An Intimate Violence by Meena Alexander
There is a painful edge to the word race. Sometimes I cannot help thinking of it as a wound, something that cannot be cleft apart from my femaleness. And yet there, at the same time, when I step back a little, there is always the sense that race is an illusion, something made up. Otherwise why would I be so different in different places—by which I mean seen differently, treated differently, almost becoming another I? So it is that when crossing borders—between India and America, or even between the rich multiethnic mix of New York and the white suburbs—I feel a transitoriness in the self, the need for a febrile translation. And somehow there is a violent edge to this process of cultural translation, the shifting worlds I inhabit, the borders I cross in my dreams, the poems I make.
I was giving a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a bookstore. I read prose pieces, poems, ending with the last two sections of the poem “San Andreas Fault.” A woman raised her hand. She picked out details from the poem: “How can you allow these facts of the world, terrible things we would not normally want to think about, get into your poem? What does it do to your life?”
Quiet for a bit, I took a while to respond, musing on the section of the poem she had picked out. It begins with a speaker, a woman, who enters a dream state. At the end of her vision she faces her muse, a weightless creature, born of air, who has forced her to this:
Late at night in Half Moon Bay
hair loosed to the glow of traffic lights
I slit the moist package of my dreams.
Female still, quite metamorphic
I flowed into Kali ivory tongued, skulls nippling my breasts
Durga lips etched with wires astride an electric tiger
Draupadi born of flame betrayed by five brothers stripped
of silks in the banquet hall of shame.
In the ghostly light of those women’s eyes
I saw the death camps at our century’s end:
A woman in Sarajevo shot to death
as she stood pleading for a pot of milk,
a scrap of bread, her red scarf swollen
with lead hung in a cherry tree.
Turks burnt alive in the new Germany,
a grandmother and two girls
cheeks puffed with smoke
as they slept in striped blankets
bought new to keep out the cold.
A man and his wife in Omdurman
locked to a starving child, the bone’s right
to have and hold never to be denied,
hunger stamping the light.
In Ayodhya, in Ram’s golden name
hundreds hacked to death, the domes
of Babri Masjid quivering as massacres begin—
the rivers of India rise mountainous,
white veils of the dead, dhotis, kurtas, saris,
slippery with spray, eased from their bloodiness.
Shaking when I stopped I caught myself short
firmly faced her “What forgiveness here?”
“None” she replied “Every angel knows this.
The damage will not cease and this sweet gorge
by which you stand bears witness.
Become like me a creature of this fault.”1
She was in the back of the room, a small, neat-looking woman, her brown hair drawn back, and she was waiting for an answer.
“There are two things,” I began, “and they stand apart, then come together. One is the music of poetry. Not something I am altogether conscious about, but it works with the language, and it allows the thoughts, the ‘facts’ if you will—the terror, the violence—to be raised up, so that even as we see them imprinted in consciousness, there is a hairbreadth that allows release, allows for the transcendence poetry seeks.
“Then my personal life.” At this I stopped, took a sip of water, looked around the small room, the faces listening intently, the windows with the white shutters letting in a pearly light. The shutters looked as if they were cut from rice paper. Outside was spring sunshine, magnolias on the brink of bursting into light, crocuses prickling through the grass, spurts of purple among the old parked cars, the gas station on the other side of Hampshire Road.
I took courage from all that lay around and the women and men listening in the small back room.
“I bring the intensity of my inner life, very personal emotions, into relation with these ‘facts’ of the world. I may be standing in the kitchen looking out of the window, or washing grains of rice for dinner. Or I may be folding a pile of laundry, yet within me there is an emotion that the gesture of my hands cannot reach.
“And often there is news of the world that reaches me. And I contemplate it. So really it is by looking long and hard, allowing the intensity of that otherness to enter in, that the charged rhythm of the poem, its music, comes. Breaks out onto the page.”
I may not have said all this, there and then. And I wanted to speak of something that was too hard for me at the time: the migration of sense a poem requires, the way writing is tied up, for me, with loss, with what forces forgetfulness and yet at the very same time permits passage.
“A bridge that seizes crossing,” I wrote in a poem, trying to touch the edge of migrancy that underwrites the sensible world for me. This was at a time when I felt that I needed to begin another life, to be born again. And now I think, for me, to be born again is to pass beyond the markings of race, the violations visited on us.
Awhile back there were a series of racial incidents in New York City. Two black children were spray-painted white, a white child raped in retaliation, an Indian child stoned. Haunted by these events, I made a poem called “Art of Pariahs.” Pariah is a word that has come from my mother tongue, Malayalam, into English.
Perhaps one of the few benefits of colonialism is being able to infiltrate the language. I imagined Draupadi of the Mahabharata entering my kitchen in New York City. The longing to be freed of the limitations of skin color and race sings in the poem.
A year later I was in Delhi for an international symposium, put together by the Sahitya Akademi. Writers, artists, filmmakers were invited to ponder the ethnic violence that was threatening the fabric of secular India. Worn out by the flight that got- ten me in at one in the morning, I turned up a few minutes late for the start of the conference. The hall at the India International Center was packed. There were half a dozen people on the dais, dignitaries including Mulk Raj Anand, grand old man of Indian letters, the novelist who had written about the lives of Untouchables. There was no room in the auditorium, nowhere for me to sit. I stood uneasily at the edge, casting about for a place to sit, watching as a man dressed in white khadi, looking much as I would imagine a contemporary Tagore, spoke eloquently about the destruction of Babri Masjid and the communal riots in different parts of the country. “Our novelists will write about this,” he said, “but it will take them several years to absorb these events.” He paused, then added, “As the poet said.” After what seemed like a space for a long, drawn-out breath, he recited the whole of “Art of Pariahs.” He did not mention the poet’s name, but anonymity made the matter more powerful as the poem, in his voice, flowed through the packed room. And listening, standing clutching my papers, I felt emotions course through me, deeper than the power of words to tell. For a brief while, a poem composed in solitude in a small New York City room had granted me the power to return home.
Art of Pariahs
Back against the kitchen stove
In my head Beirut still burns.
The Queen of Nubia, of God’s Upper Kingdom
the Rani of Jhansi, transfigured, raising her sword
are players too. They have entered with me
into North America and share these walls.
We make up an art of pariahs:
Two black children spray painted white
their eyes burning,
a white child raped in a car
for her pale skin’s sake,
an Indian child stoned by a bus shelter,
they thought her white in twilight.
Someone is knocking and knocking
but Draupadi will not let him in.
She squats by the stove and sings:
The Rani shall not sheathe her sword
nor Nubia’s queen restrain her elephants
till tongues of fire wrap a tender blue,
a second skin, a solace to our children
Come walk with me towards a broken wall
—Beirut still burns—carved into its face.
Outcastes all let’s conjure honey scraped from stones,
an underground railroad stacked with rainbow skin,
Manhattan’s mixed rivers rising.2
What might it mean for Manhattan’s mixed rivers to rise?
How shall we move into a truly shared world, reimagine ethnicities, even as we acknowledge violent edges, harsh borders? These children in Manhattan, the Muslim women raped in Surat, the Hindu women stoned in Jersey City, coexist in time. Cleft by space, they forge part of the fluid diasporic world in which I must live and move and have my being.
I think of Derek Walcott’s “terrible vowel, / that I!”3 And I understand that my need to enter richly into imagined worlds cannot shake free of what my woman’s body brings me. I cannot escape my body and the multiple worlds of my experience.
And the sort of translation the poem requires—“translate” in an early sense of the verb, meaning to carry over, to transport, for after all what is unspoken, even unspeakable must be borne into language—forces a fresh icon of the body, complicates the present until memory is written into the very texture of the senses.
1. Meena Alexander, `San Andreas Fault’ in *River and Bridge*( Toronto South Asian Review Press, 1996) pp.85-85
2. Meena Alexander, `Art of Pariahs’ in *River and Bridge*p.35
3. Derek Walcott, “Names,” in Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986), 306.
This essay was first published in Transformations 9:2 (Fall 1998), a special issue on race and gender. It is reprinted in Meena Alexander, Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009) c. Meena Alexander 1998, 2009 all rights reserved.