Like many of Meena Alexander’s poems, “The Storm” is largely about displacement. Alexander herself was a child of many homes—India, Sudan, Europe, the United States—and the struggles of the expatriate is one of the major themes of this work. It also describes how the expatriate can come to find grace in the face of their loss.
In the first section, "After the First House", the major theme is the ruin of a homeland. The story focuses on the titular “first house,” beginning with its destruction, followed by a bittersweet and injurious childhood return. The chapter is rife with memories that end in ruin, and the tone is bleak and painful. The narrator tells us of the ruin of former luxury: “heaped rosewood in pits / as if it were a burial” where “silver boxes ... seemed to catch fire and burn.” Ancestors are recalled as victims of shipwreck “crying from the holds.” The narrator looks upon the myriad graves, “grandparents end to end” and other relatives besides, confined to “stones stung white with rain.” “After the First House” is redolent with the language and imagery of grief that comes from the loss of home and legacy.
Part two, "The Travellers", moves from contemplation of the lost home to the experiences of the displaced. It conveys the weariness of those who must travel, the tears “of the child voyager” without guidance. “Is there no almanac / for those who travel ceaselessly?” the narrator laments. The poem goes on to discuss the desolation of war, the grief of mothers approaching the dead, looking upon the corpses as “precious sediments of love.” This part of the poem speaks of death, mourning, “the decrepit seethe of war,” the suffering of the refugee, and the dingy reality of trying to make a home in a place that is not your home. But it finishes with a child’s dream of the mother: “the realm of dream / repairs ... in a time of torment.”
With its themes of both love and encroaching violence, part three, "Sita’s Story", is the most dichotomous of the poem’s five parts. It is replete with images of destruction—of monsters, poison, of “Lanka laid waste” and the “prelude to ruin”, “a swan’s throat / shut in death.” But it also tells of “pale Sita,” a woman of poise and quiet strength. In the author’s introduction, Alexander describes Sita as “drawn from the heroine of the Ramayana as an active, desiring woman, torn, yet poised in her exile.” The narrator shares a memory of a lover, “a shadow now / widowed by memory,” and of songs “of love and war / impenitent loss.” Yet again it ends with an image of a woman, a “subtle angel” who comes with understanding and comfort. Even she cannot ease the grief of loss—“there is no help in this,” the narrator tells us—but she is nonetheless a figure of grace.
The tone of "Sita’s Story" is the hush before the storm in both tone and placement. Part four, "The Storm", is a list of calamities—the feverish infant, the “young swimmer ... dashed against sharp rocks.” The narrator relates myths that speak of fathers’ betrayals of their families: how Parasurama is driven by his father to matricide, and of Abraham’s willful sacrifice of his own child. It calls to mind the first lines of the poem, when the first house was torn apart by the narrator’s “Father’s father.” These descriptions of “human calamity / thrust to the brink” mark the violent climax of the poem.
But at the height of that climax, this violence is reclaimed by the narrator. Through these tales, “our living and dead / returned in lightning and hail.” In the ritual of storytelling, the “songs of agony,” though painful in the telling, “healed us of ourselves / all exile ended / the faces in lamplight, rejoicing.”
In the final section, "Aftermath", the narrator experiences a gentle and graceful return, “the storm shivering itself out.” In this moment, the expatriate returns to the homeland. The destruction is not forgotten—the “intimate wreckage” of the storm remains, but as rain cleanses all it falls upon, “each jot [is] poised ... lovely and rare.” "Aftermath" tells of grace after devastation, “without compunction / without bitterness either.” Memories of home remain, though the returning exile is forever changed by the journey.
In its entirety, “The Storm” describes a fragmented journey through memories of a home, the reality and aftermath of its destruction, and how one may achieve healing after the storm has passed. It shows how the stories that come from destruction can be used to endure the hurt, and ultimately heal from it—how one may, finally, be “cast free.”