Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An opportunity to consider how public or communal pressures on a writer can dramatically affect the choices he or she makes

Hecate says "Jump!" and Obama says "How high?" Not really. In all honesty, I had almost nothing to do with this, but I am delighted to learn that Obama will, as Democratic presidents have before him, have a poet at his inauguration.

Poetry is important. One of my favorite t-shirts bears a quote from Victor Anderson: "White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that actually works." To which I always amend: "Poetry does work. Poetry induces ecstacy, which is what poetry is supposed to do and ecstacy IS magic." Great nations need poetry and in extremis -- which, let's face it, pretty well describes our current situation -- they need it most of all.

Obama's chosen Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of African American studies, . . . a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, and winner of the Jackson Poetry Prize last year.

She is the daughter of former secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, who made appearances on Obama's behalf during the campaign. She grew up on Capitol Hill and attended Sidwell Friends School, which Obama's children will attend. She is also a former neighbor of Obama's in Chicago.

She said she was overjoyed at the inaugural honor.

"I am obviously profoundly honored and thrilled," she said today. "Not only to have a chance to have some small part of this extraordinary moment in American history. . . . This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power that words are the medium with which we communicate across difference, and that words have tremendous possibilities and those possibilities are not empty."

Alexander, a v good choice, IMHO, is, perhaps, best known for her poem, Venus Hottentot:

The Venus Hottentot (1825)

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 close,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

pickling 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 powder in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My bother 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
towards 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 brother. 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 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.

Alexander has explained her theory of poetry:

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
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?

Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder

The talk is good. The two friends linger
at the door. Urban crickets sing with them.

There is no after the supper and talk.
The talk is good. These two friends linger

at the door, half in, half out, ‘til one
decides to walk the other home. And so

they walk, more talk, the new doorstep, the
nightgowned wife who shakes her head and smiles

from the bedroom window as the men talk
in love and the crickets sing along.

The joke would be if the one now home
walked the other one home, where they started,

to keep talking, and so on: “African
Leave-Taking Disorder,” which names her children

everywhere trying to come back together and talk.

Go, Elizabeth!

*Title of the post from an essay by Alexander on Gwendolyn Brooks


Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE said...

I saw this in the WaPo this morning and IMMEDIATELY thought of you, H!

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