My back against barbed wire
snagged and coiled to belly height
on granite posts
glittering to the moon
No man's land
no woman's either
I stand in the middle of my life...
Out of earth's soft
and turbulent core
a drum sounds summoning ancestors
through puffs of grayish dirt
scabbed skins slit
and drop from them
atop the broken spurts
the drum skins
with their flighty heels.
(From Fault Lines. New York: The Feminist Press, 1993.)
(Toronto: TSAR Press, 1996)
She walks towards me, whispering
Dried petals in her hair
A form of fire
But her skin,
like finest Dacca cotton
drawn through a gold ring, spills
Over bristling water.
Something has hurt her.
Can a circlet of syllables
Summon her from the Vagai river?
She kneels by a bald stone
cuts glyphs on its side, waves to me.
Our language is in ruins --
vowels impossibly sharp,
broken consonants of bone.
She has no home.
Why gossip about her
shamelessly -- you household gods,
raucous, impenitent ?
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.'
She said this gently, swinging to my side
body blown to the fig tree's root.
`Stop,' I cried `What of this burden?
The messy shroud I stepped into?
Ghostly light? Senseless mutilations?'
Her voice worked in my inner ear
sorrow of threshed rice,
cadences of my mother tongue loosed in me:
`Consider the glory of the salmon
as it leaps spray to its own death,
spawn sheltered in stone under running water.
That's how we make love -- Can you understand?
Each driven thing stripping itself
to the resinous song of egg and sap
in chill water.
`Sometimes I think this is my mother's country
she conceived me here, legs splayed, smoke in her eyes
in the hot season when gold
melts from chains, beads, teeth
and even the ceremonials of the dead
dwelt on in Upper Egypt, dissolve away.
`We are new creatures here.
Hooking fish in San Andreas we return them to the fault
perch, black salmon, the lot.
`When the walls of your rented room
in Half Moon Bay fall away
consider yourself blessed.
`The snows of the Himalayas
glimpsed in your mother's songs
once came from rainclouds high above this coast
cradling the rafters of the seven heavens.'
Mary Elizabeth Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, on February 17, 1951. Although christened Mary Elizabeth, she has been called "Meena" since birth, and, in her fifteenth year, she officially changed her name to Meena. Not so much an act of defiance as one of liberation, Alexander writes: "I felt I had changed my name to what I already was, some truer self, stripped free of the colonial burden" in her autobiography, Fault Lines (74). Representing her own multi-lingual nature, "Meena" meanings in 'fish' in Sanskrit , 'jewelling' in Urdu, and 'port' in Arabic. Alexander and her family lived in Allahabad, yet returned every summer to Kerala where her mother's parents resided.
In 1956, the Sudan gained independence and asked other Third World countries for assistance in establishing its government. Alexander's father applied for a job with the Sudanese government and the family relocated to Khartoum. From age five to eighteen, Alexander traversed the waters between the Sudan and India, between Khartoum and Kerala, and between her immediate family and her grandparents. Once she was eighteen and had received her degree from Khartoum University, Alexander left her Sudanese home for Nottingham University in Britain. It was here that she earned her Ph.D., but her tie with India was not broken. She returned to Pune to her grandparents, and ended up working at Delhi University, Central Institute of Hyderabad, and Hyderabad University.
It was in Hyderabad that Alexander met her husband, David Lelyveld. In 1979, the two moved to New York City, where they still live with their two children: Adam Kuravilla Lelyveld (b. 1980) and Svati Maraiam Lelyveld (b. 1986). Alexander is currently a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and still takes trips back to Kerala annually.