Poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher, Elizabeth Alexander is the author of four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime, which was one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. American Sublime is rich with persona poems, jazz riffs, historical narratives, sonnets, elegies and ars poeticas. A scholar of African-American literature and culture, Alexander recently published a collection of essays, The Black Interior. Whether in prose or poetry, hers is a vital and vivid poetic voice on race, gender, politics, and motherhood. Clarence Major writes that “Alexander has an instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience.” And as The Chicago Tribune said of Body of Life, “If Alexander can sing, she can also strip and peel words to their luminous, ambiguous cores.”
A professor at Yale University and at the Cave Canem poetry workshop, Alexander was Conkling Poet at Smith from 1997-1999, and the first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College. She has read her work across the U.S. and in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, and her poetry, short stories, and critical prose have been published in dozens or periodicals and anthologies. Her play, Diva Studies, was produced at the Yale School of Drama.
Alexander has received many grants and honors, including the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Brown decision of 1954.” In 2007 she was awarded Poets & Writers inaugural Jackson Prize, which honors “an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary merit but has not yet received major national acclaim.”
Alexander read an original poem in honor of the inauguration of Barack Obama, January 20, 2009. She is only the 4th poet to be asked to read at a Presidential swearing-in. See a video of the reading.
In the absence of women on board,
when the ship reached the point where no landmass
was visible in any direction
and the funk had begun to accrue-
human funk, spirit funk, soul funk-who
commenced the moaning? Who first hummed that deep
sound from empty bowels, roiling stomachs,
from back of the frantically thumping heart?
In the absence of women, of mothers,
who found the note that would soon be called “blue,”
the first blue note from one bowel, one throat,
joined by dark others in gnarled harmony.
before the head-rag, the cast-iron skillet,
new blue awaited on the other shore,
invisible, as yet unhummed. Who knew
what note to hit or how? In the middle
of the ocean, in the absence of women,
there is no deeper deep, no bluer blue.
From: AMERICAN SUBLIME (Graywolf Press, 2005)
Virginia Woolf, incested
though her childhood, wrote
that she imagined herself
growing up inside a grape.
Grapes are sealed and safe.
You wouldn’t quite float
in one; you’d sit locked
in enough moisture to keep
from drying out, the world
outside though gelid green.
Picture everyone’s edges
smudged. Picture everyone
a green as delicate
as a Ming celadon. Pic-
ture yourself a mollusk
with an unsegmented body
in a skin so tight and taut
that you’d be safe. You could
ruminate all night about
the difference between “taut”
and “tight,” “molest” and “incest.”
“Taut means tightly-drawn,
high-strung. What is tight
is structured so as not to
permit passage of liquid
or gas, air, or light.
From BODY OF LIFE (Tia Chucha Press, 1996)
Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.
A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary
crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles
of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will
ever see what I see
through this microscope.
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
will float inside a labeled
picking jar in the Musee
de l’Homme on a shelf
above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”
Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.
There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.
I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk
dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.
That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays
at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.
“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
toward the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.
Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach
is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts
and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian
archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have no forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up
from his table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut our his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.
From THE VENUS HOTTENTOT (University Press of Virginia, 1990)
Poetry Center ReadingSpring 1998