Meena Alexander reads three poems from her new collection, Atmospheric Embroidery, published by Northwestern University Press in June.
She cut off all her hair,
Scampered down a staircase, skinned her knees.
Years later she pinched herself awake
Hearing words in a foreign language,
Books she longed to read, smudged with sunlight,
Broadway and 113th Street she whispered to herself
The sheer delight of walking a city street couldn’t be rivaled.
Her preferred method of work:
On an iPad, sitting in a sidewalk café.
What she could not bear to think
She wrote. One by one she composed her lines
She numbered each with finicky care, struck—Send.
Her hope was that her sentences would net a quicksilver “I”
Swimming in ether.
1. When we landed there were three of us.
2. All our worldly goods were packed in a holdall.
3. Pots and pans cleaned with well water. And that was that.
4. Is this a Third World country or is it not? Mother mumbled into her sari.
5. Trouser wearing women were an abomination, this Father knew.
6. I did algorithms, hoping long skirts would not trap.
7. The river’s so close, can I swim to another shore?
Wads of ice cream glisten on Route 6.
We stroll into summer, thoughts thrust into a bramble
Oriental bittersweet pocking the hedges,
Fists in pockets, lemonade dripping from a child’s hem.
In Boetti’s embroidery, in his mapping of the world
Everything is cut and coupled,
Occult ordering—silk and painted steel
Sun and electric moon, butterfly and naked man
In The Thousand Longest Rivers
The Nile is the hardest water
Then comes the Mississippi—Missouri.
Once we lived by brilliant waters
Suffered the trees soft babble,
Fissures in magma.
Already it’s August—
Season of snipers in the heartland,
Season of coastlines slit by lightning
And smashed bouquets of the salt spray rose.
Now I think it’s a miracle we were able, ever
To put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking.
At the tail end of the year
Leaving the dry season behind,
I saw leaves the color of sparrow’s wings
Dissolve into the brickwork of a railway station,
A sudden turn of the head and there she stood
On a dusty platform, wool sweater
Smoldering hair, the familiar heaviness of flesh,
Aged a few years, my sister-in–law
After all the winds of the underworld will do that to you,
By her side a suitcase
Glistening leather bound with straps,
Inside a packet of powdered rice
A morsel of coconut, three red chilies
Fodder for the household gods.
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.
By her, in a kurta knotted at the sleeves
—Who knew that spirits could beckon through clothes—
The one they called Nirbhaya—
A young thing, raped by six men in a moving bus
(She fought back with fists and teeth)
Near Munirka bus station where I once stood
Twenty-three years old, just her age,
Clad in thin cotton, shivering in my sandals.
Now I hear them sing
In delicate recitative
My sister-in-law and Nirbhaya,
That other, less than half her age,
A song as intricate as scrimshaw
In vowels that flowered
Before all our tongues began,
The color of the bruised
Roses of Delhi.
In memory of Jyoti Singh Pandey
Excerpted from Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander. Copyright © 2018 by Meena Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.