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Map-of-Indian-Ocean-Trade-Routes-1906Indian Ocean Poems

Below is a collection of poems from several of Meena Alexander’s works. Use the link below to navigate to the poems.

Autobiography
Water Crossing
Acqua Alta
Port Sudan
Crossing the Indian Ocean
Threshold City
Indian Ocean Blues

Autobiography
(From Meena Alexander, Birthplace with Buried Stones (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, forthcoming Fall 2013)

Out of a porthole a child pokes her head.
Rocks prance under water,

Sunlight burns a hole in air
Fit for a house to fall through.

Palm trees dive into indigo.
Where is Kochi now?

Out on deck men raise glasses of cognac,
Women in chiffon saris

Giggle at the atrocious accents of the poor
Trapped in the holds with their tiny cooking stoves

And hunks of burlap to sleep in.
Between sari hems and polished toes,

The child sees flying fish
Vomited by the sea —

Syllables lashed to their rainbow wings,
Tiny bodies twisting in heaps.

Sea salt clings to them.
The sea has no custom, no ceremony.

It makes a theater for poetry,
For a voice that splits into two, three:

Drunken migrations of the soul.
No compass to the sea. The sea is memory.

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Water Crossing
(From Meena Alexander, Birthplace with Buried Stones (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, forthcoming Fall 2013)

I

I was born into a house where music didn’t matter,
But now I know it is the one thing that counted –

An earthly music scraped from root and rock.
Stones stirred when no one was looking,

The house with its courtyard started to float.
Limestone quickened into fists and thighbones,

Handprints flowered on bedroom walls
Thumbs cut off, ancient marks of mutilation,

Wrists the color of glaciers before they split
And water poured into the open fields.

Then came the scents of wild lavender
Flung from the other side of the globe,

Thickets of it, sprung here and there
Making a rare sound — a single note torn open

And lengthened, as far as it would go —
A violet sound no one could have missed,

Even at sunset  as far west as we were going
Up the Red Sea with its blunt sandstone cliffs.

II

When I turned five, high wind and water
Swallowed what I could remember:

A mango grove where beetles danced,
Symmetries of silk, saris of mild cotton

Grandmother’s blackened pearls and so much more.
Amma was with me but I was all alone,

We had each other but our life was lost.
Salt water curved its sonorous being

To what the eye could bear in weight of loneliness.
Was this what it was to live in the world?

Time turned transparent. Pentimento of pastoral –
I had to teach myself much later and with inordinate effort.

We set foot on sand, I held tight to her hand.
Amma and I saw dry trees heave,

Guns on the cliffs started to stutter.
It was a tongue we had not heard before.

Waves clustered, rose into a fountain.
But what can music do against the weapons of soldiers?

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Acqua Alta
(From Meena Alexander, Quickly Changing River. TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2008) Acqua Alta set to music

Why come to Venice? The young woman asks.
I answer in lines  –  their time may have passed.

As a child, half a world away
I floated in a black canoe, it sank in high water.

The lagoon swells at monsoon time and floods the Ghetto.
All the pepper of Muziris cannot buy their freedom or mine,

And painted pottery exchanged for monkeys
Or chattering peacocks cannot distill sorrow.

A fish with rainbow fins is swimming in a fountain,
It has swallowed  the ring of remembrance.

This Kalidasa knew,
Dreaming of a high room by the Accademia bridge

That holds Sakuntala, still sleeping.
A bird, with feathers the color of jasmine

Has made its nest in the timbers of that bridge.
There I see a man, face painted white

A yellow star pinned to his chest,
Staring into water.

He too is part of this earthly theatre.
No one must see him weeping.

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Port Sudan
(From Meena Alexander Illiterate Heart (TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2002)

I hear my father’s voice on the phone.
He wants me to come from America to see him
he does not want to die and be put in the earth,

my sweet father: who held  me high above the waters
of the Red Sea, when I was five,
who saw a white ship, docking at Port Sudan

and came sprinting for me
through a crowd of labourers
forced to raise bales of cotton  to their heads.

Someone cried Kef Halek!
My skirt spun in the wind
and Arabic came into my mouth

and rested alongside
all my other languages.
Now I know the truth of my tongue

starts where translations perish.
Where voices cease
and I face the image of the Pharoah,

the one who murmured at the hour of his death,
throat turned towards the restless waters:
If I forget Upper Egypt,

cut off my right hand.
Here lies memory
.
The same man loved his daughter so

he knew she needed knowledge
of the imprints of earth:
glyphs cut in granite,

inscriptions on rough cloth,
underwater moorings
and the black sun of death.

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Crossing the Indian Ocean
(From Meena Alexander, Poetics of Dislocation. University of Michigan Press, 2009)

      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.

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Threshold City
(From Meena Alexander, Poetics of Dislocation. University of Michigan Press, 2009)

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.

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Indian Ocean Blues    

L’hibiscus qui n’est pas autre chose qu’un oeil eclaté
– Aimé Césaire, Corps Perdu

1. Solitaire

I have numbered the pages
And find the ground very uneven.
In springtime I take off my sandals
And run freely.

Except for mud and shards of stone
Embedded in tree trunks, I do fine.
It’s a door I am looking for — painted white,
Just like those old walls.

2. Dérive

I dream of a shack by the river’s edge
And keep walking.
It takes me a day and a night
And still another day.

On West 34
Warbling inside a skyscraper.
Murmuring the name of the goddess
I hop over mounds of waste paper

Black plastic bags have split.
I touch a cairn, ancient
Bewildered stone.
Is this where the buffalo leapt?

Bones, spittle, blue-fish,
Couches with polyester fillings
Waves of sulphur
Where the homeless slept.

North of nowhere,
I hide in Isham woods.

3. Inwood Sita

Sita bathed in sand.
By wildwort
And willowherb
Fire starts—

Dry ground cracks,
Swallows her whole.
Sita- found- in- a- field
Fled to Inwood.

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

4. Shook Silver

I was a child on the Indian Ocean.
Deck-side we dance in a heat- haze,
Toes squirm under silver wings.
Under burlap someone weeps.

Amma peers out of the porthole,
Sari stitched with bits of saffron,
Watch out for flying fish
She cries.

Our boat is bound for Africa.
They have goats and cows just like us,
Also snakes that curl
Under the frangipani tree.

Remember what grandmother said?
If you don’t keep that parasol
Over your head
You’ll turn into a little black girl.

Where is she now,
Child crossing the livid sea?
Older now,
I must speak to the shadows.

5. Lyric Ego

Muslin and lavender
Under mosquito nets,
Nothing to hold — just drops of blood
From an ancestral sword.

6. Fermata

He rode the waves,
Jungli- man with bits of silver on his eyes
Head poked with horns,
His arms were cut.

Bras Coupé!
I yelled. All amma could see
Buried under a blanket as waves rose
Was my black tousled head.

In dreams I was a child
With hands lopped off.
What had I done?
No one knew.

As the steamer floated to Aden
They shot gulls
From the cliffs
Those Englishmen  —

Their bullets flew,
Struck a boy
Herding goats on high
Rocks by the reddening sea.

7. Udisthanam

Piercings of sense,
Notes lashing time
Ecstatic self hidden
In the ship’s hold

‘I’ legible
Solely in darkness:
Shot flames,
Anchorage of divinity.

On the South Indian coast
In eighth century heat
Tiruvalla copper plate
Marked the morning hour

Before the sea clamored
And the shadow of the body
Lay twelve feet longer
Than Sita herself,

Littoral burning
With sacred fires — passage
To a kingdom beyond
The peepul trees.

Where are those refugees
Amma did not want me to see,
Gunny sacks and torn saris
Stitched together with cord?

Breath of my breath, bone
Of my bone, dark god
Of the Nilgiris,
Who will grant them passage?

8. Tarawad

You find this hard to believe:
I am a creature of house and home
Bound by a cord of blood —
Wild grasses blazed, nettles turned

Their stalks to the setting sun.
I was born to a house with red tiled roof,
Courtyard where sunbirds drew
Glittering wings across mulberry bark,

Pond where koi crawled
Then shot into light, circling
The mouth of the lotus bloom.
House of mist and stone,

Unseen umbilicus,
All that tethered me
Even as the ocean
Swept on and on.

Going, going, gone!

Someone banged the gavel.
Hearing the house was sold
She lay down in the mango grove
And stopped her eyes with stones,

Crazy girl, inconsolable!
Where is she now?
Where is the path where laburnum
Dropped its liquid gold,

Casurinas  flashed green needles into flints?
Jamun and jacaranda trees chopped.
Down into the hole
He went the priest in white robes

Singing praises
To the Lamb of God.
Tor of fragments,
Blunt pinnacle of longing

What becomes of houses torn down?
In the room where she slept
Milk trickles
Syllables swarm, lacking a script

Door jamb stuck to emptiness,
Threshold  shorn of walls.

9. Elemental

Restore to the imagination
Its correct borders via the ineffable.
I write this
In my notebook.

Still nothing happens.
See what we have done to water?
Even fish brains have Prozac
You whisper.

10. Paysage

Out of the belly of stone
India pours,
Wild grass is torn
From its roots.

On bare rock
Your face is etched in shadow.
Is this what love does?
Sempiternal marking.

11. Song Lines

One sea
Leads to another
(O mirror drunk with salt)
Also to that dreamless sleep

Where all seas start.
On this North American coast
Birch trees swallow the wind
Ranunculus petals tumble

In the heat of spring.
We shut our eyes to the glare
Stumble into the hole
Where Sita lay:

Eye of heaven, earth’s soul.
After the trepidation of rocks
After burst blood vessels
Will fields of saxifrage

And selfheal bloom?
Girls gather in sunlight,
Perch on a fault-mass
Combing out their hair.

12. Quilling

Where the ground shakes
I set my tent.
We cannot know ourselves ever.
I write this on your sleeve,

Fold the cotton over.
Sweet sunlight—
What swans found
In their last flight.

13. Syncopation

Be fearless with density
You whisper to me
It too is an accumulation of longing,
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever –
What crossing enjoins

Waves of hope,
Bitter notes plucked from sea foam,
Beauty’s tribulation,
Virus of the possible,

Arco of love
Slow fingering of desire,
Our saris packed
Into one battered suitcase

Old leather rinsed
With moonlight  as underwater
Continental plates clash
And on a sodden deck

He rises,
Cloaked in amaranth petals
A big man, his wounds
Molten.

What spills
From his lips?
Can Krishna
Hear him calling?

14. Aura

Lost children
Cradle flying fish
In their palms —
Torn metal turns into harps.

Note:  I had my fifth birthday on the steamer  S.S.Jehangir which was taking us from Bombay to Port Sudan. From the age of five to the age of eighteen ( when left for my studies in England) each year I travelled back and forth across the Indian Ocean. Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu  have been so powerful for me. Time and again, I could hear the waves beat in his lines. One sea, leads to another.  In the course of working on my poem I listened to music, including Vijay Iyer’s Solo which gave me inspiration, solace, a thread of time to mark my words against. The Ramayana story of Sita cast out by her lordly husband Rama ( mother earth tore open to give her refuge) was something I grew up with. I imagine Sita in the northern reaches of this island city where I live. Two words – in Malayalam, my mother tongue, udisthanam is foundation, often used to evoke the sacred ; tarawad is ancestral house.

— March 31, 2012- May 14, 2013, New York City

Indian Ocean Poems | 2013 | Links, Poems by Meena Alexander
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