Meena Alexander’s poem Rites of Sense’ concerns the fundamental question of freedom . The poem was published in Meena Alexander’s book, Illiterate Heart (TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2002)
Rites of Sense
In twilight as she lies on a mat
I rub my mother’s feet with jasmine oil
touch callouses under skin,
joints upholding that fraught original thing–
bone, gristle skin, all that makes her mine.
All day she swabbed urine from the floor,
father’s legs so weak he clung to the rosewood bed.
She rinsed soiled cloths, hung them out to dry
on a coir rope by a vine, its passion fruit
clumsy with age, dangling.
She lies on a mat, a poor thing beached,
belly slack, soles crossed, sari damp and white.
I kneel in darkness at her side,
her oldest child returned for a few weeks
at summer’s height.
She murmurs my name
asks in Malayalam Why is light so hot?
Beyond her spine I catch a candle glisten.
The door’s a frame for something
I’m too scared to name:
a child, against a white wall,
hands jammed to her teeth, lips torn
breath staggering its hoarse silence.
All night my voice laced through dreams
tiny eyelets for the smoke
Amma, I am burning!
I’m a voice slit from sound,
just snitches of blood, loopholes of sweat,
a sack of flesh you shut me in.
What words of passage to that unlit place?
What rites of sense?
Amma, I am dreaming myself into your body.
It is the end of everything.
Your pillow stained with white
tosses as a wave might
on our southern shore.
Will you lay your cheek against mine?
Bless my bent head?
You washed me once, gave me suck,
made me live in your father’s house
taught me to wake at dawn,
sweep the threshold clean of blood red leaves.
Showed me a patch of earth dug with your hands
where sweet beans grow coiled and raw.
Taught me to fire a copper pan,
starch and fold a sari, raise a rusty needle,
stitch my woman’s breath
into the mute amazement of sentences.