Two Poems

Fragments of an Inexistent Whole 

Inspired by Alison Knowles’s “A House of Dust”


Syllables sieved through floating gates, 
Metal clack of printer 

Mortal rendition, Fortran –
The future coming closer and closer 

House of broken dishes / by the sea / using electricity

Black flash, strange as any me I might claim

The already gone, its music barely audible
00-111 – 000 cut and sizzling, swiveling repetitions 

The mind falling from itself, into no where.
The desire for place not to be denied 

What touch affords us, sempiternal hold. 


Imagine a woman with a veil over her head, 
Black cotton or muslin

Of the sort that my grandmother wore, the edge of her sari
As she sat under the sun, by the well side. 

Already the veil covers the garden
Mango trees split into the shape of harps.


The artist decides on materials, timber, tar, tumbleweed, 
Then light source – natural, electric, strobe, that sort of thing 

She decides on location –
A bracelet, a brandishing of space 

Scores for a masked ball, the self and its others 
Clinging close, hips grinding, a distinct congress 

Precise rendering of rhyme or its uncoupling
Underwater copulation  =  syllabic sense. 

The artist decides on persons – girls with jump ropes
Boys whistling in the sunlight by hydrants gushing 

Hot metals, the planet soaked in ether, 
A scholar blinded by footnotes, scores of them, 

Men and women, faceless now, joyful and inconsolable
Veritable census of the dead. 


House of Dust / on open ground / lit by natural light
Is that where I belong?  

Lord have mercy!
Grandmother cried, when I was born 

This child will wander all her life.
Grandfather tossed in a match 

The bush filled with smoke, gooseberry bush –
With freckled leaves 

Tat tvam asi
The deliverance of Sanskrit  

What I learnt without knowing that I did,
Grammar of redemption  

Sucked from fiery space
As grandmother’s hands turn to dirt 

The sky – cerulean blue 

Sheer aftermath.


Death of a Young Dalit 

In memory of Rohith Vemula (1989–2016)

Trees are hoisted by their own shadows
 Air pours in from the north, cold air, stacks of it
The room is struck into a green fever
 Stained bed, book, scratched windowpane.
A twenty-six-year-old man, plump boy face
 Sets pen to paper – My birth 
Is my fatal accident, I can never recover
From my childhood loneliness.
Dark body once cupped in a mother’s arms
 Now in a house of dust. Not cipher, not scheme
For others to throttle and parse
 (Those hucksters and swindlers, 
Purveyors of hot hate, casting him out).
 Seeing stardust, throat first, he leapt
Then hung spread-eagled in air:
 The trees of January bore witness.
Did he hear the chirp 
 From a billion light years away,
Perpetual disturbance at the core?
 There is a door each soul must go through,
A swinging door –
I have seven months of my fellowship,
One lakh and seventy thousand
Please see to it that my family is paid that.
She comes to him, girl in a cotton sari,
 Holding out both her hands.
Once she loosened her blouse for him
 In a garden of milk and sweat,
Where all who are born go down into dark,
 Where the arnica, star flower no one planted
Thrives, so too the wild rose and heliotrope.
 Her scrap of blue puckers and soars into a flag
As he rappels down the rock face
 Into our lives, 
We who dare to call him by his name –
 Giddy spirit become 
Fire that consumes things both dry and moist,
 Ruined wall, grass, river stone,
Thrusts free the winter trees 
 From their own crookedness, strikes
Us from the fierce compact of silence,
 Igniting red roots, riotous tongues

Rohith Vemula

On Writing “Death of a Young Dalit”

When I was twenty-four I lived in Hyderabad. There was a neem tree in the garden of the Golden Threshold, once the home of the poet Sarojini Naidu, then the site of the new Central University. When time permitted I would sit in the shade of that tree, shut my eyes, and dream. Then, as now, images came to me and I tried to craft a few lines of poetry.

Several times I returned to the city. In early January this year I attended the literary festival. After a gap of several years, I was able to meet Nayantara Sahgal again. As I listened to her speak, I was inspired by her courage, learnt anew how one might live in a time of difficulty, what it could mean to bear witness.

Later that month news came that a Dalit student at the university had killed himself—a tragic act of protest that resonated through the country. He left a haunting letter for us to read. I have included lines from his letter and set them in italics in my poem.

Night after night as I worked on this elegy, the wind and winter chill commingled with the memory of rocks and stones and trees in a city I loved, and I was consumed by the tumultuous hope and the very real despair of a young man I had never met. – Meena Alexander

Photo by Mona Aipperspach

Meena Alexander (, described in The Statesman (India) as “undoubtedly one of the finest poets in contemporary times,” is the author of seven books of poetry. An expanded version of Atmospheric Embroidery is forthcoming from TriQuarterly Books / Northwestern University Press in spring 2018. A volume she edited, Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2017. She is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York.