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Meena Alexander


Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, on February 17, 1951. She was raised in both India and the Sudan in North Africa. She received a bachelor's degree in French and English from Khartoum University and a doctorate degree in English from Nottingham University in England.

Alexander's collections of poetry include Atmospheric Embroidery (TriQuarterly Books, 2018), Birthplace with Buried Stones (TriQuarterly Books, 2013), Quickly Changing River (TriQuarterly Books, 2008), Raw Silk (2004), and Illiterate Heart (2002), the winner of a 2002 PEN Open Book Award. Her ninth collection, In Praise of Fragments, was published posthumously by Nightboat Books in February 2020. Her work has been widely anthologized and translated into several languages including Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Swedish. Even her very first published poems were acts of translation: written as a teenager in English, they were published in a Sudanese newspaper translated into Arabic. Her poems have also been set to music, most recently "Acqua Alta" by the Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom.

Polyglot and sensual, Alexander's work has been influenced and mentored by the Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das, as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell. Her poems frequently confront the difficult issues of exile and identity, while still maintaining a generous spirit. About her work, Maxine Hong Kingston has said: "Meena Alexander sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live, and places for which one needs a passport and visas. Her voice guides us far away and back home. The reader sees her visions and remembers and is uplifted."

Alexander was also the editor of Indian Love Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), the author of the novels Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997) and The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996), a volume of poems and essays. Her works of criticism include Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009); Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (1989); and The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979). Her memoir, Fault Lines, was reissued by the Feminist Press in 2003 with a Coda composed after 9/11.

She has received awards and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Arts Council of England, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Council for Research on Women, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has taught at the University of Hyderabad, Fordham University and Columbia University's Writing Program. In 2014, she was named a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. She was Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She passed away on November 21, 2018.


Select Bibliography


In Praise of Fragments (Nightboat Books, 2020)
Atmospheric Embroidery (TriQuarterly Books, 2018)
Birthplace with Buried Stones (TriQuarterly Books, 2013)
Quickly Changing River (TriQuarterly Books, 2008)
Raw Silk (2004)
Illiterate Heart (2002)


Nampally Road (1991)
Manhattan Music (1997) 
The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience

Meena Alexander
Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

By This Poet



I was young when you came to me. 
Each thing rings its turn, 
you sang in my ear, a slip of a thing 
dressed like a convent girl—
white socks, shoes, 
dark blue pinafore, white blouse.

A pencil box in hand: girl, book, tree—
those were the words you gave me. 
Girl was penne, hair drawn back, 
gleaming on the scalp, 
the self in a mirror in a rosewood room 
the sky at monsoon time, pearl slits

In cloud cover, a jagged music pours:
gash of sense, raw covenant 
clasped still in a gold bound book, 
pusthakam pages parted, 
ink rubbed with mist,
a bird might have dreamt its shadow there

spreading fire in a tree maram.
You murmured the word, sliding it on your tongue, 
trying to get how a girl could turn
into a molten thing and not burn. 
Centuries later worn out from travel 
I rest under a tree.

You come to me 
a bird shedding gold feathers, 
each one a quill scraping my tympanum. 
You set a book to my ribs. 
Night after night I unclasp it 
at the mirror's edge 

alphabets flicker and soar. 
Write in the light 
of all the languages 
you know the earth contains, 
you murmur in my ear.
This is pure transport.

Central Park, Carousel

June already, it's your birth month,
nine months since the towers fell.
I set olive twigs in my hair
torn from a tree in Central Park,
I ride a painted horse, its mane a sullen wonder.
You are behind me on a lilting mare.
You whisper--What of happiness?
Dukham, Federico. Smoke fills my eyes.
Young, I was raised to a sorrow song
short fires and stubble on a monsoon coast.
The leaves in your cap are very green.
The eyes of your mare never close.
Somewhere you wrote: Despedida.
If I die leave the balcony open!

Night Theater

Snails circle
A shed where a child was born.

She bled into straw—
Who can write this?

Under Arcturus,
Rubble of light:

We have no words
For what is happening—

Still language endures
Celan said

As he stood in a torn
Green coat

Shivering a little,
In a night theater, in Bremen.

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