People sometimes ask me, did you always want to be a poet, is that what you really wanted? And I reply, as truthfully as I can: First of all I wanted to be a circus performer—not just any performer but a tightrope artiste. And I knew the word ‘artiste’ and felt it was very grand and that was precisely what I wanted to be. My grandfather had taken me to see the Gemini Circus in Kerala when I was six and I was struck by the skinny girls in their tinsel costumes and amazed at their balancing feats. And neither the fact that they were obviously shivering on the ground in their skimpy costume (it was monsoon time and chilly), nor the fact that I had no head at all for heights, deterred me. So I tried to balance on the bamboo pole that someone had forgotten and left behind—it ran between the rabbit hutch and the hen house, both low concrete structures. I fell off, skinned my knees. Then, nervous, given a wobbly pole and how hard it was to walk dead straight, I settled for the sandy courtyard.
With a twig I drew lines in the sand and tried to walk along, my eyes shut, feeling that was the best possible way to get a feel for heights and understand with some measure of safety the dizziness that comes with impossible balancing feats. I understood very quickly what I still know now: In life or in art it’s very hard for me to even try to walk an utterly straight line.
The next possibility of how to live was an ambition that was instilled in me by my maternal grandfather and aided and abetted by my mother—that I should be a medical doctor and do some good in the world. After all, India needed doctors; what country needs poets? My father kept himself clear of this particular discussion. He was a scientist and had studied physics at university before turning to meteorology and felt that the methods of scientific inquiry were the closest we could come, through our conscious minds, to truth. And he felt that physics would be the way forward for me. But I was lousy at math and found the computations of physics impossible, and as for chemistry, what I loved best were the colors in the test tubes—and I kept staring at them rather than at the hypotheses I was supposed to work on.
Then poetry happened. That is the only way I can put it. I started writing poetry young. I was eleven or twelve. The reason why I keep writing is still the same: For me, it is the music of survival. There is an inner voice that speaks to me, makes music out of words, makes notes out of syllables, makes rhythms out of what words cannot reach.
There are many other things I could share with you about the composition of poetry. How as a child I wrote in secret, in the bathroom so no one would see. How I hid my scribbling in the folds of my knickers. How I felt a sense of shame at what was so intimate to me, felt that what I had made could never measure up to what the world believed in. So in some sort of fear and panic I set up the world and its measurements as forever inimical to what I might write. At the very same time I held onto the belief that the things I made were fierce and pure and needed to exist. For I thought and still think of my poems as made objects.
It seems to me as I think back that right at the start I did not feel the need to share what I had written with others. It was enough that I had written the poem, that the poem existed. The need to share, to publish, to have others acknowledge what I had written—that desire, that longing, came later.
There is a curious part of my personal history that seems important to touch on now, how each year of life in my childhood and youth was divided by travel between India and the Sudan. At the Bandung Conference in 1955, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru met Ismail al-Azhari, the president of Sudan, and it was decided that technical assistance would be sent from India to the newly independent African country. Doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, and teachers traveled across the Indian Ocean, and my father, a young man at that time and working as a meteorologist for the government of India, decided to try his luck. He was “seconded abroad,” as the phrase had it, to work in that other country. I wonder what it was that made my father want to move for a few years; perhaps it was that spirit of adventure that never left him, a need to glimpse another horizon, with all its attendant difficulties. With his decision my young life was altered forever. I turned five on the steamer as my mother and I traveled from Bombay to Port Sudan to meet him. I still think that birthday on the waters of the Indian Ocean has marked me in ways utterly beyond my ken. It has left me with the sense that home is always a little bit beyond reach, a place both real and imagined, longed for, yet marked perpetually as an elsewhere, brightly lit, vanishing. I think of [Stéphane] Mallarmé, who spoke of the image as an absente de tous bouquets. For me that is what home is. And our internal migrations become the music, wave after wave of it, that give it a fragile and precarious hope.
Can one find a home in language? I feel so; at least that is what I have tried to do. I left India too young to attain literacy in my mother tongue of Malayalam, a great Dravidian language with its proud traditions of literary culture. I speak it fluently, and the rise and pour of that language has shaped the kind of poet I am. I had Hindi as a child, and as I grew older, English took its place in my mind and became for me a language of crossing and of delivery. But my very first poems (which, mercifully, do not survive) were written in stilted French, which, at the time—I was eleven or twelve—I took to be the only fit medium of poetry. Later I switched to English, which certainly was more supple for me, and it gave me great pleasure to feel the language ripple like a skin as I touched it. My first poems to appear in print found their way into the world through Arabic. They appeared in translation in the Khartoum daily newspaper when I was fourteen or fifteen. Arabic was a language that I loved. I could speak in its Sudanese variety, but never learned to read or write the classical form. I think of myself as someone who is illiterate in several of the great languages of the world, even as the English I use bends and flows to them. For me English is the language of [John] Donne and [William] Wordsworth, as well as a postcolonial one, a tongue that exerts an intimate violence. Yet surely each language, each script, exerts its own very special pressure on the mind of the poet who works with its words, the living stuff through which she must render what would otherwise remain inchoate.
Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret. But even as I write this, I have to speak of certain difficulties. For the longest time, it seemed to me that in order to be a real writer (and I underlined the word “real” in red ink, in my own head), I would have to had grown up in just one place, “one dear perpetual place.” I do not think I had [William Butler] Yeats’s poignant phrase in mind, but what I did have was a vivid sense that the great writers I knew all had a place to which they were irredeemably wedded. And language bubbled out of place as a spring from underground streams the soil concealed. There was Kumaran Asan, who lived in Kerala and wrote in Malayalam; [Rabindranath] Tagore, who lived in Santiniketan and wrote in Bengali; [Paul] Verlaine, who lived in France and wrote in French; and the great Shakespeare, who wrote in English, living in England, that tiny island floating on a map of Europe I had seen several times in school but could never make head or tail of.
Lacking just one single place to call home and shorn of the hold of one language I could take to be mine and mine alone, I felt stranded in the multiplicity that marked my life, its rich coruscating depths only forcing me—or so I felt—into grave danger. It took me quite a while to realize that I did not have to feel strung out and lost in the swarm of multilingual syllables—rather, that the hive of language could allow me to make a strange and sweet honey, the pickings of dislocation. I also learned to understand, however dimly, that I was not alone in this predicament, and that I could find sustenance for my art by swimming as well as I might in the uncharted waters, which, in spite of what I had thought, I shared with many others. I should add that I have long been a timid swimmer, having taken my first swimming lessons in the shallows of the Blue Nile, where crocodiles lurk. Still, I learned to take comfort as I swam, in my own shadow and its tenuous solidity.
The first border we cross is that of the body. I put out my hands and touch the stone, the tree, the surface of the mirror and what I mark is the rim of the body, the fleeting surfaces of the world, what we might choose to call the real, irreparably marked by the notations of the body, the unique impress I take of things and the mark I make, however ephemeral in the arrangements of sense. Yet this touching and tasting that my body allows me in the world it creates so I can live is always rendered up in a density of location, a necessary otherness. My private body, this nest of flesh and blood and bone, is already marked and set in place by the temporal passages of a world I have little control over, by others who do not know me, and have never heard of me, and might wish never to do so.
To be crossed out by virtue of what my body makes me is something many of us in this late world survive and share. There are multiple ways in which those of us who are part of a minority—whether marked as such by the social fictions of race, by ethnicity, sexual preference, or gender—are forced to account for ourselves when the tallying begins in the public squares of our cities. Yet it is precisely at this point of thickening, if you wish, when words grow opaque and recalcitrant to the elegance of desire, when the interior life seems overly threatened by the strictures of the world, that art steps in. I am thinking of poetry now, our purer speaking.
Poetry comes into play as the crust of the self hardens and it makes its exquisite music by forcing us to strip away all that we held up in front of us as spears and buffers, the barriers of defensive rhetoric. The passage of words so carefully picked out and polished illuminates the border crossings we are subject to, but do so quite precisely by preventing us from developing too easy a reliance on either the badges of loss or the lingering emblems of empire.
I think of Simone Weil and her notion of de-creation—a stripping down of the self, an emptying out, essential to a burning interior life, nothing there, just a waiting on nothingness, a radical act of attentiveness. There is much in her notion that we can learn from as we try to conceive of the imagination, the image-making power that works through a febrile openness to emptiness. It is only by stripping ourselves of what we thought we were that the panoply of circumstance the poem sets up, its minute theatre of sense, can achieve itself. And only then is poetry permitted its seemingly serendipitous alignment with the haunting we call history.
Copyright © 2005 by Meena Alexander. All rights reserved. Printed with permission of the author.