“A Notebook Is Not a Foreign Country” by Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander


Days and months are the travelers of eternity
So are the years that pass

Basho wrote on his sleeve
As he crossed a mountain pass.

The warbling sound of the mountain.
Is this what Basho heard?

His ink was the color of iris petals.
Where is Basho now?

On the way to Dharamsala
The taxi stopped by a cluster of goats

Their coats mottled red in sunlight,
I see a child with a pitcher on her head

A scarf blows about her knees,
By a tree festooned with plastic bags

(Daily detritus) I catch the words of a girl—
Slow hours she swung in a tree

Leaves cradled her face,
Her eyes were hidden.

She needed a goddess naked and green
When her mother called—Meena,

O Meena where are you now?
The child’s lips trembled.

The tree replied
Rustling leaves, rattling its moist twigs.

Alone in her bed, the child writes—
I am she who cannot be.

What can a clump of words mean?
She hides the book under her muslin cover.

I brood on Basho
Who burnt his house

And crossed a mountain pass
He entered a kingdom of ringing syllables

And did not lose his way.
A notebook is not a foreign country.

June 5—

A bird warbles in water.
In the stones

We see a laughing thrush.
Its feathers, the color of your hair.

June 6—

In the Kangra Art Museum, miniatures stud the walls—
Krishna combing Radha’s hair. Kangra 18 c.

Her skirts ruffled with intricate embroidery
Her nails incarnadine

The storm of her hair, his blue hands in it,
His ochre robe blowing.

Rocks and trees a blur,
Bear witness.

June 7—

Tibet Museum, in Dharamsala—
Bloodstained scarf and shirt

Worn by a political prisoner.
I could not pluck my eyes from precious stains

Tea colored now, in sunlight.
Dalai Lama temple—on the painted verandah

A brazier perpetually burning.
Inside the temple, Green Tara of Everlasting Compassion

Under her gaze, saved from peril,
Bound in fine linen,

Heaped inside glass,
They turn in stillness, ancient liturgies.

from Rattle #54, Winter 2016


Meena Alexander: “There’s no monetary reward for poetry, but the reward, I think, is a kind of grace, a clarification of the everyday. Because that’s what poetry is really bound to, the stuff of our lives. It comes out of this muck and dreck and ruin that we’re in. I’m thinking that particularly now there’s such a difficult summer with all the shootings and the killings. I do think that as a poet one has to bear witness, but it’s also bearing witness to a leaf falling from a tree. I think you have to take what comes to you and write it.” (web)

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