I used to pass Meena Alexander‘s office at Hunter College once a week. Each time I thought damn, I need to take a class with her. She had a whispered reputation as a kind, trenchant, brilliant writer (who completed a PhD in English at 22). Several people told me that her class changed their life.
Meena sadly passed November 21, 2018. Although I never took a class with her, I have a lifetime of work to experience. I’m beginning with her last work, In Praise of Fragments, published by Nightboat Books.
The four sections connect her life through Venice [In Search of Sara, Why Venice], Kerala [Grandmother’s Garden], and New York City [Composition]. Collected at the end of her life, the poems have a similar immediacy to connect and the awareness of death at Max Ritvo‘s The Final Voicemails and Letters from Max. Ritvo’s friend and mentor Sarah Ruhl contextualized the latter volume, and Leah Souffrant does a similar service in the afterword for her friend and mentor:
“Now reading this volume, the air we breath becomes the air of Sarra Copia, walking both the streets of Venice and New York. So too the waters of Italy are the rivers of India. In Meena Alexander’s poetic image, the reach is that far. Across not only time, but also space, and transcending the boundaries of both in multiple lives, memories, and languages.”
We see this in “Dark House on the Mountain: Sarra Copia Writes to Me” where Alexander, then writing in 2014, imagines that the 17th century poet Sara Copia Sullam speaks to her through space and time:
Who I have never seen
Your sister who they say is mad
Is not so.
There’s also a tender political awareness throughout In Praise of Fragments that will be staying with me. Here is an excerpt from “Refuge.”
I have kissed the eyes of the child
Who feel off a fishing boat
Who barely floated, who swallowed
Sand and could not breath.
In part 2, Alexander travels from Marco Polo airport in Venice, the perfect city for suspended fragments of thoughts, held by water, a life comes together:
What might it mean to belong, anyway, when the streets are filled with water?
Venice makes me ask this question.
In “Grandmother’s Garden,” I learned about Kabbadi, jamun trees, black organza. There’s music throughout: “Green snakes curl under the stones at the foot of the mango tree.” Alexander thinks of her grandmother in the present tense: “What must she invent in order to tell the truth?”
In the last section, “Composition,” we get the tactical velocity of great poetry. I was especially fond of the second poem in this slender section, which ends, with Meena observing her childhood form:
Fragments of time
The privilege of self-consciousness thrust aside, letting us glimpse a
Syntax of flesh and stone and root
Anchoring us to ordinary earth.
Then one of my favorite lines, the quiet power and observation here: “The loneliness of paving stones.”
I’m a sucker for when writers pair their own artwork with their words (Patti Smith’s M Train; Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future; Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospective). The beautiful cover has an illustration by Alexander. More drawings and etches are strewn throughout, making this a collection I’m thrilled to have in my library. I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, Fault Lines, which is coming out in a new edition November 17 by The Feminist Press.