And so, Meena Alexander is no more.
We had a hunch it was coming when we met this spring in her New York home, even as we swapped gossip about the literary scene over pasta and macaroons. The hunch deepened when we met over coffee some weeks later, and talked about her health, and life’s unfailing ability to surprise. We walked across to the Strand Bookshop afterwards where I bought her a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. And she told me then of a long night of wakefulness that had provoked a nocturnal poem, entitled Krishna, 3.29 AM. She emailed it to me the next day. Two lines from it lingered through my flight back to India: “The many births you have passed through, try to remember them as I do mine/ Memory is all you have”.
We certainly knew it was coming when we met at the launch of her new anthology, Name Me a Word, last month. The event was at the Poets House in New York. Meena wrote me a brief message before the session to say things had deteriorated. Seeing her was confirmation. Physically, she was a shadow of herself. Otherwise, she was inspired; in fact, nothing short of luminous. The three poets reading that evening — Meena, Vijay Seshadri and I — knew there was something atmospherically distinct in that room. It was the indefinable surge of presence, of urgency, that suffuses a situation when mortality is no longer an academic issue. Poetry was a matter of life and death that evening. No one present could have been unaware of it.
I first met Meena in the year 2000. I have an image of us walking along the Tiber one summer afternoon, bathed in August sun — five Indian women poets in Rome for a poetry conference. Meena was the senior-most amongst us, and I the youngest. I remember a long conversation over tepid cappuccinos during which she told me of an astrologer who’d informed her that she had been a somewhat socially constrained Brahmin widow in an earlier lifetime. We laughingly imagined a life of unfulfilled wanderlust and thwarted ambition. She agreed that this lifetime had been abundant in its compensations.
Born in 1951, Meena divided her childhood between India and Sudan before heading to study in England at age 18. Not surprisingly, the themes of identity, migration and memory haunted her work. Her wonderful memoir, Fault Lines (1993), explored those themes with a passionate and searing clarity. Later, as distinguished professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she established her reputation as a noted poet, novelist and essayist.
Some years ago, when reading through her work for a journal I was editing, I was struck by her poem, Blue Lotus, particularly by how it distilled all the preoccupations that lay at the churning heart of her oeuvre: the lingering unease of cultural displacement, and the dreamlike lyrical resolution in which memories of the red soil of the Pamba river of Kerala met the ash trees on a New York riverbank, and the rhythms of Tagore and Mirabai mingled with William Wordsworth and Adrienne Rich. Poetry for Meena was a spiritual address — hospitable enough to heal splintered memory and ruptured identity of every kind. And while I sometimes longed for greater sinew and robustness in her lyrical yearning, what was indisputable was her deep faith in language and the transformative power of poetry — faith in the ability of “a short incantation” to become the “long way home”.
My interactions with Meena deepened over time. When I met her in Parma, Italy, in 2007, we were both more comfortable in our skins. I now had the chance to glimpse a more reflective Meena: a woman capable of the fierce maternal concern of a self-confessed Demeter, more willing to talk about the anomalies and tensions of her life, a woman capable of self-doubt, and a very real kindness.
Her husband, the historian David Lelyveld (whom she described recently to me as an “absolutely wonderful” caregiver), told me that in these last weeks, she asked him to read Wordsworth to her. I can see why that might have helped. And I like to believe that the fretful nocturnal vigil that provoked Meena’s 3.29 AM poem gave way to a certain ease as she absorbed the cadences of a verse that trusted in the organic and restorative rhythms of nature, its mysteries, its ancient cycles of transformation.
“Memory is all you have,” she says in her Krishna poem of April 2018 — a line that has swirled around my head all day.
For those of us left behind, memory is indeed all we have. But we also have more. We have the legacy of Meena Alexander’s writing. And it will endure.