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)
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
I'm a woman, a Witch, a mother, a grandmother, an eco-feminist, a gardener, a reader, a writer, and a priestess of the Great Mother Earth. Hecate appears in the
Homeric Ode to Demeter, which tells of Hades who caught Persophone
"up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting. . . . But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit: only tenderhearted Hecate, bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaeus, heard the girl from her cave . . . ."