Meena Alexander’s six volumes of poetry include QUICKLY CHANGING RIVER, RAW SILK, and ILLITERATE HEART (Winner of the 2002 PEN Open Book Award) all published by TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press. She is the author of the memoir FAULT LINES (selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year) and editor of INDIAN LOVE POEMS. Her new book of essays POETICS OF DISLOCATION will be published in November by the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry series. The recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, Rockefeller, Arts Council of England and other fellowships, she is Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. A book of essays on her work PASSAGE TO MANHATTAN: ESSAYS ON MEENA ALEXANDER (eds. Lopamudra Basu and Cynthia Leenerts is forthcoming later this year from Cambridge Scholars Publishing). “Translating ‘Passion’” was originally published in Poetics of Dislocation, University of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series, 2009.
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- by Meena Alexander


Fahmida Riaz and I met on a cold snowy day in February, in Ithaca, New York. We were participating in a symposium at Cornell University called “Cartographies of the Vernacular: Directions in Contemporary South Asian Literature.”  I knew her as one of the foremost contemporary poets of Pakistan. I was immediately struck by her vivacity, the way in which her words caught fire. After I read my poem “Passion,” she told me she would like to render it into Urdu.

    Her first email, dated Monday, March 13, 2000 was addressed to me in wonderfully idiosyncratic fashion:

Dear Meerakashi,

Reached Karachi, would love to have a copy of your collection of poetry. You promised to send me this poem you read at Cornell. Please send it to me by post as I want to translate into Urdu...

Our email correspondence, for a little over two weeks, was brief, intense, focusing in the main on the translation of this poem.

Date: Sunday, March 26, 2000 4:48 am

 Subject: Re: book

Dear Meena,

I got your book. Thanks and thanks again. I've already translated your poem. the first draft. What a wonderful description of a certain state which seemed indescribable! ok. when you say "No words for her. no bronzes” etc.  Here, actually "bronzes" also mean prizes. did you also mean that? will write to you again, but do let me know about this point. I have written uske liye na koi lafz , na kansi ke tamghe, na dawatname.


 Email of Sunday, March 26, 2000

Dear Fahmida, sister poet,

 So glad the book [River and Bridge] reached you. One never knows with packages somehow. Yes, with ‘no bronze, no summoning’ I meant no plaques of commemoration, no high call, and not even words, for there, that place, unnameable.  Just now I'm trying to write a poem having as its setting (or one bit of the setting) the border between India and Pakistan -- a little poem about the pity of war. Shall send it to you when it’s done.

Affectionate regards,
    In the email that follows, the questions and answers are compacted together, and I have kept that form, needing to give a sense of the flow of our back and forth. My responses, which she has included in her email, are in boldface.    
Monday, March 27, 2000
Subject: Re: book

Dear Meena, thanks for your reply.

About "passion", it has a number of meanings. it can’t be translated as "ishq" ... is it best to translate as a kind of forceful feeling.  what word of hindi would you think of?  I have
written "bala khez” . We write "Ishq-e-balakhez" for passionate love.

>>The word passion I took really from the passion of christ who hung on the cross and died. so it does have a liturgical sense (of intense suffering) but also for me, the passion -- as in sexual passion -- plays into it I guess, that place where all the elements meet when we overstep the borders. (also
Bergman has that movie I love called ‘The Passion of Anna’)

but here I've only used bala khez.

Also, in the last two lines you have played on the english pronoun "I".  It cannot be translated as it is. But I will try to convey the meaning through some other means. So
what do you say to that?

>>Yes, I do think you have to play around with it, since the sound is supreme here. Ai -- the Malayalam cry of pain, aaiou eye -- in English and of course ‘I’  (self) also aye as in yes in English...

how we are compacted here...

Please do send me your poem. everything seems so bleak right now.

>>I will send you the border poem when I finish it, working on a few poems now as I seem to do, these things go in bursts

Email of Tuesday March 28, 2000

Dear Fahmida,

It’s a cold, rainy day. tight green buds on the leaves. a little fog. there is a gathering of south asians to protest police brutality -- an unarmed black man was shot 41 times, as he stood in his doorway. a dark doorway. I feel my soul is there. I said I would write a poem for the occasion and read it. So let the words come, in fire. One must hug the green tree as the words come, so the body is not burnt. I was very moved by your poem that you read about the adulterous couple being stoned and the man bending over the
woman to protect her. will you send it to me?1


Email of Wednesday April 5, 2000

My dear Fahmida,

I have never done this before, emailed a poem just the minute it was finished. But this is the poem I mentioned earlier. You wanted to see it and I feel it the right thing to send it through this immaterial medium, across the borders.

As poets we write in such loneliness and I wanted to share this with you. I think it has the sorrow and pity of war in it. Let me know what you think.

With love

    I was anxious about sending the new poem that way. Naked, through the internet. No cover, no crib sheet.  I hoped Fahmida would like it. Her reply came ten days later.

Email of Saturday April 15, 2000

Dear meena,

got your poem. liked it?

I wept when I was reading it.

 I'm writing a paper on " shared dreams and metaphors" that I will be reading in N. Delhi on 27th of April in the SAARC writer's conference. I hope you don’t mind that I'm beginning the paper with your poem. ‘Passion’ has been translated into Urdu. A literary journal "Aaj" is planning to bring out an issue on women. I want this poem to be
published in it...

            The very same day, April 27, 2000, at a meeting of Arts Initiative for South Asians, a gathering of young writers and artists at Smith College in Massachusetts, I spoke a little of our lives, lived across borders, and of my email conversations with Fahmida. Then I read out the poem with its long, prefatory title: “For a Friend Whose Father was Killed on the Lahore Border, in the 1965 War Between India and Pakistan.”


I think back to the time when I composed the poem “Passion.”  In writing it, I felt I was evoking a condition where words did not easily attach—a state I had read no poems about.  I wrote it in Manhattan, seeing what I could out of my high window.

    Yet I was translating into the landscape of the small town in Kerala that I come from, and out again, into the space of the page, using the concrete and palpable present as an invisible frame. And perhaps, in the act of translation, the emotion that underpins the words of the poem on the page structures another consciousness, another language, even as discrete lines slip away.  A figure of eight, the strip of silk turned wrong side up, then swirled back again to the smooth gleam: what the composition of poetry takes for granted, translation renders explicit, sense crystallized through the seizures of dislocation.


Even as I work on this essay, I am putting the finishing touches to a poem in my notebook.  It is about the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent young African immigrant, who was brutally shot to death by the police as he was standing in his own doorway.

    Making the poem, I had to absorb the young man’s traveling—from Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, to the Far East, where his father was a trader in gemstones and Amadou studied English, all the way to the north, to Manhattan, where the twenty-two year old met his death. I tried to brood on a world in which a new immigrant must live without a palpable history, where all one is turns into a dark silhouette in a doorway.

    I read out a draft of the poem standing on a flatbed truck, on a street in Jackson Heights, Queens, at a meeting organized by a group of young South Asians: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Desis for Diallo.     

    There were police on the sidewalks, a few on the rooftops across the way, and something I had never seen, a police helicopter circling overhead. Twice it looped around, in the blue air, in the cold wind.     That gathering, organized by young people who in the main had grown up in America, was an important event for many of us, immigrants in a world where we must invent a history, fabricate a dwelling in shared space.


I began with this correspondence between Fahmida and myself because it reveals how one can touch others, move across borders, indeed even fraught national borders, and across, linguistic boundaries--in this case, using as a raft the material corpus of a poem, a poem that is being translated from English (should I say Indian English?) into Urdu.  And this brief correspondence between two women poets, more than a half-century after the Partition of India, is made possible by a cyber-geography, the seemingly instantaneous back and forth of words, zipping through ether.

    There is a curious fit here, for me, with what it means to translate. An art of negativity, translation seems to me analogous to the labor of poetic composition in precisely this: the reaching beneath the hold of a given syntax, beneath the rocks and stones and trees of discernable place, in order to make sense.


After childbirth
the tenth month's passion:

a bloodiness
still shifting at her core
she crawls on the mud floor

past the empty rice sacks
blown large with dust,
rims distended like sails.

Her skin scrapes a tin bowl
with water from the stream,
a metal frame

bearing a god
whose black blue face
melts into darkness, as a gem might

tossed back
into its own
implacable element.

She waits,
she sets her sari to her teeth
and when the chattering  begins

fierce, inhuman joy,
monkeys rattling the jamun tree,
bellies distended, washed with wind

she screams
and screams
a raw, ungoverned thing.  


There are beetles scrabbling
in the open sacks,
chaff flies in the half light
a savage sound in her eyes
struck free

the human realms of do and don't
the seemingly precise, unalterable keys
dashed to a frenzy
and still the voice holds.


One summer's day
I saw a heron
small and grey
blinded by an eagle's claw

it dashed its head
against the Coromandel rock.

The bleeding head
hung on
by a sinew or two
as the maimed bird
and struck again
then turned to rise
an instant
on its sunlit wings.

It was carved in bronze
against the crawling foam

the dead cannot know
in their unaltered kingdoms.


I am she
the woman after giving birth

to give life
torn and hovering

as bloodied fluids
baste the weakened flesh.

For her
there are no words,
no bronze, no summoning.

I am her sight
her hearing
and her tongue.  

I am she
smeared with ash
from the black god's altar

I am
the sting of love
the blood hot flute
the face
carved in the window,
watching as the god set sail

across the waters
risen from the Cape,
Sri Krishna in a painted catamaran.

I am she
tongueless in rhapsody

the stars of glass
nailed to the Southern sky.

Ai ai

she cried.

They stuffed
her mouth with rags

and pulled her
from the wooden bed

and thrust her
to the broken floor.

I, I.

(The poem for Amadou Diallo published in River and Bridge, 1996, Paterson Literary Review 30 (2001))


I come to you nothing in my arms
just this bundle,

cloth covering what the pity of war
could not render up-- the bones of a father.

The horses of Uttarakand wept salt,
their necks were torqued.

Birds stalk clouds, clouds hang cold,
on a hill of gold, stick insects clamor.

Where are the burnt plains of the Punjab?
The killing fields of Partition?

At the mouth of Central Park
apple blossom sifts your breath

and you search for me.
I long to come running to you, hair flying,

a girl again in the moist air,
in the ordinary light of a garden.

But how shall I hold you
this bundle in my arms—love’s fierce portion?

How shall we face the torn rim of green,
the horses of Columbus cut in steel?

(Published in Raw Silk, 2004)