Illiterate Heart: The Movement Toward Self Definition[1]


Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem

CUNY Graduate Center/Hunter College

Copyright © 2003 by Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Alexander, Meena. Illiterate Heart. Evanston IL: TriQuarterly Books,/Northwestern University Press, May 2002.

  1. Women Writers and women readers have a special relationship -- special because of the condition of women throughout history, special because women capable of voicing the thorny realities of their lives are rare. In our world, writers like South Asian poet Meena Alexander find ways to express the unspeakable, to sketch women's worlds through language, or simply to touch us. Despite the nexus of constraints -- patriarchy, colonialism, race, religion -- with which women have dealt with from the time of lyricist Sappho all the way through to Alexander's contemporary world, women writers refuse to be silenced. And women readers whisper their thanks with each turn of the page.

  2. Meena Alexander's latest collection of poems, Illiterate Heart, winner of the 2002 PEN Open Book Award, is a compilation of extraordinary poetic reflections from one of today's strongest female voices. The book opens with the ten-couplet work, "Provenance"-- a word signifying "the place of origin" in two of Alexander's languages, French and English. It is the point of origin for the text, the place of entry into this rich and engrossing collection, preparing readers for what is to come. The central theme of the collection is introduced through the dual significance of the word provenance, for Alexander will show how identities are made by and in language, how languages merge with and inscribe female bodies -- figured here as "walls stuck with palm prints," as ". . . damp ground, pitchers of gold / holding clear water" (4).

  3. As with much contemporary poetry, Alexander's work is consistently non-metrical, free verse, open form. A noticeable transformation in this collection, however, concerns the use of imagery. These poems seem to have been liberated somewhat from the controlling authority of the image -- the mainstay of her earlier work. This change allows for the palpable emergence of the lyric I: "I want to write: / The trees are bursting into bloom. // I felt it, though it did not come / in that particular way, the sentence endstopped" (27, "Fragments"). Elusive imagery is replaced in some part by symbols and objects: mirrors, palms, hands. Rather than sculpting the image of a single tree or flower, here we have "trees" and "bloom" in generalized form. Aditionally, the more frequent use of first person permits greater access to the terrain of the poetically fashioned self: "I am writing a simple set of directions, / a map to no place in particular" (29, "Map"). Though unrestricted by conventional form, Alexander's poetry is highly refined; it is heady, arcing toward the theoretical. In this way, her compositions represent a departure from the work of many of today's poets. Free form is brought together with philosophical meditation, resulting in a provocative set of poetic reflections. Moreover, Alexander's Illiterate Heart is as autobiographical as it is theoretical.

  4. Indeed, theory is always part of the landscape of Alexander's work. Illiterate Heart is at once a sophisticated literary production and a journey through some of today's vital theoretical questions: the workings of colonial and patriarchal pedagogy; the construction of feminine gender and the violence of its inscription on the female body; the possibilities and challenges of self-fashioning for the postcolonial migrant woman. The speculative territories into which readers travel in Illiterate Heart are familiar to Women's and Postcolonial Studies practitioners, specialists, and students. Alexander's memoir, Fault Lines, and her collection of prose and poetry, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience, have become part of English, Women's, and Cultural Studies curricula in a number of universities. Their poignant ruminations on the intersections of language, colonization and women's concerns make these texts well suited to post-secondary study. Now, educators working with these issues can also consider her latest collection of poems.

  5. In Illiterate Heart the formation of identity through language within conditions of patriarchy and colonization is vividly illustrated. Alexander exposes the violence of colonial pedagogy through the imposition of a colonial language. Clearest in the title poem is the painful disconnect between the reading Indian body and symbolic colonial body imaged by the blond-haired-blue-eyed Tom and Bess in a textbook, itself the figure of pedagogical colonial discourse. We see how colonial ideology persists in postcolonial India -- how long after 1947 the subject is defined by colonial predicates, how postcolonial Asians are constituted through colonial language and images of whiteness still, and how, because of colonization, for many Indians, English remains the language of desire -- of entry, promotion, transport. Thus, while using English, Alexander also critiques the continued institutionalization of that language in contemporary India. What is more, the poet harks back to the colonial era through, for example, memorable reflections on her father's life, as with the moving "Elegy for my Father," and to historical references like the various mentions of Mahatma Gandhi, who emerges here as highly influential for Alexander, as he is for many Indians.

  6. The twofold tyranny of colonization and patriarchy is compellingly rendered in the title poem, "Illiterate Heart." During English lessons as a child, Alexander reflects, "My body flew apart: / wrist, throat, elbow, thigh, / . . . then utter stillness as a white sheet / dropped on nostrils and neck" (66). Historically, colonization is enforced through pedagogy -- through the compulsory acquisition of a colonial language which metaphorically "breaks up" the subject's body and her sense of self. The child of the poem must navigate multiple languages: "At noon I burrowed through / Malayalam sounds, / slashes of sense, a floating trail" (66). It is the "harsh tutelage" of colonial pedagogy that the poet writes of in order to free self and reader from that "cage of script" (67). She shows how colonial and postcolonial subjects are made, violated and trapped by language, how language inscribes identity and breaks it apart, "In dreams I was a child babbling / at the gate splitting into two, / three to make herself safe" (67, italics mine). Three languages loom large in the poet's self and psyche -- English, French and Malayalam. The self fashioned here is inseparable from her native and colonial languages, ". . . stuck forever at the accidental edge. // O the body in parts, / bruised buttress of heaven!" (67). However, by using these languages, by creating poetry with them, she binds body and self into a unified whole: "These lines took decades to etch free, / the heart's illiterate, / the map is torn. // Someone I learn to recognize, / cries out at Kurtz, thrusts skulls aside, / let's the floodwaters pour" (68). Returning to a familiar trope in her work -- birth -- we see that language is both "painful" and "heavenly" since it is inscribed violently through dominating forces and is the means by which the self is conceived, written, revealed: born.

  7. In the title poem -- as with "An Honest Sentence," "Fragments," and "Translated Lives" -- "the movement toward self definition," the conspicuousness of the I, is fully realized (68). "She" is closer to the reader. Alexander seems to speak directly from the core in much of this volume while maintaining her trademarks: painstaking precision with language and exceptionally well-honed poetics. "An Honest Sentence" takes us from the terrain of colonial pedagogy into the related realm of patriarchal pedagogy: "I cannot see my mother. / Yet I see Agamemnon" (52). Here, Alexander returns to the dusty pages of Greek mythology and Agamemnon's sacrificial lamb, Iphigenia, who stands in this time as the figure of broken, violated woman -- vocal cords cut, incapable of utterance, dying by the hands of a father. She is at once a mythological figure and the poet herself, " part-time English, / trying to forge an honest sentence / such as: Someone has cut her cords" (53). Iphigenia, the poet and "woman" merge and emerge as the injured voiceless sacrificial lamb of history -- the female. But as readers familiar with Alexander's work know, the poet will not leave speaker or reader there -- cords cut, unable to speak. In this and all her writing, woman is brought back to life, revivified through birth and re-birth, found and founded again, as with other poems in this collection, such as "Giving Names to Stones," "Water Table," and the stunningly evocative closing work, "Black River Walled Garden."

  8. Illiterate Heart is a remarkable lyric achievement from one of today's most accomplished Indian poets; Alexander is multiply noted indeed as poet, scholar, essayist, novelist, memoirist, distinguished professor. The I in three parts -- Malayalam, English, French -- Indian, Woman, Poet -- is made whole. With this collection, Alexander's language becomes at once more accessible and more heartrending, the self that is drawn more visible and more lucid. In Illiterate Heart, Meena Alexander gives us the latest contribution to postcolonial women's lyric poetry. By sorting out the menacing problem of lyrical illiteracy for the postcolonial migrant woman -- the unavailability of the terrain of self for one caught in the snare of colonial and patriarchal language -- the I materializes with new frankness. The lyric intensity and boldness of this collection are unmistakable, making this a text to put on your booklist if you teach poetry, literature, Women's or Cultural Studies, and, to add to your bookshelf if you are a discriminating admirer of fine lyric poetry.


  1. From the title poem "Illiterate Heart," page 68. Back

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