What would it be like to think language and place in the same breath? To discover place by creating it through the pleasure of words. Or to lose place, suffering dislocation as one loses language. Then, finding one’s way through language, a sustenance scarcely to be believed.
Losing place. One speaks of losing one’s place in a book, missing a line, missing a beat while reading. But place? How might it be possible to lose that?
As a child, moving from one country to the other and back again, across the dark stretch of the Indian Ocean, I often felt I had lost place. A house with a red tiled roof and sandy courtyard had vanished. Where did it exist? I could not understand. That child’s sense of incomprehension has remained with me. Curiously, almost like a miracle, it guides my writing.
Those close have learnt to be patient, they take it in their stride. I do not know what connection there is with early childhood dislocation, perhaps none at all. But I have little sense of direction. It feels like the jumble I can sometimes do with numbers, the ordering disarrayed. I can come out of a building and with perfect ease turn in the ‘wrong’ direction. Something in the play of light on brickwork, the tint of asphalt summons me, but in terms of the coordinates of the outer world, the fix I have doesn’t work.
What does work is taking the same street, turning the same direction over and over again, so that finally like a dog, I can sniff out where I’m supposed to go. I find it hard to read maps; places come unstuck, swarm into my head, in a luminous palimpsest.
Sometimes as I write I feel as if my consciousness were a discrete hollow, bits and pieces of places pour into me, the edge of a muddy stream, green leaves of a tree, I can smell the bitter bark, stones at the edge of a dry road, a wall white with sunshine, wings of dove, somewhere over a slate grey roof.
Images all, suspended in memory, yet bound to my sensual body. Except in my memory they would not exist , and in order for them to exist in my memory, I have to make place for them.
I have to fabricate place so that these images can exist, not as mere bits and pieces of temporality, echoing in my inwardness, but as portion of a shining symbolic space, their fluttering parts, redisposed in a poem.
And now I speak of the labor peculiar to the poet, the material processes of writing and revising so that words stitch their way through the page, the humming hive of the brain and the multitudinous letters of the chosen alphabet bound each to the other in coruscating harmony. At least that is the ideal. A harmony that supports dislocation so that multiple places are joined, lit by desire.
At the rim of a new century, with its massive migrations of peoples, ceaseless circulation of goods and knowledge, cities that multiply their inhabitants, glittering Web sites and cyber knowledges working terror, working hope, we need to think space. To think space, through our blood and bones. We need to think out how space permits language, encodes the poem. By which I mean it grants the poem a cadre interieur. I borrow that phrase from the Cubists to mean an internal index of sense (1).
And ‘sense’ here, not as abstraction or aftermath. Rather, a blossoming of words, out of flesh. Vak, Logos, in an originary, materialist sense, letting us come close to the rock’s edge, an outcrop of black granite by the river bank where many hands find hold.
I once wrote a poem called San Andreas Fault (2). In it I face my muse, a creature dressed in a silk sari, gumboots on her feet, her body utterly weightless she clings to rock. For me, the weightless body, clinging to rock becomes an icon of non-place, the zone the muse makes as she faces me.
From her hold on black rock, she asks me questions, some so difficult that I am forced to write a poem.
Those rocks came to me from the Pacific Coast where I used to go to visit a friend. There are other rocks I see out of my window, part of the Palisades, in New Jersey, and across the river from where I live. I can see them when I step out of my apartment and walk into the park.
Time and again discrete portions of geography, allow me to anchor my inner world, make a palimpsest of place. Without this rich and jagged density, imagined landscapes that layer over each other in time present, I could not make my poems. I could not be.
What would it be like to stop writing poems?
What if you were to lose your memory?
Someone who is interviewing me about the lyric in a time of violence has just asked me that.
I do not know, I reply.
There was nothing else I could say just then. I did not tell my interviewer what was underneath that response. The scary feeling of what it would be like to open my mouth and have no words come. Or not even be able to open my mouth when someone spoke to me. Malayalam, English, Arabic, it did not matter which language.
There is a zone of radical illiteracy out of which we translate our selves in order to appear, in order to be in place. A zone to which words do not attach, a realm syntax flees. A zone that cannot recognize the moorings of place, sensuous densities of location, coordinates of compass and map.
I need to go there in order to make my poems.
I think of it as a dark doorway that lets me in: slides shut, then ruts open again.
I fell through that door as a child of five. Returning to India from Khartoum, my mother and I landed in Bombay airport and I found my new-found Arabic vanishing in the hot winds of Bombay airport and Hindi, which I had known since earliest childhood, ringing in my ears.
When I opened my mouth, no sounds came, nothing.
I could hear my mother saying something to me in Malayalam, but all that came was the swirl of emotion, a sense that I was plunged into a space where words did not attach, where a mother’s hands could not rescue.
Sometimes in childhood when I lost language I would feel as if I were flicking through leaves in a notebook, neural flowerings that might let me speak.
But nothing clicked, nothing held. There was no language I could flow into. I kept quite still, I kept my mouth shut.
I felt locked into a secret self that watched and saw but could not or would not respond. A delicate recording device, the bodily sensorium, alert, vigilant, not moving.
And now I think the body is the place where words can happen, and what the inner skin of the body thinks is what is written, even if the writing is secret, illegible. A dark counter to publicity.
Perhaps this is why I felt a powerful kinship with a poet who wrote of how often when he went to school as a child, he would be forced to put out his hand to touch a wall, a stone, a tree, to recall himself “from the abyss of idealism to reality” (3).
But what if the state that I entered from time to time in childhood was not an abyss of idealism, but part of the fragile materiality in which I survived, some surrender in the brain? Often I could not tell if I was refusing to speak, or was indeed unable to speak, one and the other fused together as things contiguous might fuse at high heat. But the scary part is that there was a real sense in me that it was not just refusal. Rather, a very real inability. Something was stuck in me. I was unable to speak, to respond.
It seems to me now that in undergoing the experience I was touching a hidden vein, a stratum in the bodily sensorium that lies under speech. Fierce negativity, source of all words.
Zone of radical illiteracy out of which I write, translating myself through borders, recovering the chart of a given syntax, the palpable limits of place, in order to be rendered legible through poetry that fashions an immaterial dwelling yet leaves within itself traces of all that is nervous, stoic, edgy, the skin turned inside out.
Perhaps this is what Benjamin evokes when he alludes to the “interior” as the “asylum of art.” Benjamin muses, “To dwell means to leave traces. In the interior these are accentuated”(4).
The interior of the house of language: fitful, flashing.
Language then as the inner skin of place, and migrancy as a drift of words, a sentient non-attachment to the objects of desire. Nomadic memory, at the very rim of place.
A house that is the shadow of the interior, that flows as waves flow. Can consciousness chart this for us?
As a small child, how did I attach myself to place?
I shut my eyes and see a child in a tree. A girl child of four who has climbed the smooth bark of a love apple tree. She is in a house of dark green leaves and will not come down. She hangs upside down by the crook of her knees and opens her eyes wide. Her white cotton skirt is bunched up between her knees so it doesn’t flap over her face. Her face is free for the light to shine on it. Sky and leaves and earth visible to her. Neither leaves nor cotton skirt pounced upon by the wind can cover up her eyes or ears or nose. She hangs there, gently rocking upside down.
In lines of poem called Black River, Walled Garden, alluding to that time of childhood I have written:
I swayed in a cradle hung in a tree
and all of the visible world —
black river — flowed in me. (5)
But perhaps “flowed through me” would express it better, the body of the child as much a part of nature as rock or root. Clot of blood in a green tree.
It is where I began as a poet and it has taken me all these years to find this place. A girlchild hidden in a tree.
She refuses to come down. She will not enter a world marked by the cross-hatch of aerial routes, rough sea voyages, the morass of intercontinental crossings.
Will the child render back what the grown woman in her search for meaning making has lost? The glimmer of leaves, fragrance of fruit, whispering of many mouths in the tree of life.
But lyric excess should not abrade the search for sense. I say this to myself. And the edges of dislocation and the questions enforced on us must not fail in the slow dissolve of color, twenty-first century melancholia.
It seems to me that the circuitous routes of language even as they constitute an inner skin as it were to the sensorium, are linked in ways we have not yet been able to speak of, both to the nerves of memory and what we commonly think of as finding one’s way.
But what might it mean to find one’s way? I walk to the edge of Ground Zero, as far as they will let one go, making returns, a pilgrimage, the site a graveyard for thousands, the stench of burning flesh and wires. On one trip down there as I walked past Liberty Street I was struck by the extreme youth of the soldier guarding the perimeter, a young lad freckled, fresh faced. Behind him the shell of Tower 2 against which an ancient patriarch was getting photographed. Small children screaming in delight at pigeons, a rescue worker, hands on his own throat, face sunk with tiredness, his gas mask at his hip.
We flow into what breaks and burns around us. We march in the streets, we stand at the barricades, we break through barriers and pick up the pieces of broken glass strewn on the streets. We touch the bodies of our dead, precious fragments of flesh.
For me, after the events of September 11 there came a period of quick note taking and composition. A poem of twelve lines called Aftermath. Then another called Invisible City (6). But after writing there came a time of fearful fragmentation, torn apart in so many directions: the fear here on this island, the condition of our lives, not knowing what could strike next: fire, pestilence caused by a bitty white powder filled with anthrax spores, racial profiling. And on the other side of the globe in Afghanistan, the terrible bombardment, stones ground down, children starving, women in burkhas fleeing. Disjunctive in space, they co-exist in time, in the time of our lives.
As a child I lived at the borders of war. Moving back and forth across the Indian Ocean between Kerala, on the western coast of India, and Khartoum, in the Sudan In Sudan there was a civil war raging. On the way to India we often stopped in Aden, in what is now Yemen. There were British Tommies on the rocks, and Yemeni fighters hidden by the broken walls. More recently in India, in the last few years there has been the rise of a fascist Hindu movement and ethnic violence. All this has been part of my personal history and has left a mark on my poetry and my prose.
How can these violent versions of the real that cut into memory be translated into art?
Art in a time of trauma, a necessary translation. I think of Benjamin, who understood that much was broken in the world as he knew it, and found a momentary release in a fitful mysticism, writing. “Fragments of a vessel,’ he wrote, ` to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another.” For him, they are “fragments of a greater language” (7).
But what if the paste shows, the seams, the fractures, an essential portion of our dislocated world? If for Benjamin the translation in its piecing together of fragments must “incorporate the original’s mode of signification” for us, here now at the edge of a city blown up at its southern tip, the work of art must use the frame of the real, translating a script almost illegible, a code of traumatic recovery.
In its rhythms the poem, the artwork, even as it sets up a language distinct and unique, incorporates the scansion of the actual, the broken steps, the pauses, the blunt silences, the brutal explosions. Perhaps this is what a nomadic memory can afford.
So that which is pieced together is a work that exists as an object in the world but also, in its fearful consonance, its shimmering stretch, allows the world entry, a recasting that permits our lives to be given back to us, fragile, precarious, and even in extremity, lit by tenderness.
Some of these reflections first saw the light of day during my keynote presentation for the conference “Remapping the Modern: Cultural and Aesthetic Transformation in Asia,” Rutgers University, March 29, 2001. The concluding portion came into being as part of my presentation at the panel “Artist in a Time of Crisis,” New York Foundation for the Arts, Drawing Centre, SOHO, November 14, 2001.
(1) On the internal irruption of fragments into the art space, see “L’objet reel … le cadre interieur du tableau,” in Guillaume Apollinaire, Meditations Aesthetiques, Les Peintres Cubistes. (Paris: Hermann, 1965): 65.
(2) Meena Alexander, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience. (Boston: Southend Press, 1996): 146.
(3)William Wordsworth, “Fenwick note to the Ode,” Poetical Works. de Selincourt and Darbishire, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970): v.1: 463.
(4) Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. (Harvard University Press, 1999): 9.
(5) Meena Alexander “Black River, Walled Garden,” Illiterate Heart. (Triquarterly Books: Northwestern University Press, 2002).
(6) I read these poems at the panel “Artist in a Time of Crisis” at the Drawing Centre. Aftermath and Invisible City are part of the exhibit “Arts Respond to 9/11” in New York City. Forthcoming in Social Text, Special Issue on 9/11 (September 2002).
(7)Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations. Trans. by H. Zohn. (New York: Schocken, 1969): 78.