Her literary work, like much of her academic work, deals with the ache of exile and living multiple, untranslatable lives (she herself being multilingual and having lived in India, parts of East Africa and New York City). These themes emerge in her poetry through her exploration of different languages, different literary traditions and the impossible task of writing and representing the self. She does much of this exploration through working and reworking these ideas through sensuous childhood memories of the places she grew up in juxtaposition with older, more adult experiences in different and further away places.
Sometimes her metaphors are successful and sometimes they are not.
She is best when she gets across enormous complexity with precise language that is bursting with meaning and feeling, such as when she writes about the poem of the self: "a tiny "i" cleft from its shadow/hardly breathing, forms terror." How else can one describe scripting oneself from memories, half- blinded with creative terror?
Her description can also be wonderfully concrete and precise, such as when she describes the "red fabric melting into metal teeth" while her mother mends her child's shirt, in the poem 'Reading Rumi as the Phone Rings'. Alexander also interweaves meaning with concrete imagery in the poem "Indigo," the title referring to the ink in which she writes the story of her life. As she writes to "the muse of migrancy" about her memories, tiny scraps of concrete particulars come back to her, ("knee back, tiny toe/thighbone, brushed in blood") intensely evoked in a way that their images themselves could be part of her handwriting, indigo script that "hovers at the edge of the legible."
But then reading along you get to a leaden image or an awkward literary reference and what was before an impossibly light, airy and complex construction suddenly sinks. For an elegant writer her language can be sometimes surprisingly cliched. For example she's fond of the imagery of "brown flesh" and it comes up repeatedly though poems, whether in reference to dates, cobra snakes or women. It can't help but evoke overwrought tropes of gender and orientalism for me, even if I am also sometimes subject to their romantic lure as a brown woman in the West. But how many times can you read "my skin is so dark/my heart is so hot" without cringing?
The melodramatic imagery of difference provokes reactions that perhaps fall between two poles. I chafed at it, but another reaction might be to valorize the figure of the forlorn bedraggled migrant brown woman, tossed about from one world to the next. After all you can use that figure to illustrate many important things about the inconstancy of language and representation and the instability of meaning and identity in a globalized world.
It is just that there are other less romantic and more material ways to talk about migrancy and otherness that do not fetishize it, but hold us accountable for the suffering and misery caused by the many dreadful and violent ways of getting displaced. Meena Alexander's poems very occasionally plunge into clumsy essentialism, but I think usually skirt this danger through their critical self- awareness of writing and language, and the admirable precision of feelings and images and ideas.
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