Meena Alexander, the critically acclaimed Indian American poet, scholar, and professor at the City University of New York, died on November 20, in Manhattan. She was 67.
Her husband, David Lelyveld said the cause was endometrial serous cancer, reported The New York Times. She was born on February 17, 1951, and named Mary Elizabeth Alexander. She always went by the name Meena, and she eventually made it her legal name.
Alexander was a Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York and taught in the PhD Program in English at CUNY Graduate Center and in the English Department at Hunter College.
Alexander was born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India. She was raised both in Kerala, India and in Khartoum, Sudan. At eighteen she went to England for her studies. She received a B.A. Honors in French and English from Khartoum University and a Ph.D. from Nottingham University, according to her website.
Alexander has edited Indian Love Poems from the Everyman’s series, and published a critically acclaimed memoir Fault Lines (picked as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the year). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Threepenny Review and other journals.
In “Fault Lines,” which was reissued in 2003, Alexander wrote: “What I have forgotten is what I have written: a rag of words wrapped around a shard of recollection. A book with torn ends visible. Writing in search of a homeland.”
Her poems have been set to music, including “Impossible Grace,” which was the lyric base of the First Al Quds Music Award and “Acqua Alta,” which was set to music by the Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom for the Serikon Music Group’s climate change project.
She has published two novels Nampally Road (1991/ 2012 – republished by Orient Blackswan) and Manhattan Music. Her academic studies include The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism and Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley.
Alexander’s prose writings on trauma, migration and memory collected in ‘The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience’ and ‘Poetics of Dislocation’ are relevant to the evolving understanding of postcoloniality. A book of essays on her work has also appeared: Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander (eds. Lopamudra Basu and Cynthia Leenerts, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).
Alexander has read her poems and spoken at Poetry International London, Rome Poetry Festival, Struga Poetry Evenings, Poetry Africa, Calabash Festival, Harbor Front Festival, Sahitya Akademi, India, Yale Political Union and other international venues.
Her book of poetry Illiterate Heart won the PEN Open Book Award and she received a Glenna Luschei Award for poems published in Prairie Schooner. She has received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Arts Council of England, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council for Research on Women, New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation in Switzerland.
She has been in residence at the MacDowell Colony and has held the Martha Walsh Pulver residency for a poet at Yaddo. She was Visiting Fellow at the Sorbonne (Paris IV); Frances Wayland Collegium Lecturer at Brown University; Writer in Residence at the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University; University Grants Commission Fellow, Kerala University; Writer in Residence, National University of Singapore, Poet in Residence at the University of Hyderabad, and Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
In 2016, she was Poet in Residence in Venice as part of the celebrations for Venice 500, the five hundredth anniversary of the Ghetto Nuovo. She has served as a Member of the Jury for the Neustadt International Award in Literature and as an Elector, American Poets Corner, Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
She was the recipient of the 2009 Distinguished Achievement Award in Literature from the South Asian Literary Association (an organization allied to the Modern Languages Association) for contributions to American literature. In 2014, Alexander was named a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
“Meena Alexander’s lyric poems embody her expert ability to craft scenes that draw on disparate cultural traditions to become simple, sonic and ultimately startling moments that remind us of the power of language and the gift of our humanness,” Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, said by email to The New York Times.
In addition to her husband, Alexander, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by her mother; a son, Adam Lelyveld; a daughter, Svati Lelyveld; and a sister, Elizabeth Alexander.
Two poems by Meena Alexander
Grandfather lies in wait for me.
I cannot see.
My voice is young and burnt
My voice is a bramble berry squashed on stone.
All afternoon I lay curled in a hole
In the bamboo grove where cobras rove.
No one knew.
Rove – How did I learn that verb?
From my Scottish tutor –
She rapped my knuckles hard.
A swan in a bag, worth two in the lake.
A stitch in time saves nine.
She taught me some such things.
Who will bring me sweetmeats,
Swirl henna on my palms?
Who stokes sugarcane with kerosene
Binds cords of broken rope?
Dark sisters in the sky, their wings are torn.
They have stumps for wrists.
They sing Hosannas to our Lord.
Black Sand at the Edge of the Sea
Soon I will be given to earth,
Folded in a death squat
Together with pig marrow,
Swan’s down, thread-leaved sundew,
Pitchblende sucking bones in.
Where is grandfather now?
My friend says think of old Walt
Bent over his dead enemy –
Touching lips to encoffined flesh.
So where do they live
The twin sisters Night and Death?
Will they wash the ground clean?
LIST OF MEENA ALEXANDER’S PUBLISHED WORKS
Atmospheric Embroidery (2018)
Birthplace with Buried Stones (2013)
Quickly Changing River (2008)
Raw Silk (2004)
Illiterate Heart (2002)
River and Bridge (1995/ 1996)
Stone Roots (New Delhi, (1980)
House of a Thousand Doors (1988)
Dreaming in Shimla: Letter to my Mother (2015)
Impossible Grace: Jerusalem Poems (2012)
Otto Poesie (2011)
Night-Scene: The Garden (Short Work Series) (1992)
The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts (Short Work Series) (1989)
Poetry and Essays:
The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996)
Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009)
Fault Lines (1993/new expanded edition 2003)
Nampally Road (1991)
Manhattan Music (1997)
Indian Love Poems (2005)
Name me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing (2018).