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The stormThe Storm: A Poem in Five Parts (1989)

Summary of The Storm

“I was born in to the Marthoma Syrian Church, in Kerala, South India. The old Kozhencheri church with the graves of my ancestors, is visible across the lower garden and the paddy fields. My father’s father tore down the ancestral house to make a new one higher up on the hillside. As a child I traveled on airplanes to other continents always returning to Kerala. The migrant workers, the chowkidars, nurses in the poem are people who leave Kerala in order to work, to make money. The movie theatres “built with black money from the Gulf” are found in Kerala. From childhood onwards I have visited Kanyakumari — Cape Cormorin — named after the Virgin Goddess. It is an hundred miles or so from my home. The poem is all of a piece and it’s all my life.” — Meena Alexander

Praise for The Storm

“In the crucible of art the self that reflects. . . comes to terms with the earlier self that merely experienced. The poem that is resolved in itself rings with a specific grade.” — Ben Downing

Selected Poems from The Storm

Click on a title to navigate to the poem.

1. After the First House
2. The Travellers

 

Father’s father tore it down
heaped rosewood in pits
as if it were a burial

bore bits of teak
and polished bronze
icons and ancient granary;

the rice grains clung
to each other
soldered in sorrow,

syllables
on grandmother’s tongue
as she knelt.

She caught the stalks
in open palms,
bleached ends,
knotted in silk

cut from the walls
the stained
and whittled parts of fans
that cooled her cheeks
in the aftermath of childbirth

in the hot seasons of the soul
when even the silver boxes
she kept her brocades in
seemed to catch fire and burn.

*

Through thorn and freckled vine
I clambered uphill

following the fragments
of the first house.

When I stopped
at a stone upturned
or split mango bark swarming with ants

I glimpsed the bluish sky
flashing in places

as if the masts
of a great ship wrecked
had pierced it through,
the sun gliltering in bare spots
the voices of family
all near and dear
crying from the holds.

The ancestral hillside
the long gardens of our dead
across the swollen paddy fields
moved as if with a life
utterly beyond recall

a power of motion,
a fluent, fluid thing
that slipped and struck
against my childish fears
and turned me then all muddy
and green and fearful
into a child who shivered in broad heat,
sensing her flesh as sheer fall:

the cliffs of chalk
hanging by the river,
the pungent depths of waterholes
where buffaloes crawled
light invisible in the well
at the very base,

blade and fractured eggshell
revolving in tense silence.
*
In noonday heat
as pigeons massed the eaves
and the rooster bit
into a speckled hen beneath
I slid the iron bolt.
I crept from the house
on the hill,
its pillars washed in white
walls wired with electricity.

I slid down a slope
all chalky and bruised:
gooseberries ripped themselves loose,
vine scrawled on my thighs
freckled black and bloodied.

In ravines cut by rainfall
in patches where cloves
were dug out in clumps
and the ground let stand

I saw wild ants
mating in heaps.

Acres of sweet grass
thrashed by the heat
scored back,
refused to grow
in the burnt and blackened space
where the first house stood.

*

Night after night
on pillows hemmed in silk

stitched with rows
of wild flowers

I dreamt of bits and pieces
of the ruined house:

rosewood slit and furrowed
turning in soil,
teak, struck from the alcoves
where the icons hung
bent into waves,

blackened vessels
filled with water
from the disused well

a child’s toy
two wheels of tin on a stick
swirling

as if at midnight
the hidden sun
had cast itself down
amidst us,
the golden aura whirling

and voices of beings
who might as well be angels
crying : Ai

‘AiAi
AiAiAi
Not I, Not I’

Meaningless thunder
lightning from what one presumed
to be the abode of the gods
shaking us to our knees.

*

Through sugarcane stalks
thick and bawdy red
the graves are visible:

grandparents end to end
great uncles and great aunts,
cousins dead of brain fever
bald sisters sunk into rage
their brothers-in-law
without issue

ancestors all,
savage, sinless now,
their stones stung white with rain.

I peer from the rubble
where a first house stood,
the centuries swarm through me.

A king crawls out
on hands and knees,
he stamps his foot
he smashes the golden bull
that held him whole

‘Come catch me now’
he sings
‘Look at me,
I am born again!’

He leaps
through mud and sugar
cane stalks,
squats low and bares himself.

Through monsoon clouds
waves dip and crown
his blunt head.

*

Neither king nor clown
I am hurt
by these tales
of resurrection.

I can count
the grey hairs
on my head,
heavy lines
on my palm

natural occurrences
I cannot command,
cannot dispel

casting art
to the edge
of an old wooden theatre

where I wait
in the wings
with the two-bit actresses
the old man
who fumbles for his wig,
the eunuch
adjusting the hem of his sari.

Rouge burns
on his cheek
as he watches
the young lad
rock feverishly
on a wooden horse.

Top

 

2. The Travellers

A child thrusts back a plastic seat
rubs her nose against glass,
stares hard as jets strike air,
the tiny men in their flying caps
with bright gold braid
invisible behind the silver nose.

Is there no almanac
for those who travel ceaselessly?
No map where the stars
inch on in their iron dance?

The gulls that swarm
on the sodden rocks
of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqabà
cry out to us in indecipherable tongues,
the rough music of their wings
torments us still.

Tears stream down the cheeks
of the child voyager,
from the hot tight eyes.
The mother combing out her hair
behind a bathroom door
tugging free a coiled hem,
cannot see her eldest daughter.

A mile or two away
in an ancient square
guns cough and stutter,

Through acres of barbed wire
shutting off shops
and broken parlours
they bear the bodies of the dead

Pile them in lorries

and let the mothers
in their blackened veils approach.

Some collapse
on the steep slope of grief,
crawl on hands and knees,
piteous supplication of the damned,

Others race to tear
the bloodstained cloth
gaze at stiffened brow
and shattered jaw,
parts without price,
precious sediments of love.

In Baghdad’s market places,
in the side streets of Teheran,
in Beirut and Jerusalem
in Khartoum and Cairo,
In Colombo and New Delhi,
Jaffna, Ahmedabad and Meerut,
on the highways of Haryana
in poorly lit cafes
to the blare of transistors,
in shaded courtyards
where children lisp
we mourn our dead

Heaping leaves and flowers
that blossom only in memory
and the red earth
of this mother country
with its wells and watering places
onto countless graves.

*
I sometimes think that in this generation
there is no more violence than there ever was,
no more cruelty, no greater damnation.

We have hung up white flags
in refugee camps, on clothes lines
strung through tenements,
on the terraces of high walled houses.

Peering through my window at dawn
I see the bleached exhausted faces,
men and women knee deep in mud in the paddy beds,
others squatting by the main road to the sea
break granite with blunt hammers

Sickles are stacked
by the growing pile of flint,
the hammers draw blood.

Children scrabble in the dirt
by the hovels of the poor.
In monsoon rain they scrawl
mud on their thighs,
their lips are filled with rain.

I see movie theatres built with black
money from the Gulf,
air-conditioned nightmares
bought for a rupee or two,
the sweaty faces of the rich
the unkempt faces of the struggling middle-class.

Next door in a restaurant
food is served on white cloth
and the remnant flung to the crows.

Let me sing my song
even the crude parts of it,
the decrepit seethe of war,
cruelty inflicted in clear thought,
thought allied to brutal profiteering
the infant’s eyes still filled with sores.

*

Consider us crawling forward
in thunder and rain,
possessions strewn through airports
in dusty capitals,
small stoppages in unknown places
where the soul sleeps:

Bahrain, Dubai, London, New York,
names thicken and crack
as fate is cut and chopped
into boarding passes.

German shepherds sniff our clothes
for the blind hazard of bombs,
plastique knotted into bras,
grenades stuffed into a child’s undershirt.

Our eyes dilate
in the grey light of cities
that hold no common speech for us,
no bread, no bowl, no leavening.

At day’s close we cluster
amidst the nylon and acrylic
in a wilderness of canned goods,
aisles of piped music
where the soul sweats blood:

Migrant workers stripped
of mop and dirty bucket,
young mothers who scrub kitchen floors
in high windowed houses
with immaculate carpets,

Pharmaceutical salesmen in shiny suits,
night nurses raising their dowry
dollar by slow dollar,
tired chowkidars eking their pennies out
in a cold country

Students, ageing scholars,
doctors wedded to insurance slips,
lawyers shovelling their guilt
behind satin wallpaper.

Who can spell out
the supreme ceremony
of tea tins
wedged
under the frozen food counter?

Racks of cheap magazines
at the line’s end
packed with stars

Predict our common birth
yet leave us empty handed
shuffling damp bills.

*

A child stirs in her seat
loosens her knees,
her sides shift
in the lap of sleep

the realm of dream
repairs

as if a woman
glimpsed through a doorway
whose name is never voiced

took green silk
in her palms
threaded it
to a sharp needle,
drew the torn pleats together:

a simple motion
filled with grace,
rhythmic repetition
in a time of torment.

In the child’s dream
the mother seated
in her misty chair
high above water,
rocks her to sleep
then fades away.

The burning air
repeats her song,
gulls spin and thrash
against a stormy rock

rifts of water
picket light,
a fisherman stumbles
upright
in his catamaran.

The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts | 1989 | Poetry, Works & Collaborations
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