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  • In Memory of Roy DeCarava (1919-2009)
  • Meena Alexander (bio)

How can I forget the first time I met Roy DeCarava? It was at Hunter College where we both taught. There was some glitch in the cashier's office and faculty and staff had to travel down to the basement level and stand in line at a little window cut into the wall, to pick up a pay check. As I walked down the stairs I kept hoping the line wouldn't be too long. I had class coming up. There was just one person there, a gentleman somewhat older than I was. He seemed at the edge of being elderly, but debonair, in a tweed jacket, his hair combed neatly back. As I stood behind him he turned in a most courteous manner, stood aside to let me go first.

The first thing I felt like saying was "Where are you from?" It's what immigrants spontaneously ask of each other. What I meant was—Which part of the subcontinent are you from? Surely he was from Kerala. It was where my mother lives, where I came from. But he spoke first, simply asking:

"Didn't I meet you in Harlem in 1935?"

"Of course you did!"

It was the only answer I could give and in my heart of hearts I felt it must be true. Somehow the ancient doctrine of many lives, of transmigration makes sense to me.

Both of us laughed a little and then he introduced himself. He taught in the Art Department he said, he was a photographer. I told him I was a poet.

From time to time I would see Roy as we passed each other at work, and sometimes, in the manner of people who teach in the same institution, we would meet at gatherings.

In time I grew to realize that he was a great photographer. And with this realization came an understanding of the way he could wander down a corridor, there were so many of them at Hunter, a certain look in his eyes—by which I mean he looked as if he were searching for something, for something to gaze at, something that he could draw into the intricate inner world that was always there for him.

I shared some of my poems with him and we sat and talked about images and how they came and how they went away. Once he was on the 12th floor and stopped by my office. [End Page 27] There was a sunlit view of rooftops and Lexington Avenue with its shops and dwellings stretching below. For an instant we stared out of the window together.

"How do you make your photographs?"

He looked at me. I had just given him a copy of my book River and Bridge and he held it in his hand.

I sensed how awkward the question sounded. I tried to clarify.

"I mean do you go out with an idea in your head?"

His response was clear:

"I walk into the street and it comes to me."

In Roy's memory I have made a poem using those words as an epigraph. The poem is evoking his deeply moving photo Graduation (1949), a girl in a prom dress standing in a vacant city lot. Later I made another poem which I have called "What Cleopatra Sees." It draws on his photo Gittel (1950). With its layer upon layer of images mirrored in plate glass, a woman in dark glasses standing by a pillar, a boy on the street wandering towards her, this photo spoke to me of the metamorphic life of migrants. Into those lines I pressed something of my belief in the permeability of bodies and the migration of souls.

When I think of Roy's work, that powerful, luminous body of work he has left us, and for the generations to come, I think of the darkness out of which we come, and to which we return. The words of the poet John Donne flow into me:

Love's mysteries in souls do growAnd yet the body is his book.

It seems to me that in the work of this master...


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