Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup Poem I: Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth AlexanderI haven't really searched that much* for World Cup poems, or for poems that include World Cup soccer (football) as a theme, subject or even reference, so maybe that's a project for the future (2010). I did come across the following poem, by one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Alexander, which is more about family in both the personal and broader senses, which is to say, nation and diaspora, but it opens on a collective watching of the 1998 World Cup, which France won on its home soil by defeating Brazil. It's called "The African Picnic," and appears in PEN/America: A Journal for Writers and Readers, issue number 7, "World Voices," which features excerpts from this past spring's PEN American Center New York Festival of International Literature. Elizabeth originally read it as part of her remarks on the "Africa and the World: Writers at Home and Away" panel, which also included Breyten Breytenbach, Achmat Dangor, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Zakes Mda. The first stanza is one of the tightest of any poem I've come across recently.

The African Picnic

World Cup finals, France v. Brasil.
We gather in Gideon's yard and grill.
The TV sits in the bright sunshine.
We want Brasil but Brasil won't win.
Aden waves a desultory green and yellow flag.
From the East to the West to the West to the East
we scatter and settle and scatter some more.
Through the window, Mama watches from the cool indoors.

Jonah scarfs meat off everybody's plate,
kicks a basketball long and hollers, "goal,"
then roars like the mighty lion he is.
Baby is a pasha surrounded by pillows
and a bevy of Horn of Africa girls
who coo like lovers, pronounce his wonders,
oil and massage him, brush his hair.
My African family is having a picnic, here in the USA.

Who is here and who is not?
When will the phone ring from far away?
Who in few days will say goodbye?
Who will arrive with a package from home?
Who will send presents in other people's luggage
and envelopes of money in other people's pockets?
Other people's children have bcome our children
here at the African picnic.

In a parking lot, in a taxi-cab,
in a winter coat, in an airport queue,
at the INS, on the telephone,
on the crosstown bus, on a South Side street,
in a brand-new car, in a djellaba,
with a cardboard box, with a Samsonite,
with an airmail post, with a bag of spice,
at the African picnic people come and go.

The mailman sees us say goodbye and waves
with us, goodbye, goodbye, as we throw popcorn
ululate, ten or twelve suitcases stuffed in the car.
Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye--
The front door shut. The driveway bare.
Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye.
The jet alights into the night,
a huge, metal machine in flight,
Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye--
At the African picnic, people come and go
and say goodbye.

Copyright © Elizabeth Alexander, 2006.
*Googling "world cup poems" pulls up Football Poets first. The site features "195 World Cup Poems so far!"


  1. I've loved this poem because of the way it tries to get at what it is to be an African American with an African family in the US. Or maybe I'm projecting what I am and know about the poet onto the poem, but it seems that watching football/soccer is the part of this experience that I recognize most.

  2. Mendi, you're right that that's the poem's real subject. I also think Elizabeth is speaking about the coming and going, the circulation, of Blackness, within a family or families, and how traditions are exchanged and developed within and across boundaries. I especially love the refrain, "Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye," which is a direct address but also an appeal to the Motherland, a profoundly Diasporic invocation.

  3. Hey People...
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  4. There's something very special about stories like that!

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