiet in a patch of
sunlight brooding on what I had seen and heard in the relief camps in Gujarat. So into my
second notebook I pressed the images that came to me, through layer after layer of sense.

Running my fingers through this notebook I see lines I have written in my
squiggly hand. They are lines that tell of how I had tried to make a pure lyric out of the
title poem of my new book `Raw Silk’ but without my knowing it, a border was crossed.
March 20, 2003
What happens in my poetic production is that almost without knowing it, the
violence of history enters in. Creeps in through the back door as it were, enters my
consciousness, so that in the poem `Raw Silk’ which will be the title poem of the new
book I started off by wanting to write a simple poem about a scrap of raw silk that my
mother gave me from her mother’s sari (and about the mulberry patch my grandmother
planted after her return from China) and instead, into that entered the soldiers, the tear
gas, the grenades of a childhood in Sudan, just as no doubt in my daughter’s
consciousness the war (now), the bomb drills in school, all enter in.
So it was that writing the poem once again I used lines that I emailed back to
myself from my office at the Graduate Centre. I would then retrieve them at home and
work with them. The department printer was not working and I needed typed hard copy,
not the edgy scrawl that passes for my handwriting. At home, opening the email with the
half finished lines I sensed that I was in search of an answer to the oldest of questions —
Who are you? The lyric is a response.

*
I searched on the internet for lines by Enheduanna, the great poet of Mesopotamia,
the first poet in recorded history. Afterwards, I could not bear the windowless office I had
been given and so I walked up to the eighth floor atrium and opened my eyes and on a
high wall saw the Dove of Tanna , Frank Stella’s piece filled with light. I had first seen
the image, in that way, at that angle, lit by the sun, a week or so earlier when David
Harvey had addressed a few of us and listening to his words I had turned my eyes to the
bright talisman of peace on the wall.
Back in my office I wrote lines in which I felt the beginnings of a poem.(1)Later
as I sat and wrote I thought of bombs that burst roofs and walls, a woman poet who did
not have the luxury of sitting at her desk and writing, a poet flung out of her home, forced
to cross the shattered street.This is some part of the email I sent myself. There is in it, I
think, some impatience with myself and also some real awareness of the limits of the
poem.
Friday March 07, 2003, 4:26 pm
Dear Meena
you are not so far today. why must you email these messages, as if pen and paper were
hard to find, or a printer. On the Dove of Tanna the artist cut up bits of aluminum and
painted them over into the dove’s tail, the arrow’s flight, the green bough that signifies
the lifting of the waters… While you’re at it why not think of the door you have opened,
perhaps portal would be a better word, onto the layering of fragile places whose petals
spurt scents from Paris and Istanbul and Rome. Or blood spurting from the cut aorta.
Wrapping it in raw silk will do no good…
The rest of the email contains lines that incorporate what was to come, lines I had
to sculpt into shape to make the bare bones of the poem I began in the building where the
Graduate Centre is, 365 Fifth Avenue.

*

May 18, 2003. I went to the Met to see the First Cities exhibit. The darkness of the
silk that draped the walls sent out a pervasive gloom, but the ancient artifacts, bird and
spouted vessel and golden ram prancing in a flowering thicket snared the heart.
I found myself in a corner of an inner room and there in front of me was an
alabaster disc. Its thickness amazed me, at least six inches in depth, that creamy stone
onto which was cut the figure and face of Enheduanna, leading the array of priests, an
image I had only seen on the internet. Without knowing what I was doing I made the sign
of the cross, an instinctive thing I have carried with me from early childhood, a sign I
make in the presence of something sacred. As if in a dream I gazed at her face, the
cheekbones scooped away, damage hurting her throat but the profile incised there, the
hands held out, the precious poem.

I took my friend Gauri to face the alabaster disc and I said to her, I will stand here
to take darshan. And I stood there for a long time, facing an image of the very first poet
in recorded human history. Later I read the poem `Triptych in a Time of War’ at an event
the students had organized in April at the Graduate Centre. As I recall it was the day after
the American troops entered Baghdad.

Two years ago walking down to Ground zero on 9/11 we saw twin beams of light
shining up into the dark sky and in the beams thousands and thousands of fluttering
motes.
Bits of paper? Darting souls?
On 9/11 the air had been filled with tiny bits of paper and ash, all falling, falling.
So what was this? These tiny particles were rising, not falling. I asked one of the men
who was taking care of the light installation and he told me, much to my surprise that
they were moths. So moths drawn out of the darkness were glittering, high as the eye
could see in twin beams and their delicate wings played in the plate glass of the
buildings across the way. The tiny luminous moths made an afterimage that stayed and
stayed even after I shut my eyes. The next day, September 12th when a group of us read
at Cornelia Street Café, I thought of the souls of the dead, rising in the twin beams of
light.
2.
It’s a bright spring day, New York City, sunlight in all the places that winter
darkness had made us forget, the crook of a wall, the cranny of a tree, tiny rip in an
asphalt road and everywhere the sight and scent of spring bursting forth, petals, stamens
singing, the joints of leaf and branch rippling with sap and birdsong from behind clouds.
I saw those boughs, that sunlight coming up out of the darkness of the subway,
after a meeting in one of the most crowded parts of the city, the heart of mid-town
Manhattan. In a high room a few poets had gathered to talk about Intimacy and
Geography. It was a phrase that was meant to encapsulate the theme of an Asian
American poetry festival planned for the fall, a phrase that we tossed back and forth, a
live ball out of which spilled thoughts of what it might mean to make a home in language,
in multiple languages, through exile and uprooting, through migrant memories, fragile
places.

Arjun Appadurai has reflected on locality as a structure of feeling. He writes of
how the production of locality is `a fragile and difficult achievement … shot through with
contradictions, destabilized by human motion…’1 Living in place and the crossing of
borders are both part of our lives in this century, habitation incomprehensible without the
mobility that some choose, and others are condemned to.

More and more our poems are palimpsests of place, memory and desire written
through them, the slow darkness of human suffering underpinning their minute and
sometimes joyous illuminations.

Theodor Adorno has suggested that the lyric is a form which in its very intimacy,
its solitude, is underpinned by the longing of society, for a crystallized structure, a form
of feeling that must necessarily refuse that which society stands for, the hard, crowded,
oppressive, regulated world — the realms of dos and don’ts. Adorno writes: `This demand
however, the demand that the lyric word be virginal is itself social in nature.’2

Virginal I don’t quite understand. But I do understand an intensity that scrubs out
the awful constraints in which all that is pure can be trammeled in, all that the body can
sometimes bind us into, being the creature of place that it is.
I once wrote a poem called `Passion’ in which I spoke of the human realms of do
and don’t – and it was a woman’s voice I was thinking of, rising above these, a full
soaring note higher, a cry for the place, the paradise only the poem might render
possible.3 So to that take voice, that longing one might move on and think of the poet as
one who dwells in fragile places – zones that can be shattered by the raise of a hand, the
quiver of an eyebrow, that can be fused together with the fiery power of dream.
*
I was in India, living in Kerala and teaching at Mahatma Gandhi University which
is twelve miles from my mother’s house. In December I traveled to Santiniketan, in West
Bengal, to the university established by the poet Rabindranath Tagore.5 It was the dry
season, cool and dry. I wandered through dusty paths and came upon huts made of wood
and thatch, sculptures set in groves of trees, and a marble temple where there was no idol
or godhead, rather the spirit, the empty spirit in vacant space that Tagore’s father, a
Brahmasamaji invoked. Standing there I saw light streaming through brilliant glass panes
onto the cool floor. I felt I could live there, in Santiniketan, the Abode of Peace, for a
long long time and it was hard for me to leave. I read my poems there, was interviewed,
gave a talk which I called `Identity Works’ on multicultural American poetry.
One morning I closed my eyes and when I opened them again I saw a red bird
flying over the museum that houses the artifacts Tagore had collected in his lifetime, the
silken robes he used in theater productions, the brocade robes gifted from Japan, the
paper on which he wrote, the enamel pen, a model of the train in which he took his last
ride from Kolkata to Santiniketan. Even in the rundown parts of his university, I am
thinking now of the guest house where wild dogs roamed into the dining hall and pigeons
clustered on the bathroom sill, there was his spirit, something cut apart from, yet
powerfully wedded to the earth out of which he drew his songs. There are lines from his
last set of poems, `Shesh Lekha’ the so called deathbed poems that haunt me.
This was written on May 13, 1941, less than three months before his death:
On the banks of the Rupanarayan
I woke
and realized this world
was no dream.
With alphabets of blood
Meena Alexander/ Fragile Places
8
I saw myself defined.
I recognized myself
through endless suffering,
countless wounds.
Truth is cruel:
I love its cruelty
for it never lies.4

Perhaps it is the cruelty of truth that awakens us to the nature of place.
Fragileplaces which we inhabit as human beings, places that we make in order to be
persons, in community, in communion, and how very easily that civil pact can be broken,
the key to our co-existence tossed away.
3.

September 11, 2002 I found myself in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The city of
Ahmedabad lies on the banks of the river Sabarmati. It is where Gandhi, the father of
Indian independence, the creator of non-violent action, had chosen to set his ashram. In
the clear morning light, in the company of a dear friend , I crossed the river over the main
bridge. My friend and I found a decrepit three-wheeler that dropped us off in Shahpur, a
poor neighborhood. With the help of a Dalit activist–”Dalit” is a term of resistance used
by those who were previously called Untouchable–we made our way to a large relief
camp, Quraish Hall, that in better times had been used for weddings.

How had this all come about ? A bare bones telling. In February 2002 a Muslim
mob had allegedly torched a train carrying Hindu activists and 59 people lost their lives.
The aftermath of Godhra–a single word suffices to summon up that tragedy–was
carefully orchestrated by right-wing Hindu groups. The plundering and burning of
Muslim properties, the killing and mutilation of men and the mass rape of women all
showed signs of meticulous planning.

As we sat, two women in our cotton kurtas on the low wooden stools in the courtyard,
the people pressed around us. They were the survivors of the killings in Naroda Patiya, a
neighborhood of Ahmedabad. Svati explained that she was collecting information for
PUDR, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, as part of their project of documenting
human rights violations. I don’t have anything material to give you, Svati said, but please
tell us what happened. People pressed forward. There was a terrible hunger to tell their
stories.

Afterwards, I could not sleep, hearing those voices. A thin, elderly woman in an
orange sari told us how her daughter-in-law Kausar Banu, nine months pregnant, was set
upon by armed Hindu men, her belly ripped open, the unborn child pierced by a sword,
thrown into the fire. A small dark man, Bashir Yusuf, had survived by hiding under dead
bodies. He showed us the marks on his back from knife blades where the Hindutva men
had attacked him. He had to run for his life from the Civil Hospital–you are a Muslim, a
doctor said to him, I won’t help you live.

Then a tiny child, barely two, was raised up in the arms of a thin woman. The child’s
name was Yunus. He was dressed in a torn green shirt, and the woman who was carrying
him and said she was his mother turned him around and lifted his shirt and we saw the
burn marks on his bottom, where the skin had scarred, the marks stretching over his tiny
back, making it look like a raw fruit, terribly disfigured. He had been thrown into a fire
and someone had pulled him out and rescued him. The child had enormous eyes and kept
staring at me. Even now, back in this wintry city, I see his eyes staring into mine.

Ahmedabad itself was a city split in two.. On one side of the river, a thriving city,
cars and money and people eating bhel puri on the streets or flocking to restaurants. On
the other side of the river, marks of devastation and victims with no means of livelihood
filled with fear of what would happen if they dare to return to their old neighborhoods.
One thing I cannot forget–when people desperate for help approached the Sabarmati
Ashram, those who were in charge of the ashram closed the doors on them, denied them
shelter.

I first entered the ashram in what feels like another life, over two decades ago, in
the company of Svati’s father, the Gujarati poet Uma Shankar Joshi. He was a follower of
Gandhi and knew the compound and the buildings well. I followed him into the cool,
low-ceilinged house as he showed me where Gandhi and his wife Kasturba had lived.
Now in this season of difficulty I felt the peace inside Gandhi’s dwelling. I stopped,
touched the walls of the small whitewashed kitchen I have always held in memory. Low
shelves, windows, small receptacles for food. There was peace here, but at what cost was
it maintained?

At the threshold I shut my eyes. I saw the Mahatma, in his pale loin-cloth. He tore
open the doors of the house, he strode down the path under the neem trees. He cried out
in words that were hard to understand. He leapt into the river, a flash of flesh and cloth.
In bold, unhurried strokes he swam across the Sabarmati. Then, just as he was, Gandhi
walked into the burning city.

That afternoon, as always, there were green parrots. I saw them as I walked down the
steps of Gandhi’s house. They flitted through the trees, into the holes in the outer wall of
the ashram. The walls went down all the way to the river.

On the other side of the river innocent human beings had been killed and raped. I
watched the parrots disappear into their hiding holes. Slowly it grew dark, then darker.
The river, with the smoke-stacks on the other side, kept flowing on.

*

What I had seen and heard in Ahmedabad was too terrible for me to tell my
mother who was waiting for me in Kerala, five hundred miles away, in a house with a
sandy courtyard and a red tiled roof, with a pond where the golden carp flit through
mauve petals of the waterlily. As if sensing my disquiet she did not press me too hard.

After all she had newspapers and watched TV. Gujarat seemed far away, another country.
I felt I had crossed a border, entering Kerala again. But Gujarat was after all part of India
and that other locality and its terrible dismemberment was portion of the news of our
world. For many many nights I could not sleep.

Later I traveled to Delhi to give a reading at the Sahitya Akademi, the National
Academy of Letters . On my first day in the city I went to Bengali Market to buy fruit. I
had a great longing to taste pomegranate and this was the right season for them. I felt that
before I read my poems I had to eat this fruit with its hard skin, its brilliant red seeds.
Though pomegranates are available in many parts of India, somehow I associated them
with Delhi , with its red sandstone buildings and brilliant winter skies.

Entering the market I thought I heard the voice I had heard in my head in the days
and nights after my return from Gujarat.

It was the voice of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova who in her `Instead a
Preface’ to the poem Requiem, describes how she stands in a winter street in Leningrad,
in a long line of people in front of a prison and a woman recognizes her, a woman with
blue lips who comes over to the poet and whimpers `Can you describe this?’and
Akhmatova replies `I can.’

One draws strength from the great ones who have gone before and as I stood in
that Delhi street, Gujarat already another place, far away, I heard Akhmatova’s words.
And I saw in front of me, wrapped up in a khadi shawl and wools, a dear friend. He was
leaning forward in an autorickshaw, a three wheeler that was about to start. The
autorickshaw was parked in front of a tiny storefront clinic, one of many in Delhi that
dispense medicines and basic healthcare to urban dwellers. This clinic had a sign in it in
big red letters that caught my eye: Dr. Gandhi’s clinic. I went forward and embraced my
friend who I had not seen for many years. I wanted to tell him about my visit to Gujarat
but just then there was no time. That had to wait for later. He was Ramu,
Gandhiji’sgrandson. Many months later, back in New York, when I wrote my poems, his
voice and figure entered in, restoring time, restoring me to place.
4.
The present is not another country. It is where we live. When I started to write the
Gujarat poems, I knew I had to rely on beauty. Otherwise the rawness of what had
happened, the bloody bitter mess would be too much to take. The poem can take a tiny jot
of the horror but evoke grief, restore tenderness so that we are not thrust back into an
abject silence. As if we have heard and seen nothing.

After the poems were completed , I sent them to a friend at the Times of India and
he in turn sent them onto a friend at the Hindu with the thought that they might publish
them on the Sunday literary page. The editor at the Hindu who is also a poet wrote back
to me. First he spoke of how for many years he had followed my work, then he wrote a
few lines about my poems that made me stop in my tracks:
` Dear Meena …I … am, frankly, amazed by the poems provoked by the pogrom
and its aftermath in Gujarat, by the way they weave terror and disturbance with beauty
and elegance of form in the way that sometimes makes people who are distrustful of the
claims of art suspicious of poetry and its intentions.

He was a poet himself and I valued his words but what did he mean by the distrust of
beauty? He had touched a nerve and I wrote back the same day, March 18, 2003, by
email:
Dear – , Beauty and terror –we must speak of all that sometime. I needed beauty
there to work so that the pity of it would strike the reader. too much horror, raw, the
mind cannot take — and here beauty can work for us, for the good, so I dare to believe as
a poet.
______________
Published in TriQuarterly # 122 (2006) An earlier version of section 3 `Crossing
Sabermati’ was published in The Women’s Review of Books, February 28, 2003
Endnotes
Portions of this were first presented at a talk as part of a series on the theme of Change, Shippensberg
University, April 15, 2003; a version of this was presented at a panel at Dartmouth College `Transnational
Ethics and Aesthetics in Asian American Literature, Dartmouth College, May 1, 2003. The others on the
panel were Maxine Hong Kingston, Garrett Hongo and Li-Young Lee. I am grateful to them for the
discussion we had.
1. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: The Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996) p.198
2. Theodor Adorno `On Lyric Poetry and Society’ Notes to Literature Vol 1. ed Rolf Tiedemann, transl.
S.W. Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) p.39
3. Meena Alexander, `Passion’ The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (Boston:
Southend Press, 1996) pp. 17-20
4. Rabindranath Tagore, Shesh Lekha, The Last Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, transl. Pritish Nandy
(New Delhi, Rupa, 2002) p.27
5. Sankara, the great philosopher of Advaita Vedanta was born in Kaladi, in what is now Kerala. He
believed that the phenomenal world was maya, zone of the unreal. The poet I refer to in the third section
is Rabindranath Tagore. The two lines in italics at the close of that section are drawn from his notes on
Purabi. Tagore comments on his own deletions: lines crossed out in the manuscript turned into doodles,
the genesis of his craft as an artist. Some of these manuscript pages are displayed, blown up, on the walls
of the Kolkata Underground

Fragile Places: A Poet’s Notebook | 2005 | Non-Fiction, Works & Collaborations
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