I met Elizabeth Alexander almost a decade ago at Cave Canem, a retreat for young black poets organized by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. I wasn't quite good enough to get in myself, and was at that point where I was giving up poetry and moving into long-form journalism. So I was there to write a story--I'd kind of sneaked my way in, basically.
What I remember about her is this. I was there covering a workshop she was doing with a group of young poets. Someone had told her I was, myself, aspiring and so before class started, she allowed me to read a poem I was working (about Kenyatta, incidentally) and have it critiqued. I was kind of floored--and the reason why is below.
Elizabeth Alexander is going to present a poem at the inauguration. I don't want to disrespect anyone here with what I'm about to say. But there is an interesting parallel, here again, in the Obama and Clinton selections. Maya Angelou is a very inspirational writer who, I think, has helped a lot of young women through some tough times.
But Elizabeth Alexander is a student, and dare I say, master of the craft. Her work is inspirational in a way that the Great Gatsby, or Mad Men is inspirational, in that it just says so much about who we are. When Clinton picked Maya Angelou it was revolutionary for a lot of young black kids in schools across the country--we had to study that poem in English class. Picking Alexander is a much more subtle move which I hope folks won't miss. Put bluntly, the whole "competence aesthetic" has been extended to the poets also. I'm not dissing Clinton here, or giving undue credit to Obama--this is about the moment in history. So much has changed since then.
In that vein, I offer Alexander's most famous piece, The Venus Hottentot. I'm embarrassed to say that I hated this poem when I first read it. But I was young and foolish. I knew better after I read it ten more times. Folks that don't know the history can read here. This is, to my mind, one of the best meditation I've ever read on black women and the loss--and I guess reclamation--of control of their physical selves. Even that is kind reductive. Read it and weep. Seriously.
Poem after the jump. Comments open this afternoon.
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..
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving close,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
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.
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