What is home? Is it a place, a person, a feeling, a sense of belonging? Or all of these? Or none perhaps. Home–its absence, its overwhelming presence–is the central theme in Meena Alexander’s Atmospheric Embroidery, a collection that surrounds the reader with its constant sense of displacement, an evolving journey from one home to another. There is loss, there is joy, but there is also a gnawing feeling of discontent, in poem after poem, where the speaker is always observing, at times with fear, at times with resignation. One has the sense that there is a hovering cloud wherein the speaker feels she cannot change the events around her, she can only adjust to them and decide what her reaction to them will be.
Although the book is a singular continuous journey, it is divided into three parts, all brought together with “Indian Ocean Blues,” the throbbing pulse that beats underneath the speaker’s inner and outer voice. It finds a footing in each part and keeps reappearing like an incomplete thought. Alexander always succeeds in transporting the reader to her choice of destination, with her exquisite imagery, her vivid descriptions, and brilliant metaphors. This time she takes readers from India to Sudan via ship and then to New York City, many years later. The lingering beauty, however, is that she always leaves some part of her work open to interpretation.
True to its name, the poems are embroidered together in their shared vocabulary–sari, muslin, stitched–so much reference to clothing, especially her mother’s sari. In “Debt Ridden,” she says, “My mother had a pink/blouse//Over it her sari//Something//Was torn.” A mother’s sari, a source of comfort, taken away, like the motherland itself, and the loss of one’s mother tongue through moving to another country conveys the loss that the speaker keenly feels.
In “Shook Silver,” the child leaving India is filled with excitement while her mother exercises caution with her “Sari stitched with bits of saffron,” she says, “Watch out for flying fish,” the ones that tempt you to forget who you are, perhaps. The child is drawn to the similarities between the countries, “They have goats and cows just like us/Also snakes that curl/Under the frangipani tree.” She latches on to these images to ground her.
But there is so much beauty even in loss, as in “Aesthetic Knowledge”: there is “bodily art -/Burn an almond, collect the soot, mix it with butter….Burnt rock ground very fine//Becomes surma for the eyes....For my Dark Night series I used sumi ink//Culled from the soot of Japanese temples./For Nur – my Blinding Light series -//Gold leaf pasted on paper.” The aesthetics are there, combined with something out of this world; neither speaker nor reader cannot pinpoint how this “invisible grammar holds us in place.” However, even when the poet slips into the very concrete daily life of “Darling Coffee,” “passion’s proclivities” still exist.
As in previous books, Bashō continues to inspire and evoke sentiments in the poet. In “Little Burnt Holes,” the speaker describes the hat she wants, “cut of mink...Like the wool Bashō wrapped around his throat when he called the Lady of Trees...Bashō whispers to me: In your country they fill the prisons with dark folk.” The Lady of Trees “pulls out a handkerchief...sparks waltz. Her muslin is spotted with little burnt holes.”
There are also many images of stone and rock, as in “Human Geography.” Leaving with no choice is marked by, “Wild grass is torn/From its roots,” but “On broken rock/Your face is etched in shadow.” Stone, which is unchanging, unwavering can still be altered by wind and water etching rock-face. The question which then lingers is “Is this what love does -/Sempiternal marking?” Similarly, in “Studio,” she says, “Stones struck clouds, church bells echoed/- Earthly unsettlement.” She then “pulled down a wall…/,” another symbolism for entering a different world, and saw a ‘sakshi’ or witness: “No one would see her .../Without themselves being altered in some way.” In “Song Lines,” she talks about the sea like an old friend, unchanged. So much of the sea is undulating, constantly changing; each timestamp of the sea is unique. However, the sea as a whole is always there, always unchanged, even though no water belongs to a continent, except on a map. Lines of song delineate these waters, where “One sea/Leads to another.”
As she examines the passage of time and effects of change and loss, Alexander turns to the domestic as well. “Years later she pinched herself awake/Hearing words in a foreign language,” she says in “Net Work,” leading the reader to ponder upon what the brain or the body does when change gradually seeps in. Assimilation: does that mean one casts the old self out, or rather builds on top of it a whole new layer of a new person? In “Bright Passage,” Alexander talks about unpacking a suitcase, much like one would unpack oneself after a journey–“buckles dented, zipper torn.” Likewise, she questions why some choose to stay behind and how some are brought over without choice or permission: “Ancestors stare in sepia, eyes wide open -/ Why have you brought us here?” and “My children’s children, and those I will never see – generations swarm in me.” Additionally, doors and walls play a predominant part in this book. They are being stripped, torn, brought down, split off their hinges, as if there is no choice but to be pushed into the new world and made to see things in a new light. There is an eagerness, but also a fear and nervousness to return to where she doesn’t want to be.
In the second part of the book, Alexander touches briefly upon slavery and refugees in her poems “Fermata” and “Udisthanam,” which means base or foundation, but might also mean anchor for this poem. The child sees Bras-Coupé in her dreams, as the steamer reaches Aden:
Where are those refugees
Amma did not want me to see
Gunny sacks and torn saris
Stitched together with cord?
...Who will grant them passage?
A few poems refer to Phillis Wheatley–the first published African American female poet who was brought from West Africa to be sold as a slave–“A coarse blanket that covered your nakedness/When they bought you, slipping off;//Your skin blue, ablaze/In a place where you have nothing left to lose.”
The Darfur poems stay with the reader long after the book is done. However, there is so much birdsong, so much music, even in violence. In “Sand Music,” the speaker says, “We do not know who we are or what songs we might sing.” Likewise, there is reference to the Muhagiriya massacre: “In a mosque, men kneeling, five beheaded/And the daughters of music brought low.” Alexander also touches upon the Haskanita raids “where children rushed by men/On horseback discover the guns’ temerity, .../Open your legs wide, run/Not those staggering towards slaughter.”
In “Green Leaves of El Fasher,” named after the capital city of North Darfur, more song springs amidst turmoil: “I am singing, stones fill with music.” While stones typically symbolize violence, they are also known for their sound; this duality is often present in Alexander’s poems because there is no utopia in her dictionary. Anywhere the poet takes us has as much of the negative as the positive. In this case for example, the speaker is being forced to wear a veil and when she refuses, “They forced me/To cover my head then beat me when my veil slipped.” The experiences of growing up in a new culture are chronicled and summarized swiftly in these haunting lines: “I am not an animal.../I am your language, do not cover me/I am burning in what you take to be the present tense.”
Art inspires art in “Last Colors” and “Child’s Notebook,” depicting a war-torn nation seen through the eyes of a child: “A child sets paper to rock/Picks up a crayon, draws a woman with a scarlet face.../draws an armored vehicle, guns sticking out.../A bounty of crayons, a hut burst into glory.../ (- so the sun is overthrown).” It is heartbreaking when a child sees “arms splayed.../Beneath her.../Cat dog goat mother father too/How are they all going to live?” Alexander manages to cut through the surfaces of these drawings and sees right into the heart of these children’s fears and hopes, much as she sees her own reflected in them.
In the third and final section, the speaker covers a lot of distance, moving to and from “Provincetown by the Sea” in the United States, “Tarawad” in India, an English doctor, a Scottish tutor, bramble berries and lotus blooms, mango trees and bamboo groves, casuarinas and jacaranda trees, a childhood lost, then found, split between various spaces. Sita, the Indian goddess, the banished wife, swallowed by Mother Earth, finds her way into many of the poems. As if, having seen it all, ultimately what each of us wants is to find a way back to the motherland, the first mother. There are also poems for Kimiko Hahn; Rohith Vemula, the Dalit who committed suicide; Nirbhaya, the girl who was raped and killed in Delhi. The poems contain and are all fragments of belonging, the crossroads humans must face and choose, and ultimately decide, what belongs to us and to what do we belong.
Reflecting on the waters of “Chilika Lake” in Odisha, India, and “Dreaming in Shimla – Letter to My Mother,” like the wavering mind that cannot stay still or in one place at a time, the reader might conclude with the poet that “[t]he heart’s illiterate, dear mother.” Embroidery takes on a different meaning in the title poem, where Boetti, the Italian conceptual artist is referenced: “in his mapping of the world/Everything is cut and coupled/... silk and painted steel/Sun and electric moon, butterfly and naked man.” However, Alexander gets the last word: “I think it’s a miracle we were able, ever/To put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking.”
Anu Mahadev is left-brained engineer turned right-brained poet. Originally from India, she is now based in New Jersey with her husband and son. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of Drew University and a prolific writer. Her work has found a home in several journals and a few anthologies in the U.S. She is currently the co-editor of QuillsEdge Press (quillsedgepress.org), Editor-in-Chief of Jaggery Lit (jaggerylit.com), and an editor for The Woman Inc. (thewomaninc.com).