by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Elizabeth Alexander. The name may sound familiar. If I say “the inauguration of President Barak Obama,” a lightbulb might go off, because she was there, reading her poem for that momentous occasion, “Praise Song for the Day.”
Elizabeth Alexander (1962 — ) was born in Harlem, but as a child in a politically active family, she grew up in Washington, DC. Her mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is also a writer, and teaches African-American women’s history at George Washington University. Her father, Clifford Alexander Jr., is a former U. S. Secretary of the Army and and former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair. Her brother Mark was a senior adviser to the Obama presidential campaign and a member of the president-elect’s transition team.
Alexander as a toddler went with her family to the 1963 March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Politics was in the drinking water at my house,” she said, describing her childhood.
Almost every family has at least one relative who never quite fits in with the rest, but Alexander’s Great-Uncle Paul was a pretty extreme case.
Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
when he traveled without his white wife to visit his siblings—
now in New York, now in Harlem, USA—just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told anyone
he was white, he just didn’t say that he was black, and who could imagine,
an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?
The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
When Paul came East alone he was as they were, their brother.
The poet invents heroic moments where the pale black ancestor stands up
on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse who is learning
her husband’s caesuras. She can see silent spaces
but not what they signify, graphite markings in a forester’s code.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
see their brother without their telltale spouses.
What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
Here a poem tells a story, a story about race.
She got her B.A from Yale. Then her mother said to her, “That poet you love, Derek Walcott, is teaching at Boston University. Why don’t you apply?” Alexander originally entered studying fiction writing, but Walcott looked at her diary and saw the poetry potential. Alexander said, “He gave me a huge gift. He took a cluster of words and he lineated it. And I saw it.”
Racism in America isn’t just a Southern thing, and the loneliness of a college student away from home is universal. Fortunately, no region, or group or religion has a monopoly on kindness to strangers.
My first week in Cambridge a car full of white boys
tried to run me off the road, and spit through the window,
open to ask directions. I was always asking directions
and always driving: to an Armenian market
in Watertown to buy figs and string cheese, apricots,
dark spices and olives from barrels, tubes of paste
with unreadable Arabic labels. I ate
stuffed grape leaves and watched my lips swell in the mirror.
The floors of my apartment would never come clean.
Whenever I saw other colored people
in bookshops, or museums, or cafeterias, I’d gasp,
smile shyly, but they’d disappear before I spoke.
What would I have said to them? Come with me? Take
me home? Are you my mother? No. I sat alone
in countless Chinese restaurants eating almond
cookies, sipping tea with spoons and spoons of sugar.
Popcorn and coffee was dinner. When I fainted
from migraine in the grocery store, a Portuguese
man above me mouthed: “No breakfast.” He gave me
orange juice and chocolate bars. The color red
sprang into relief singing Wagner’s Walküre.
Entire tribes gyrated and drummed in my head.
I learned the samba from a Brazilian man
so tiny, so festooned with glitter I was certain
that he slept inside a filigreed, Fabergé egg.
No one at the door: no salesmen, Mormons, meter
readers, exterminators, no Harriet Tubman,
no one. Red notes sounding in a grey trolley town.
2. ELLINGTONIA — from Omni – Albert Murray
“So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft. You
hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people
making love. . . . You see your neighbor’s
laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. . . . One
guy is cooking dried fish and rice and another
guy’s got a great big turkey. . . . Jitterbugs are
jumping up and down always over you, never
— Duke Ellington
I might have jitterbugged at the Renaissance ‘room,
thrown upside down by some zoot-suited don
in a vicuna coat, smell of Barbasol—
I might have been a barfly with her wig turned ‘round.
Not shoes, not conjure, shaving cream, cologne.
“Tootie for Cootie” unafraid of rhyme.
Bold music, bold as sunflowers. Rhyme is real.
Blow smoke rings when you say “Mood Indigo.”
In the long, appalling history of white cruelty to people of color, the true story behind the “Hottentot Venus” is not the worst, but its very public nature crept over me gradually, and the haunting horror of Alexander’s poem has stuck in my mind.
A woman of the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa, called Saartjie Baartman in Afrikaans, was pressured into allowing herself to be displayed for money in 19th century freak shows in England because of her large posterior (Steatopygia) Though not a slave, she was very poor, and lived in conditions little different from those around her who were. In 1810, she was promised a share of the profits by her employer, a free black man (Cape designation for someone of slave descent) named Hendrik Cesars, and his partner, Alexander Dunlop, a Scottish doctor, and that she could come home as soon as their debts and expenses were paid. But she died in 1815 in Paris, after she had been taken over by another man who then illegally sold her in France in 1814 to an animal trainer. After her death, her body was dissected and its parts, including genitalia, put on display, originally labeled as if she were some sort of ‘missing link’ between ape and man, at the Paris Museum of Man. In 2002, after a prolonged public outcry, her remains were at last repatriated to her homeland.
That Saartjie Baartman was the best-known La Belle Hottentot, but there was at least one other, only makes the story more awful.
— from The Venus Hottentot
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 conjur 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 not 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 this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out 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.
Notes: Sadza is a Southern African cornmeal dish.
When Barack Obama asked Elizabeth Alexander to compose and read a poem for his Presidential inauguration, she followed in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. While “Praise Song for the Day” was harshly reviewed by literary critics as “too much like prose” and her delivery as “undramatic,” the poem became a bestseller after it was published as a chapbook.
Praise Song for the Day
— A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
As Elizabeth Alexander says in Ars Poetica #100: I Believe, a poem she wrote for her students about poetry:
…Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
- “Race” from Antebellum Dream Book, © 2001 by Elizabeth Alexander, Graywolf Press –
- “Boston Year” from The Venus Hottentot, © 1990 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia, Graywolf Press – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52116
- “2. Ellingtonia” from Omni-Albert Murray, © 1990 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Graywolf Press — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52114
- “The Venus Hottentot” from The Venus Hottentot © 1990 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia, Graywolf Press — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52111
- “Praise Song for the Day” © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander, Graywolf Press (chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52141
- “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” from American Sublime, © 2005 by Elizabeth Alexander, Graywolf Press – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53005
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/elizabeth-alexander#poet
- Washington Post Book Review: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/poet-elizabeth-alexanders-memoir-of-love-loss-art-and-glorious-food/2015/04/29/7d0a2540-eda8-11e4-8abc-d6aa3bad79dd_story.html
- NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/21/us/politics/21poet.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink&_r=0&mtrref=en.wikipedia.org&gwh=816A7F85BEDECDC371D94B016D9BA9BF&gwt=pay
- Southern Spaces: https://southernspaces.org/2009/natasha-trethewey-interviews-elizabeth-alexander
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Alexander_(poet)
- The Venus Hottentot,University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
- Body of Life,Tia Chucha Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
- Antebellum Dream Book,Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2001.
- American Sublime,Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2005.
- American Blue: Selected Poems,Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle, UK), 2006.
- (With Marilyn Nelson, young adult poems)Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, Front Street Press, 2007.
- (With Lyrae Van-Clief Stefanon)Poems in Conversation and a Conversation, Slapering Hol Press, 2008.
- Praise Song for the Day, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2009.
- Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2012.
- The Light of the World, Grand Central (New York, NY), 2015.
- The Black Interior: Essays,Graywolf Press, 2004
- Power & Possibility: Essays, Reviews and Interviews, University of Michigan Press, 2007
- The Light of the World: A Memoir, Grand Central Publishing, 2015
Selected Awards and Honors
- Elected to Pulitzer Prize Board: http://www.pulitzer.org/news/elizabeth-alexander-elected-pulitzer-prize-board
- 2015 Schomburg Medal
- 2007 Inaugural Recipient, Jackson Poetry Prize
- 2005 American Sublime shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize
- 2002 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship
- 1996 Founding member of Cave Canem
- 1992 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship
- Jazz sticker
- Sitka Spruce
- Boston trackless trolley
- 1950’s Men’s dancing shoes
- French Hottentot Venus poster
- Inauguration day, Alexander at podium
- Elizabeth Alexander
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud