In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria,
Coughing into emptiness, and it came
A west wind from the plains with its arbitrary arsenal:
Torn sails from the Ganga river,
Bits of spurned silk,
Strips of jute to be fashioned into lines,
What words stake—sentence and make-believe,
A lyric summoning.
I came into this world in an Allahabad hospital,
Close to a smelly cow pasture.
I was brought to a barracks, with white walls
And corrugated tin roof,
Beside a civil aviation training center.
In World War II officers were docketed there.
I heard the twang of propellers,
Jets pumping hot whorls of air,
Blessing my first home.
In an open doorway, in half darkness
I see a young woman standing.
Her breasts are swollen with milk.
She is transfixed, staring at a man,
His hair gleaming with sweat,
Trousers rolled up
Stepping off his bicycle,
Mustard bloom catches in his shirt.
I do not know what she says to him,
Or he to her, all that is utterly beyond me.
Their infant once a clot of blood
Is spectral still.
Behind this family are vessels of brass
Dotted with saffron,
The trunk of a mango tree chopped into bits,
Ready to be burnt at the household fire.
Through the portals of that larger chaos,
What we can scarcely conceive of in our minds—
We'd rather think of starry nights with biting flames
Trapped inside tree trunks, a wellspring of desire
Igniting men and gods,
A lava storm where butterflies dance—
Comes bloodletting at the borders,
Severed tongues, riots in the capital,
The unspeakable hurt of history:
So the river Ganga pours into the sea.
In aftermath—the elements of vocal awakening:
Crud, spittle, snot, menstrual blistering,
Also infant steps, a child's hunger, a woman's rage
At the entrance to a kitchen,
Her hands picking up vegetable shavings, chicken bones,
Gold tossed from an ancestral keep.
All this flows into me as mottled memory,
Mixed with syllables of sweat, gashed syntax,
Strands of burst bone in river sand,
Beside the buried stones of Sarasvati Koop—
Well of mystic sky-water where swans
Dip their throats and come out dreaming.
Meena Alexander, "Birthplace with Buried Stones" from Birthplace with Buried Stones. Copyright © 2013 by Meena Alexander. Reprinted by permission of Northwestern University Press.