Thursday, December 12, 2019

At the Willy Brandt Centre - "Impossible Grace", an evening rememberung Indian poet Meena Alexander; music for solo flute

Meena Alexander (courtesy WBC)

“Impossible Grace”, an evening focusing on the writing and personality of Indian poet Meena Alexander, took place in the intimate setting of the Willy Brandt Centre, Jerusalem, on December 6th 2019. Moderated by Petra Klose, the centre’s Social Art Project coordinator, we heard several of Alexander’s poems read by Karen Alkalay-Gut, with interludes played by flautist Michal Tikotzki. 


Petra Klose, who had known Meena Alexander personally, spoke of the evening’s event as marking a year of the poet’s death, adding interesting biographical information on the poet, as well as personal memories of their meetings in Jerusalem and Alexander’s strong ties with students and with Jerusalem. Born in Allahabad, India, Mary Elizabeth Alexander (who always went by the name of Meena, eventually changing it officially) was raised in Kerala and Sudan, also spending time in Europe and the United States. In New York, she was distinguished professor of English at Hunter College and at the City University of New York. She earned a BA at Khartoum University and a PhD at Nottingham University. Described as “undoubtedly one of the finest poets of contemporary times” (The Statesman, India), she was the author of numerous collections of poetry, including “Atmospheric Embroidery” (2018), “Birthplace with Buried Stones” (2013), and “Illiterate Heart” (2002),  two novels and a memoir - “Fault Lines” (1993). Her poetry, which has been translated into several languages, explores themes of feminism, post-colonialism, migration and dislocation, memory and reconciliation, also revealing the search for identity that came from the peripatetic life she led.


Several of Meena Alexander’s poems were read by Karen Alkalay-Gut. Each beginning introduced a subject, then to burgeon into an astoundingly vivid, sensual myriad of almost-visual images, fragmentary memories of childhood and reflections on her experience of a mix of different traditions, moments of joy, of loss or fear, the poet's observation of situations presented with resignation, sometimes drawn together by questions to herself. “Refuge”, for example, is a rich canvas highly representative of the breadth of Alexander’s evocative writing:


“Under my skin

In syllables untranslatable

With blue from the backs of snails

Plucked from the Dead Sea

I have marked the name of God,

On my wrists where the blood trembles

On the delicate skin of my throat

On my eyelids shaped

Like fishes I have pricked and pierced

With my pen…

I have kissed the eyes of the child

Who fell off a fishing boat

Who barely floated, who swallowed

Sand and could not breathe.

I have unlaced his red shoes

And set them by his side

I have knelt by his shoes

And watched them fill

With the breath of the Unnameable

And foam from the breakers

Of the Mediterranean sea.

I want him to live with me

In a house made of wind and water

And sky. Who am I?

“Shook Silver”, a colourful picture of shipboard life through childhood memories, represents the poet’s recurring descriptions of journeys and change of location: 

“I was a child on the Indian Ocean.

Deck-side we dance in a heat- haze,

Toes squirm under silver wings.

Under burlap someone weeps.

Amma peers out of the porthole,

Sari stitched with bits of saffron,

Watch out for flying fish

She cries.

Our boat is bound for Africa…”


Explaining the value of her art, Alexander had said: “The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history. We have poetry so we do not die of history".  Karen Alkalay-Gut’s reading of the poems was crystalline and objective, profound and meaningful, as she took time to unfold each idea, each gesture, thus enabling the audience to hear every word and process the wealth of detail, to engage in the power of language of each poem. 


Meena Alexander’s poetry lends itself to music. Indeed, some of her poems have been set to music. In an interview for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, she was asked what superpower she would most like to possess. Her answer was: “Always hearing the music that allows the poems to flow.” Interspersed between the poems at the Willy Brandt Centre event, pieces performed by flautist Michal Tikotzki invited the listener to pause, to listen, to think, indeed, to savour some of the finest works written for solo flute.  Her playing of G.P.Telemann’s Fantasie No.3 for flute solo, set in the plangent key of B minor, was pensive, imaginative and sonorous, tastefully embellished, its Allegro abounded in good cheer and humour. In keeping with Baroque performance practice, Tikotzki (playing a modern flute) was as economical in her use of vibrato in the Telemann as she was in the ensuing Sarabande from J.S.Bach’s Partita in A minor, this played with exquisitely shaped phrases and spontaneity, as the artist showed the listener through one of Bach’s most beguiling and aristocratic pieces. And then there is “Syrinx”, the 1913 ground-breaking, quintessentially French piece for solo flute, composed by Claude Debussy for the last act of Gabriel Mourey’s dramatic poem “Psyche”. The nymph Syrinx is pursued by the god Pan; not returning his sentiments, she hides from him by turning herself into a reed. Tikotzki’s playing of the piece was evocative, lush and sensuous, as she took time to recreate its natural course, its sense of the unexpected, tinging it with dynamic flexibility, the piece’s long final note gradually dying away to leave the listener deep in thought.


Concluding the event with a reminder of Meena Alexander’s connection and involvement with the diversity and complexity of Jerusalem, Petra Klose reminisced about an evening at the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City in January of 2012 she and Meena Alexander spent listening to a recording of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and discussing life, philosophy and music, following which the poet penned “Impossible Grace”,  weaving a set of miniature- and richly-coloured vignettes, each set at one of the gates of the city:

“At Herod’s gate

I heap flowers in a crate

Poppies, moist lilies—

It’s dusk, I wait.

Wild iris—

The color of your eyes before you were born

That hard winter

And your mother brought you to Damascus gate…

At Zion’s gate I knelt and wept.

An old man, half lame—

He kept house in Raimon’s café,

Led me to the fountain

At Golden gate

Where rooftops ring with music

I glimpse your face.

You have a coat of many colors—impossible grace.”


Retired professor from Tel Aviv University, Karen Alkalay-Gut has published much poetry in different languages as well as articles on poetry. Her most recent collection was awarded the Leyb Rubinlicht Prize for Yiddish Literature. She has appeared around the world, including at the Library of Congress, the University of Innsbruck and the Israel Festival, Jerusalem.


Solo flautist of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra and a member of the Israel Contemporary Players, Michal Tikotzki studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Berlin University of the Arts and the Geneva Conservatoire de Musique. She has played and soloed with orchestras worldwide and is the recipient of several awards and scholarships.

Karen Alkalay-Gut(

Michal Tikotzki, Petra Klose (photo:Jost Weisenfeld)


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