Friday, April 11, 2008

Poem: Elizabeth Alexander

I'm feeling a little brain-spent tonight; I gave a talk that no one beforehand told me was limited to 15 minutes, so I wrote a 15-page paper--but I had the good sense to excerpt it extemporaneously, and did not come in over the clock. Actually, I'm glad I wrote the paper. Now I just need to clean it up and publish it. But since when I'm not reading creative work I work off notes (though I write out 7-8 pages of lecture notes twice a week) from which I talk/riff, I should have just gone to my usual default. It always does feel better to have written out a paper, though, strangely enough, even if it is in very rough form. (For several weeks before I had to give this talk/paper, my hip ached, and then this morning it felt fine, go figure.) It also made me realize that if you have a good research assistant (I don't) or two, you probably could write a lot of critical books!

Elizabeth AlexanderSo even though I'm tired, I am going to type out a poem by one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Alexander. I have sung her praises more than once on this blog. The first time I met her and heard her read her work was when she came to the Dark Room in 1988 or 1989, and she sparkled, as she always does. I remember looking through her book afterwards--her first, Venus Hottentot--and just standing there with my mouth open in astonishment. How could someone so young have written poems so beautifully turned, so full of brilliance, so funky? And in volume after volume (and she also writes criticism), the poems never disappoint. (One thing I always look for in her poems is her use of epizeuxis; she's up there with Shakespeare on that account, good company if you ask me.) These days students at Yale get to partake of her expansive gifts as a teacher, her prodigious talents as a poet, and her incredible warmth as a person. Here's her "Ars Poetica #13: The Idea of Ancestry," from American Sublime (Graywolf, 2005).

Ars Poetica #13: The Idea of Ancestry

Ralph Ellison's house is underground
next door to my house. Somehow we
buried it during the renovation.
The stream of which he wrote, the lullaby
sung softly by its banks is the one
my children sing, in tongues.

Ralph Ellison had an outside child--
shh--it is whispered, but when
will someone tell me the full story?
We buried his house under cast-off
sheetrock, beams, and broken appliances.

Walk in my flowering peony bed
and you'll find it, a TV antenna
made from a bent wire hanger:
what's left of Ralph Ellison's house.
It picks up mysterious whispers.

Copyright © Elizabeth Alexander, 2005, 2008, from American Sublime, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, all rights reserved.


  1. Thanks, John, for sending me to the dictionary (dot com:) to look up "epizeuxis"! Repetition facinates me as well...and I just (within the hour) read the last poem in another amazing Elizabeth's first book (Bishop, _North and South_) where she does it too! Thrilling to see it done so well

  2. what is your paper on?
    i would happily be your research assistant! should i write some kind of grant proposal? california is not that great and neither is writing technical apologies such as i more or less do.
    the other day a friend told me about some movie producer who hires a "cultural liaison" every year whose job is to travel and absorb culture then report on it. i could never envision an actual dream job before, but there you go. sigh.
    i'm really enjoying your poetry posts, btw.

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