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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 21-29

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Lyric in a Time of Violence

Meena Alexander


There is an uncommon light in the sky
Pale petals are scored into stone.

I want to write of the linden tree
That stoops at the edge of the river

But its leaves are filled with insects
With wings the color of dry blood.

At the far side of the river Hudson
By the southern tip of our island

A mountain soars, a torrent of sentences
Syllables of flame stitch the rubble

An eye, a lip, a cut hand blooms
Sweet and bitter smoke stains the sky.

(New York City, September 13-18, 2001) [End Page 21]

Invisible City

Sweet and bitter smoke stains the air
The verb stains has a thread torn out

I step out to the linden grove
Bruised trees are the color of sand.

Something uncoils and blows at my feet
Sliver of mist? Bolt of beatitude?

A scrap of what was once called sky?
I murmur words that come to me

Tall towers, twin towers I used to see.
A bloody seam of sense drops free.

By Liberty Street, on a knot of rubble
In altered light, I see a bird cry.

(New York City, October 17-November 3, 2001) [End Page 22]


In altered light I hear a bird cry.
By the pit, tor of metal, strut of death.

Bird song yet. Liturgie de cristal.
Flesh in fiery pieces, mute sediments of love.

Shall a soul visit her mutilated parts?
How much shall a body be home?

Under these burnt balconies of air,
Autumnal duty that greets us.

At night, a clarinet solo I put on:
Bird song pitched to a gorge, a net of cries.

Later a voice caught on a line:
"See we've touched the bird's throat."

(New York City, November 20-December 5, 2001) [End Page 23]


Girl grown woman fire mother of fire

—Muriel Rukeyser


Darting lines of a petroglyph at Stornorrfors up north
by the river's rim, an elk with a lifeline through it,
to the right a human, arms stuck out, feet too,
a dancing thing sworn to four points of the compass.
A light wind strikes up,
drizzling grass seeds over a pile of ash,
our feet bound in leather knotted with floating strings.
Dear, I have nothing invested in narrative,
not in anyway that should make you nervous.
The earth our green & fragrant home.
Yes, home we like to say, mindful of what has brutalised
our soil and hurt the sheen of wind and rain.
And to argue as some do that fear incites
the sublime gets us precisely nowhere.


Remember the sage of Königsberg? Thirty-three,
burnt out already, pacing the stairwell, in tophat and spats,
figuring out footnotes to a doctoral dissertation on Fire.
Sparks fly from his wrist and from the throat
of a woman first glimpsed in a water meadow.
Who can tell what the brilliant Immanuel
can or can't have had in mind?
In his Physishe Geographie volcanoes blow their spouts off,
wild beasts clamber up higgledy-piggledy ruins.
On the ground, the thingness
of forms battered down as far as thought might latch
onto the tiniest button, tender bell of flesh.
Desire strapped lest it stray
into a mismatched nature, promiscuous geography. [End Page 24]


White men being the flower of perfection, all others drop away
Burmese women dress in slovenly fashion;
Hottentots smell; Indians ruin everything with their oily skin.
Grass, though needful for the ox, also for man's subsistence,
cannot help us reckon why beings need to exist.
Why this taxonomy riveted by skin color?
Why strip some persons raw? Might we think space
through skin, muscle and bone as bright vitality?
Questions startle each other, hook & point to desire.
See, there's Kant by a stairwell in an inner room.
He paces, thought tormented, then stoops to listen hard.
Petals splatter from the plum branch by the river,
also fragments of a cheekbone, a earlobe dangling a pearl.
A hot, discordant music wells...


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pp. 21-29
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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