The many births you have passed through/ Try to remember them as I do mine/Memory is all you have — is how
the Asian American Writers’ Workshop expressed their condolences for poet, essayist and scholar Meena Alexander, who died yesterday in New York. She was 67.
The above verse is from Alexander’s Krishna, 3:29 am, one among her many published poems, which can be found in collections such as Atmospheric Embroidery, Quickly Changing River, Raw Silk and Illiterate Heart. The latter won the 2002 PEN Open Book Award. The Allahabad-born poet was also a Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York.
“I had a lot of respect for her as a scholar and creative person. She had a very wide and wise outlook of life and literature,” says poet and academic, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, adding that her continuous literary engagements ranged “beyond India and the western world.”
While she was extolled for her poetry, her novels, Namphally Road and Manhattan Music, were also well-received. Her autobiographical memoir, Fault Lines, that was originally published in 1993 and then revised in 2003 with new material, was picked by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 1993. “Her output is phenomenal — memoir, scholarship, her writings on identity. She wrote on political subjects too, all that happened on the political stage was close to her heart,” says Indian poet and short story writer, Keki Daruwalla.
The first reading in his Delhi flat was by Alexander. Recounting lines from her poems such as In a cloud cover jagged music pours and You come to me, a bird shedding gold feathers, Daruwalla says, “You can’t write better poetry than that! In Indian poetry in English, we have had Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza, Arundhati Subramaniam is well on her way to join them, and Meena is certainly there.”
Alexander grew up in Kerala and Sudan, and exile was an issue that bothered her. “As it does every diaspora poet,” says Daruwalla, adding, “She had a footloose childhood and exile was a part of her, till she settled with David (her husband).”
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