Making “Atmospheric Embroidery” by Meena Alexander

 

atmospheric-embroideryWhat goes into the making of a book?  Memory, dream, desire and always the pressure of the present whether overt or as undersong, lacking which composition could not come into being. And each time it feels like a new beginning, starting from scratch.

I wrote the first draft of the title poem in Provincetown, during a summer of violent storms, sunshine and sudden senseless deaths. The poem is underwritten by migrancy, worlds cut and coupled that one carries around in one’s body. And it is here that the art of Alighiero Boetti with its uncanny doublings comes in. Haunted by his embroidered art work ( ‘I mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo’) that hung on the wall at MOMA, I kept seeing the names of rivers I had known, the Ganga of my birthplace,  the Nile in Khartoum, the Mississipi – Missouri in Minneapolis. The title is an homage to my father who taught me to love and respect the atmosphere, so threatened now. From my earliest childhood appa taught me the names of clouds, winds and waters.

 

***

 

There is a moment I have turned over and over in my head. I am standing on deck on the SS Jehangir, deep green waves of the Indian Ocean crashing all around. I have broken free of my mother and stand clutching the white railings of the ship. I am dressed in a pink frilly frock with embroidery on the yoke and skirt. The dress whirls about my legs, a froth of organza and lace, wind whipped. Amma had brought it along and tucked it in at the bottom of her leather suitcase, all ready for my fifth birthday. A week and a half earlier we had set sail from Bombay and were bound for Port Sudan where my father a meteorologist would meet us. This was just after Bandung, the historic Afro-Asian Congress of non-aligned nations that met in that Indonesian City. There was an accord between India and Sudan for technical assistance which was how my father ended up traveling to Khartoum. For almost the next decade a half, I travelled back and forth between continents. At eighteen I flew to England to study at a university there. Still that first sea voyage marked me forever, its hieroglyphs of loss and longing filled with meanings I am still trying to decipher.

 

***

 

On board the ship my mother tongue Malayalam and the Hindi I knew from earliest childhood shot out of one ear and the English around me changed utterly. There were white people, clusters of them speaking the language in a strange way. They kept away from us, almost as if the brown of our skin would spread and sully them. When we landed Arabic poured in and later I had friends who also spoke French. In this mingling of languages I understood dimly that there was so much that could not be spoken and that rich, even sorrowful awareness of the unsayable has been with me ever since. Out of this, poetry comes. This fine art of distilling language is also one that is predicated on silence.

I wanted to add that my handwriting can border on the illegible, much to the annoyance and perhaps fascination of others. I attribute this to my attempt as a teenager to perfect a script that would flow in between the borders of the Roman script, the Arabic script and the curvatures of Malayalam, the language of Kerala. It was as much calligraphy as anything else and how well its served me in my adult life is an open question.

Perhaps my poems are like that too, slipping between the lines of separate nations, continents of migration and settlement. Perhaps poems make up steadfast places for me. My body on the other hand is marked as that of a person of color, someone who is bound to a difficult and fractious existence, constantly drawn in, longing to be part of a whole, yet time and again cast out, till that tension has come to coexist with and seems inextricably bound to the idea of belonging.

 

***

 

I think back to mapmaking this book involved.  There are poems that like sign posts stand out for me. ‘Moksha’ evokes the gang rape in Delhi of the young woman Jyoti Singh Pande. Those who did not know her name and those who did called her ‘Nirbhaya’, which means ‘without fear . There is the cycle of Darfur poems based on drawings by children from the war zone. Growing up in Khartoum I had friends from Darfur. Where are they now, I wonder? The poem ‘Univocity’ opens with an epigram from Whitman, Word over all, beautiful as the sky! It starts in Provincetown, flows into my childhood in India and back again into the present of composition.  The last poem is ‘Crossroad’. I wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election. In its first version, it had the title ‘Winterlight’. I read it out standing on the steps of the New York Public Library as part of ‘Writers Resist’ gathering organized by PEN American Center, January 15, 2017.

The spine of this book of poetry is ‘Indian Ocean Blues’. At its simplest it was triggered by that childhood ocean crossing. I could not have composed the poem without the inspiration of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour Au Pays Natal. Time and again I heard the waves beat in his lines. One sea leads to another I wrote in response. Perhaps our migrant selves are the true marks of being and a steady place, what we constantly long for, is nothing but a palimpsest of time, on which we scrawl ourselves through these vulnerable moving bodies.

I started  the poem at home in the north of New York City, in my apartment not far from the edge of Fort Tryon Park with its exquisite heather garden and winding green passages. I completed the poem in Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas in what had been the summer palace of the British. Raj Shimla an old town of wood and stone filled with bustling villas and chock full of tour buses, cars and pedestrians, still bears a certain melancholy charm.

In childhood I learned the story of Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, cast out by her lordly husband Rama. The earth her mother tore open to give her refuge. In my imagination she slips into the earth of Manhattan island, through the crevices of Inwood marble and appears in metamorphic form, on the other side. Time whorls into space, disparate worlds merge in a shimmering whole which is what memory mingling with desire can sometimes grant us. In just this way a child crossing the Indian Ocean encounters Bras Coupe, the brave African American who escaped slavery, organized others to resist and had his arm chopped off in punishment

 

He rises

Cloaked in amaranth petals

A big man, his wounds

Molten.

 

In the course of  composition, over the space of a year or so, I kept listening to the music of Vijay Iyer, in particular his album ‘Solo’ which I had carried with me to India. Through the miracle of email I sent drafts of my poem to Quincy Troupe, all the way in Harlem. He bore patiently with me as I chopped and changed lines. When it was done the poem was published in the journal Black Renaissance/ Noire. The poem is now woven in separate sections through the whole book. While `Crossroad’ is the last full poem, a tiny final section of `Indian Ocean Blues’ which I have called `Lyric Ego’ makes for a fragile, provisional closure.

 

Interview: Second to None Series Editor Harvey Young

Welcome to Northwestern University Press’s blog, Incidental Noyes, written here at our home on Noyes Street in Evanston next to Lake Michigan. One of the most important niches that university presses occupy in the book world is that of regional publishing. University presses bring to light a panoply of local and regional American stories that would otherwise be unknown or soon forgotten, despite the fact that many of the most illuminating and emblematic of American stories are local ones. In the hands of gifted writers and editors, the lives of individuals and their local communities can reveal the sweeping landscape of American history. Few cities embody that sweep more than Chicago.

In this edition of Incidental Noyes, NU Press editor-in-chief Gianna Mosser interviews Harvey Young, editor of the Second to None series, which invites projects that spotlight the spirit of Chicago and its people in an engaging, widely accessible, and historically accurate manner. These alternative, underground, and yet-to be chronicled stories will reveal the connective tissues that make up the real Chicago.

What role does regional publishing play at a university press as opposed to mainstream publishers?

A university press differs from a mainstream publisher in that it commits to cultivating a lifelong relationship with readers who are also neighbors. It is the primary steward of their stories and histories. In addition, a university press, attuned to local complexities, can best present life in a city as a mosaic, comprised of individual but ultimately integrated stories.

What makes Chicago such a vibrant place to tell stories?

Chicago has swagger. It has always been and continues to be a destination city for hard-working people who are willing to do whatever it takes (legal or otherwise) to realize their dreams. The streets of Chicago were walked by an endless cast of characters who profoundly impacted the region and the nation: Al Capone, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and more.

 

 

What kind of stories make for the best regional books?

The best stories spotlight the uniqueness of Chicago—its particular challenges and extraordinary blessings. In some cases, this engagement can be explicit such as accounts on the miraculous rise of the city and, of course, its rebuilding after the Great Fire. In most others, it is implicit, a background feature: how neighborhood settlement (and segregation) created particular experiences; how the sports passions and culinary tastes of residents create an identifiable regional identity.

What other university presses do you admire for their regional publishing efforts?

I greatly appreciate the work of The University of Michigan Press. Their regional books tell the story of that part of the Great Lakes and spotlight the pride of place that Michiganders have. I am grateful for the efforts of the University of Florida Press for their commitment to telling very local histories that have been overlooked.

You often write on scholarly topics for popular audiences. What strategies do you use to deliver your expertise in a way that keeps people interested?

Popular writing is public storytelling in a very traditional sense. A speaker stands before a community of listeners who want to be engaged. The aim, in writing, is to remove barriers that block absorption into the story. Feature distinct characters with bold voices. Paint a colorful picture of the city as a backdrop.

HARVEY YOUNG is the editor of the Second to None: Chicago Stories trade series. He is author of four books, including Embodying Black Experience, winner of “Book of the Year” awards from the National Communication Association and the American Society for Theatre Research, and coauthor of Black Theater is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. Until January 2018, Young was Professor and Chair of Theatre at Northwestern University. He is now Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. He is the current president of Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).