Migration, Upheaval, Loss: Meena Alexander’s Poems Cross the Sea

cover of "Atmospheric Embroidery" by Meena AlexanderGeography, metaphysics, and philosophy mingle with images of migration, earthliness, and fragility in Atmospheric Embroidery, Professor Meena Alexander’s collection of poetry, now out in a U.S. edition.
Take these lines from “Provincetown by the Sea”:

Almost always
I am in two places at once,
Sometimes three.

In other poems, Alexander writes of “scents of crushed jasmine” and a child’s drawing of “an armored vehicle, guns sticking out,” and of settings from India to Darfur to The Graduate Center.  

As scholar Nell Painter wrote, “In Atmospheric Embroidery, Meena Alexander takes us on her magic carpet ride of language and image. Reading her is the pleasure of displacement, but also the sadness of inescapable loss. She makes me cry. She makes me happy.”

The first edition of Atmospheric Embroidery was published in 2015 by the Hachette Group in India. The new U.S. edition is published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press.

Alexander spoke to The Graduate Center about the new release.

GC: How does this edition differ from the first?

Alexander: I have taken out one or two poems and added 30 pages or so of new poems, including “Crossroad,” the last poem, which is set just on the crossroads outside the entrance to The Graduate Center. It swirls around through dream and imagination, bringing disparate times and places together in what I think of as a shining symbolic space. It was composed in the aftermath of the most recent presidential election, and I read it out in January 2017 standing on the steps of NYPL Writers Resist gathering.

GC: Was there a particular inspiration for the collection?

Alexander: Poems come as they will, you need to work on them with discipline and care, but you cannot force them. It’s a bit like waiting for a bird to peck seeds out of your palm, some are skittish, some quite bold.
Some poems date back several years, some are very recent. It’s a composition in the end, the book as a whole, in some ways analogous to the making of a poem.

At the heart of my new book of poems is the image of the child crossing the ocean. This is evoked in the poem of many parts, “Indian Ocean Blues.” I crossed the waters with my mother, turning five on that great ocean. We were joining my father who was a scientist posted by the Indian government to the newly independent Sudan. The themes of migration and memory have always been with me.
Alexander has several readings from the new collection planned for the fall, including one on November 13 at The Graduate Center as a Women’s Studies book salon, which will feature her in conversation with scholar Dorothy Wang and poet Patricia Spears Jones.

Alexander talks about her poem “Crossroad” on The Graduate Center podcast, The Thought Project.

Submitted on: JUN 19, 2018

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