Meena

November 26, 2018
Poet Meena Alexander
Photo: Marion Ettlinger

[Meena Alexander, February 17, 1951 – November 21, 2018]
for David, Adam & Svati

Name me a word
Great, simple, vast as the sky
A word that has, like the intimate hand
Of the woman I have loved forever,
Washed the dirty innards of history.
– Jibanananda Das, “Name me a word” | “Amake ekti kotha dao”

Your languid kohl-lined eyes resemble fish
 swimming deep in high Himalayan waters —

where your consort in the guise of Shiva
 holds you steadfast with love’s constancy.

You are a precious blue stone — a bindi, third-eye’s
 astral order, nakshatra’s preordained destiny.

Your name, invoking the cyanic skies —
 now just an azure epigraph in the heavens.

 

We hang on to delicate atmospheric embroidery
 in these unpredictable toxic times,

trying to resuscitate our own breath
 so we can live. In this quickly changing river 

whose bed is our birthplace with buried stones
 and stone roots, a house of a thousand doors

provides a safe haven, albeit temporarily.
 “Life is too short to drink bad wine” —

 

we had joked in Manhattan, and again during
 a boat ride in Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid.

Here the water’s pristine aquamarine, and blue
 gem’s namesake — absorbs the shock of arrival

refracting your verse — wrapped in raw silk.
 How precisely our fine fault lines fissures

recall the litany of words, phrases, book titles —
 your poems woven as a pashmina shawl,

 

a patchwork quilt commemorating the dead
 in colours so vivid that it almost blinds us

with its calibrated extreme saturation.
 Such is our lives, their complicated twists

informing, charting familial stories —
 your sepia-stained chapbooks slow-inking

a storm and its faithful companion
 night scene: the garden of many senses.

 

The river and bridge we must now cross
 is shaking, fraught with our limited days —

with lies and rumours some have falsely
 created to hide their own insecurities,

their hollow vacuousness, their invented angst
 shielding their untruths from people’s eyes.

Name me a word, my dear friend —
 these letterforms, now emblazoned in gold

 

on matte red laminate — an anthology,
 urgent beautiful words you gathered —

strung selflessly with quiet meticulous care.
 What would my “one” word be?

How does one reduce life to just one word
 or a hashtag? At the end of our lives — 

we start from where we began — the same
 cosmic sound of our mother’s womb,

 

the same elongated word-chant: “Om”!
 And in this birth-echo you’ll live forever,

your words and spirit, eternally alive —
 an epitaph in our illiterate hearts — R.I.P.

Author’s note: The italicized words/phrases act as an homage alluding to Alexander’s various poems and book titles. In Sanskrit, Meena is a name meaning fish, or one with beautiful eyes resembling fish. It also means sky, heaven, glass, starling, precious blue stone, among others. In Hindu mythology, Meena is a name of the wife of Shiva.

Editorial note: For more by Alexander, read “What Use Is Poetry?” and two poems from the November 2016 issue.

Sudeep Sen’s prizewinning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980–2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage), Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury), and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann). He has edited influential anthologies, including The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, World English Poetry, and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), and he guest-edited the “Writing from Modern India” issue of WLT (Nov. 2010). Blue Nude: Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over twenty-five languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on BBC, PBS, CNN IBN, NDTV, AIR, and Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name Me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS, editor of Atlas, and currently the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Museo Camera. Sen is the first Asian honored to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.”

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