Meena Alexander has a conversation with literary ghosts in her posthumous poetry collection, In Praise of Fragments. The writings and drawings in this book depict nonlinear, speculative bits about what it means to be alive, present, and home. She invites us on her exploration of the soul in her last few years of life.
Many of the poems are accompanied by handwritten snippets and waves, and in one page of her notebook, Alexander states that she does not know why she draws lines with sumi ink. In the afterword, Leah Souffrant writes about Alexander’s portrayal of the “unsayable of the soul,” so perhaps this is what the abstractions represent: movements of ghosts within the pages. Alexander does make repeated commentary on the nature of the soul across her poems, as an incorruptible and immortal thing, something that both burns like paper and rushes like water.
Water also serves as a physical grounding force for us as we migrate through a book that spans land and ocean. Alexander lived on four continents throughout her life and references them all, mapping connections from India to Italy. She speaks as one who both experiences and observes, takes us to a coffee shop where she used to sit, a rainy plaza where she watched obscure children, a library where she read with her grandfather. She describes seeing birds fly and wondering if they are going home, or if they know what home is. In her first poem, she asks where and what home is, and how much a body can be home. She says that she thinks of herself as a woman with no place to call her own, despite all of the places she has lived.
Even if you live in the same place forever, as time passes, the place does not stay the same. Neither does the person living in it. What might it mean to belong in a city like Venice, threatened by floods, a piece of history that could disappear? Alexander’s poems are shadows of the past and present mingling together, weaving in and out of the flow of time. She consistently returns to Sarra Copia from centuries ago, her writings and love letters, conjured from vaguely known facts but mostly imagination. She also dwells on her grandmother, who died before she knew her but left behind a box of letters. One thread of writing that remains the same throughout generations is its sincerity, the lack of the writer’s understanding about life but their willingness to attempt the impossible act of putting emotion into words.
Alexander’s “unsayable” words seem to convey an eternal appreciation for life, and her patchwork of marvels and questions is the most poignant gift she could have left behind. Eternity is how the books you own and letters you write are passed down in your family after your death, or how you can feel some connection to a stranger who walked the same halls as you many years prior. We breathe the same air as all those who came before, and all those who will come after. Life is just a series of coming and going to different places, dislocation and settlement.
You are here, and where else could you be? There is never anywhere else. Alexander’s last work is a lesson in impermanence, transcendence, and the beauty and futility of trying to capture meaning in two hands and two eyes. Her fragments are time immemorial.
(Nightboat Books, Poetry, 2019)
BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.