Meena Alexander’s Atmospheric Embroidery (TriQuarterly Press/Northwestern University Press, 2018)
Review by William Camponovo
I’m not sure I have the mental distance yet to step back and properly contextualize things, but I will offer this, if you think any of it would be helpful, or of use, as an addition: I had the privilege of knowing Meena over the years in various capacities as a teacher, a mentor, even a fellow writer-in-residence in Malibu, in which we traded poems and wine over the Pacific Ocean, wondering if this hallucinatory existence could possibly be real. One of our constant conversation topics was the poetry and legacy of Adrienne Rich, a poet we both loved and admired, and whom Meena had known as a friend. My current project is a manuscript about Rich’s poetics, much of it informed by my many conversations with Meena, but as Meena’s health declined, she quite understandably found herself unable to provide feedback. And then, one morning, out of the blue, she wrote to me saying, “Last night Adrienne visited me,” and told me how the poet spoke to her in a dream. “Adrienne has written of the body’s pain,” Meena said, and told me how Rich worked indefatigably until the end, as Meena did. And so, naturally, Meena said to me: send me more work. And that is the Meena I recognize–kind, giving, but also tireless. She would correspond with poets in dreams and would take her cues from their spirit. I hope she visits in a dream someday.
Meena Alexander is a truly international writer: born in India, raised and educated in India and Sudan, later educated in England, and currently a long-time resident of and Professor in New York, her work is, then, transnational, often dealing with the effects of passage and migration vis-a-vis memory, identity, and citizenship. She works through a variety of forms, from poetry to fiction to memoir, and in so doing interweaves personal narrative and theory, inviting and demanding various genres and discourses, asking the reader to work through collage, fragmentation, assemblage.
Alexander’s new collection of poetry Atmospheric Embroidery opens with the poem “Aesthetic Knowledge,” and this title frames immediately the line(s) of inquiry Alexander aims to undertake and pursue in her newest collection. The book, both lyrical and historical, intimate and maximal, engaged equally with the epic and the fragment, fundamentally interrogates knowledge and the various forms it can (and must) take—discursive, rhetorical, yes, sure, but also memorially, experientially, in and through the sensorium, physically and psychically.
The book works through an ever-expending sense—and I do mean this in the literal as well as figurative definition of the word—of place. Place is the ground of experience but is also the memory of it, is thus temporally and spatially dislocated, is a thing inscribed on our very bodies as lived markers. Even the poem itself becomes a place, and so reading activates that site of contestation and negotiation. Knowledge, then, roots itself in sites inhabited as well as imagined, and Alexander is concerned with the ways in which these necessarily various forms and structures of knowledge are recognized—and by what power structures—as legitimate, and to what political or psychological effect.
In this first poem “Aesthetic Knowledge,” Alexander opens with the lines: “These are the practices of bodily art— / Burn an almond, collect the soot, mix it with butter.” In these commands, these instructions, information is inscribed in the sensorium, inexorably linked with the body. The “art” is experienced physically, and we can assume individually, but it also operates too in the realm of tradition. In here and in many of the poems, the bridge between knowledge and art occurs and also becomes intentionally blurred at the local, at the site of the experiential body.
The poem “Magnificat” (already plunging us from into the realm of the liturgical from the onset) enacts for us the blurring of the private and the public to sweeping effect. It opens:
On the road near the hospital
A plum tree points to Krakatoa and her plumage
The skies Munch painted athwart an open mouth
Are molten still, the tint of ripe plums.
The radiologist a young thing quips—New kind of tattoo—
Marks initials on my breast […]”
In the first stanzas, our setting is intimate on the level of the hospital and also historically expansive, taking us to Krakatoa and to Munch (—that the artist’s masterwork is unnamed seems to me part of the point: The Scream is ubiquitous, is already understood, and yet, in this poem, is sourced to its creative origin, is given, in some sense, a voice). The “plumage” of Krakatoa is juxtaposed with the temporary-yet-permanent marks that indicate a surgical procedure. And while we have entered the intimate register of the breast, the sentence does not end there, continues:
A man in a mask scrawls X under that
His eyes dark with volcanic mist
(The one in Iceland,
Sooting up airspace, grounding planes).”
Far from being a parenthetical aside, the ecological fragility of the planet hovers over this poem, and “Magnificat,” for all its bodily intimacy, ends somewhat hallucinatorily in a state of anxiety about nothing less than the air and the literal ozone. We have come a considerable distance, geographically, to be sure. But we’ve also come a considerable distance temporally, and it’s this I find key for Alexander. Traumas, be they historical and personal, are not hermetically-sealed events. The situation of illness, of surgery—or of environmental devastation—is not anathema to the everyday; it is endemic to the everyday.
While volcanoes are, surely, broad representations of situating oneself within the world (and perhaps depersonalized), the book deals with urgent, contemporary traumas. In the final section of the book, Alexander includes “Death of a Young Dalit” and “Moksha” in sequence. The first poem memorializes—“We who dare to call him by his name—giddy spirit/Became fire that consumes things both dry and moist”—student and activist Rohith Vemula, a young PhD student at the University of Hyderabad who wrote, in his suicide note, “My birth is a fatal accident […]”. The subsequent poem, “Moksha,” is dedicated to Jyoti Singh Pandey, killed in a barbaric gang rape in South Delhi in 2012. The woman is referred to as “Nirbhaya,” meaning “fearless,” and in her physical fight—“(She fought back with fists and teeth”)—joins a symbolic and spiritual one:
Last night in dreams I watched her
In a crush of women severed from their bodies
Drifting as slit silk might
In a slow monsoon wind.
In an interview with Ruth Maxey in Alexander’s Poetics of Dislocation, a collection of essays, autobiographical vignettes, prose poems, an intentionally-varied and genre-defying meditation on poetry and poetics, the poet states, as a kind of call-to-arms, “In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.” This newest collection of poems asks us to manage that grace in this, a time, certainly, of violence. This collection manages that task, but its foundational achievement is to recognize that we, as readers, also have a reciprocal responsibility in that task.