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Elizabeth Alexander

Visiting Poet

Elizabeth Alexander

Poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher, Elizabeth Alexander is the author of four books of poems, The Venus HottentotBody of LifeAntebellum 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.

Select Poems

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)


1. Cuvier

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.

Cranial measurements

crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,

close to how these numbers

signify aspects of

national character.

Her genitalia

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)

About Elizabeth

Personal Website
Poetry Center Reading Dates: April 1998, September 2001, September 2007, September 2014