Meena Alexander speaks with Ronaldo Wilson about her new book of poetry Birthplace with Buried Stones
( TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2013)
RW: A few years back, I sensed a shift in scale in you work, but in your new book, Birthplace with Buried Stones, it's as if you are painting with the edges of a brush, using the finest bristles, to capture the great expanse of your complicated vision in extremely light strokes. How did you put the book together?
MA: It’s interesting what you say about brush strokes because in my journal where I stick in drafts of my poems with glue and do the crossings out, I made little pen and ink drawings. I am very moved by the spare distilled quality of the Japanese aesthetic. And the first cycle of poems is inspired by a reading of Basho.
And yes it was really hard for me to put together, to assemble the poems, because it is a book of journeys, of multiple journeys really and in keeping with that, the manuscript kept shifting and changing. It opens with a poem called ‘Experimental Geography’ based on the questions I was asked when I took my citizenship exam. I wrote it line by line and sent each as a separate message to myself by cell phone. Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with needing to be far from the 'I', to enter some virtual reality I craved for composition. To write by hand in my notebook seemed almost too tactile, too close. Normally I love the feel of pen and ink in my hand.
RW: This makes sense, in terms of what I see as a radical departure in your work. Distant is the couplet, the lush lyric line, perhaps much closer is your relationship to terror and reckoning. We talked about this in a recent conversation, and, in fact, you have been thinking about questions of terror and of course the sublime across many poems. I am thinking of your 9/11 poems in Raw Silk (2002), your poem ‘Aftermath,’ in the section ‘Late there was an Island’:
"There is an uncommon light in the sky
Pale petals are scored into stone.
I want to write of the linden tree
That stoops at the edge of the river
But its leaves are filled with insects
With wings the color of dry blood."
What immediately strikes me about this new collection is how you make a powerful shift from identifying what the speaker sees, and feels, to her relationship with what is recognized as untranslatable, that which cannot be marked as one engages with the constant threat and reality of being in a state of erasure.
Your work takes us into this state of erasure
"Everything about the railway station was erased, including the woman who was carrying a child with a patch of blood on his shirt.
I became all at once an American. This is a sentence very hard to translate. "
And in the place of erasure, in this aftermath we are no longer grounded in the world of intact material landscape, but instead are shocked here into the expansive space of an explosion, blown into a sense that cannot follow any sense but that which is found in the minimal, the abstract, a place of silent reckoning. How and where does one hold on?—in your aptly titled, "Experimental Geography," you write:
"How many stars to hold the flag up? How many stripes to sink it? How many
questions without answers?
Who becomes President if both he and the Vice President die?
The patch of blood on a child's shirt becomes a bird with no beak."
What does this bird sound like? What does the speaker in this poem hope to sing? I'm wondering if you could talk about your transition from the hold and use of the lyric line, or even your sense of the image as a starting point. The poem as a way to touch the arena of terror, hence the space of the "experiment?"
MA: What you’re asking makes me think of migration itself as the beginning. And that forces the experimental if you want to call it that, onto the lyric imagination. Yes, the image, the rhythmic forces that support it always comes first, comes first for me. But what of the seeming solidities of place? It is precisely what needs to vanish, a cire perdu technique, for the being of the poem to emerge. And by being of the poem I allude to the delicate architectonics of the poem, how it is allowed to appear. This of course has implications for our grasp of time present.
RW: Can you elaborate on that?
MA: I think this takes me back to the question of erasure that you raised. Earlier I had a clearer sense of certain solidities, longings if you will, that attached me to place. Now it’s something else. Not the eruption of emotion through a tear in the fabric as much as a sense that the fabric is itself a fiction, a necessary one perhaps, and that the music one makes is the interiority, but also all of the world that the poem can truly touch. Just yesterday I was thinking about the writing of a friend, the Indian novelist U.R. Ananathamurthy. He writes in Kannada. Touch is so powerful in his work, and I so admire that. My long poem `The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts’ is dedicated to him. I read it to him all in one go when he came to visit us in Kerala in the old family house some years ago. That house with its red tiled roof, and sandy courtyard where the mulberry bloomed, has been sold, razed to the ground by the buyer and a ten story block of flats is coming up in its place. And where the orchard stood, is another block of flats. The new India. I kept reading Chekov’s Cherry Orchard over and over again, trying to make sense of things. But why am I speaking of all this? Well you asked about experimental geography. And what that might mean. Perhaps the loss of the house of childhood triggered something else, a larger shift in what was already happening in my sense of psychic geography. I should add though that the heart of the book is in some ways the birthplace of the title poem, Allahabad where I was born. The rivers Ganga and Yamuna meet there and flow as a single river. I returned there a few years ago, the first time since I left there at the age of three. So I had to touch my earliest place, what I could scarcely remember.
RW: When you talk about your sense of psychic geography, and the desire to touch what’s just out of memory’s reach, it makes me think of these lines in ‘Lost Garden’:
To an axe biting into wood,
And hearing small shocks from my past
I know it’s all over—
The years of childhood,
The Innocence of Before and After"
Perhaps you are building another sort of house from the psychic ground up, a structure realized where syntax is released from the order of the “Before and After,” opened to the sounds of an axe “biting,” the “small shocks” that lead to the urgency of the poem’s construction. To find its source, what is at the heart of Birthplace with Buried Stones. No matter how difficult, or how far out of one’s grasp, you reveal the need to remember through loss, to hear, and to ultimately return, somehow, to touch what left in its wake.
Your poems echo your recent thoughts in your essay "What use is Poetry?" when you ask, "But what becomes of the past when place is torn away, when the sensorium is radically displaced, and when exile or dislocation marks out the limits of existence?"
MA: That essay is based on an address I made to the Yale Political Union this April. We had a resolution `Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ drawn of course from Shelley. There was a heated debate after my presentation from radically different viewpoints. Quite exciting!
RW: Perhaps you can also reflect on your advancements towards "dislocation," in these new poems, poems as far as I can tell, that map a unique and disturbing sense of one's orientation. You ask in "Morning Ritual,"
"Where did Bashō go?"
MA: Yes indeed and the poem gives an answer:
He entered a cloud and came out the other side:
Everything is broken and numinous
I was reading Basho in Rashtrapati Nivas, what was the old Vice Regal lodge in Shimla. I sat on a great stone terrace looking out at the mountains. It used to be Lady Dufferin’s terrace, she was the wife of the Viceroy of India. It's a magnificent space where one can sit on a stone bench and write. The building itself now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. I had decided to carry my copy of Basho with me as I travelled that year. In fact I had his Narrow Road to the Deep North with me in Venice when the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster happened. I wrote the last poem in the cycle, `Near Sendai’ at that time. I sent the poems to a friend in Japan and he wrote back by email something like `All the places where Basho walked are gone. ` My poem is very short. Here it is in its entirety
Into a mountain hole,
Wild iris cradled in darkness.
Cover your nose and mouth if you can
With bits of old cloth, drink iodine too --
Children bright and burning.
Let your shadow lead you.
Carve this line into cold rock
In memory of the place where Basho walked.
RW: You told me that the book in a way stitches together cycles of poems. How is this related to realm of exile, the refugee, the refuge, the open space, the lyric line giving way to the realm of the sensorium, the line opened in ways you might want to address here?
MA: So in those years I moved from place to place and somehow when I found again those lines in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and it started to hold for me. I mean the book started to cohere. I speak of lines from Calvino that I quote at the beginning of my book. Perhaps the undertow of travel has something to do with my childhood. I turned five on the Indian Ocean, traveling with my mother from Bombay to Port Sudan to join my father who was posted to Sudan by the Indian government. This was after the Bandung Conference. Two poems in my book `Water Crossing’ and ‘Autobiography’ evoke that childhood journey and the bewilderment I felt, also fear and wonder. The first poem under its earlier title `Living in the World’ came out first in French even before the original English was published, translated so beautifully by Claire Malraux as “Vivre dans le Monde.” The question is what happens when you take movement -- being in transit -- rather than fixed place as the site of your thought? The line is etched perhaps in the different way, so in that sense, at least for the one who writes, an ontological difference. Etched not on the presumption of flesh and place, but on a space of evacuation, emptiness, scattering.
There is also a cycle of poems inspired by my reading of Dastanbuy the memoir which Mirza Ghalib composed after the terrible incidents of 1857. He was in Delhi at the time and lived first hand through what the British did to the city, razing down whole sections of it, hanging people in the streets from lamp posts. All this in response to the Indian Rebellion which some call the first War of Independence. In the poem 'Lost Garden ' I imagine Ghalib, the great Urdu poet coming to visit me in my dead grandmother’s garden, in Kerala, in the southernmost state of India. And he invokes Mecca and Manhattan in the same breath. Of course Ghalib in the written record never refers to Manhattan, how could he? But I needed him to, I needed to bring my worlds together. The poem has him address a girl whose wrists are stumps. Wrists as stumps? It runs through my work, that image, not sure why. The woman poet with her hands cut off. Some old childhood fear perhaps.
RW: I am very moved by what you name as the “space of evacuation,” particularly as this points to the ontological realm in which your poetry resides. Maybe this is the shift I see evolving in the work, how you are working more directly with an understanding of this fictional fabric, a material zone that forces us not only to feel, but to touch what you have captured, if even, ever so slightly, whereas in an earlier poem, ‘Gold Horizon,’ in the 2002 book Illiterate Heart the speaker is actually wrestling with another figure in the middle of the poem, and she announces, “Our thrashing is not nice/Her ankle stumps shove against my eyes/…” Perhaps the old childhood fear is enacted, pushed away, released into the space of evacuation as another way to contend with loss. In ‘Water Crossing,’ you write,
"Handprints flowered on bedroom walls
Thumbs cut off, ancient marks of mutilation,
Wrists the color of glaciers before they split
And water poured into the open fields."
What’s so exciting about this is how you enact the terrain of the poem as a meditation through violence, where mutilation, now, moves from the speaker fighting, wresting another kind of reckoning. It’s as if you’re simultaneously meditating within the site of loss, itself, and revealing it through a complex relationship between what’s witnessed and rendered. There is a stunning connection between your earlier and the later poems as they engage with the severed body. Where “stumps shoved against the eyes” now we have “Handprints flowered,” and “Wrists the colors of glaciers before they split.” Perhaps this begins to exemplify your delicate strokes, your carefully brushing into view the time and space of violence, what happens before, what remains, and what’s captured in the fluid and embodied terrain you encounter.
It reminds me of how once when we were in Central Park, and we were talking about form, poetry, visual art, and you pointed out how everything was moving around us, that the rocks, in their own time, were shifting around us, the water around us, too, and the air we breathe—your pointing out that nothing was solid, or still, another sort of evacuation, elements “scattering” the assumed sense logic:
"Everything is broken and numinous."
Indeed, so where does the poet go, when one is blown away, blown apart, derailed, sensorium displaced by events outside of our control. How has your relationship to the poem changed of late? Or has it?
MA: It's almost as if there’s an invisible music that runs through many different parts of one’s life. The act of writing—it’s almost like making a little breach that allows you to hear it for a moment, and then it vanishes. But there is always musicality, that stitching through of disparate zones which is writing. Imagine this table at which we sit, on which we place our elbows. If you had a river running through it and that was poetry you ought to be able to look into it and see your face. The water would flicker and change, and the waves would flow so your face vanished and there’d be some rocks. I mean poetry really has to offer up that moment of clarity when you see yourself differently. It doesn’t last—it is in the nature of the clarification that the poem becomes ephemeral. Or rather its sense-making is ephemeral. I think that is the grace. It tastes like inspiration, it is fitful and for the moment, and I think that’s alright. I don’t think we could just look into light—we’d all be blinded. Right? These are modulations of being that we aspire to. And sometimes it’s hard. Very hard.
RW: What sort of changes did the manuscript go through as you wrote it?
MA: So many, many! I have notebooks and notebooks. I made a draft manuscript I called `Sand Music’ after one of the Darfur sonnets -- poems that I made based on drawings by children in the war zone. And those were central to the earlier version of the book. I was unable to travel to Sudan, much as I tried. But after I went to Palestine at Sari Nusseibeh’s kind invitation to be Poet in Residence at Al Quds University, my previous sense of the world fell apart. And what I felt and saw and heard there, tore into me, a soft explosion. I wrote poems. One I made at night in the thirteenth century Indian Hospice, the walled residence in Herod's Gate. I called the poem 'Impossible Grace`, it evokes the ancient gates of the city of Jerusalem. The poem was used as the lyric base of the First Al Quds Music award. The composer Stefan Heckel from Austria won the award . I met him when I returned to Jerusalem last year for the first performance. Also within the folio `Jerusalem Poems’ in this new book, I have two poems where the Biblical Isaac is addressed, two poems set in the Ghetto in Venice. This is true to my experience because it is from Venice that I travelled to Jerusalem in that year of journeying. So really it was my present calling, calling me and poetry must be true to that. What else do we have?