Arts & Culture

Radcliffe Fellow, poet Elizabeth Alexander reads

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‘It’s not writing history, but it’s giving us something where the record stops.’

It was show and tell for poet Elizabeth Alexander this week.

The Yale University professor of African American studies, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, used a May 5 reading to show the depth and musicality of her poems, short stories, and penetrating essays — and to tell the story of inspiration’s multiple avenues.

History is one. “I’m not a historian,” Alexander told an audience of 80 in the crowded second-floor colloquium room at 34 Concord Ave. “But I do love the archives.”

African-American cultural tradition in particular, she said, offers a wealth of stories “untold, under-told, misstold — so that art cries out.”

Recapturing the past is “part of the very important work of art,” said Alexander. “It’s not writing history, but it’s giving us something where the record stops.”

History was the foundation of her signature poem, “The Venus Hottentot” — “not the first poem I ever wrote but certainly the biggest first poem I wrote,” said Alexander. It tells the story of a 19th century Capetown woman lured to Europe by a promise of riches.

I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powder in glass pots, …

The poem was inspired by the true story of an African woman caged and put on naked display at the private balls and circuses of Paris and London.

I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

Next to her on display is a pig that “plays at cards, tells time and fortunes by scraping his hooves.”

Alexander also read “Translator,” one in a series of poems about the Amistad, a Spanish slave ship taken over in 1839 by its Mendi captives — who were then put on trial in New Haven.

the captives, the low black schooner like
so many ships, an infinity of ships fatted
with Africans, men, women, children …

The Amistad poems appear in “American Sublime” (Graywolf Press, 2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and the most recent of Alexander’s four poetry collections.

At Radcliffe, she’s working on a fifth, and is also editing an anthology of African-American experimental poetry. “This year,” said Alexander, “I am in my usual midst.”

As a writer, she uses both sides of her brain, she said — in poetry and prose. (Alexander wrote “The Black Interior,” a book of essays published in 2004 by Graywolf Press.)

The Radcliffe talk, Alexander said, was intended to show “the development of a body of work” — her creative journey to poems and essays in the last two decades.

For her poems, Alexander turned from history to describe another avenue of inspiration — dreams. She uses these subconscious journeys for twists and turns of language, for substance, and for “the fabulously logical illogic of nighttime dreams.”

Dreams also help jar her out of familiar ruts of composition, said Alexander. “I wanted to make sure that language was always surprising — that the journey to write a poem was never inevitable in any way.”

She read from one dream poem, “Crash,” which appears in “Antebellum Dream Book” (Graywolf Press, 2001).

No black box, no fuselage,
just sistergirl pilot wiping soot from her eyes,

Gender and race (and class) are the inevitable grist of her poems and ruminations in prose, said Alexander, who was born in Harlem in 1962 and grew up in Washington, D.C.

happy to be alive. Her dreadlocks
will hold the smoke for weeks.

From the same 2001 collection, Alexander read “The Toni Morrison Dreams.” A snippet:

All the white passengers bailed out
before impact, so certain a sister

“I am the yellow mother
of two yellow boys,” she says.
I sit up straight.

couldn’t navigate the crash. O gender.
O race. O ye of little faith. …

Another dream poem, “Peccant,” contains a nugget of advice for poets — “don’t write what you know, write what you are willing to discover.”

The same concerns, said Alexander, “overlap back and forth in prose and poetry.” She read from “The Black Interior,” including from “Can You Be Black and Look at This: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” a meditation on “the complex fiction” of race and the struggle for racial self-identification.

The 1991 beating created “a space for group self-definition and self-knowledge,” read Alexander. But it was also a signpost along a dark historical road.

“Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries,” she read — from the public lynchings of yesterday to the basketball and boxing of today.

In a sample of prose from her anthology, Alexander observed that “black thought and life rarely go uninterrupted by the violent gougings of racism.”

Her next collection of poems, under way at Radcliffe, will likely come together as a sort of blues lament, said Alexander. She has been listening to sad stories this year, and to the great blues singers, “and longing to sing myself.”

Alexander’s singing will turn on the magical and incisive language that is the primal font of her poems. She read “Tumor,” one of the new poems.

“I made up a language,” one line reads, “in which to exist.”