Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander

“I am looking for poems in the shape of open V’s, of birds flying in formation, or of open arms saying, I forgive you, all.”

Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 2004

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and arts activist. At the time of the 1994 Conference, Alexander taught at the University of Chicago, and had debuted her first collection of poetry, The Venus Hottentot (1990), some 4 years before. Educated at Yale University and Boston University, Alexander has been a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant, and anthologized in In The Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers (1992) and Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (1994). Since the conference, Alexander has written more books, including Body of Life (1997), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), American Blue (2006), and Crave Radiance (2010). In 2009, Elizabeth Alexander delivered her poem “Praise Song For The Day” for President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. Alexander has taught at Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University, and is now president of the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one the nation’s leading advocated for arts, culture, and humanities in higher education. In 2015, her memoir, The Light of the World, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

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I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, ‘til
my face is creased and swollen,
‘til my lips are dry and hot. I 
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove 
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father’s money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying 
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V’s of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

Affirmative Action Blues

Right now two black people sit in a jury room
In Southern California trying to persuade
Nine white people that what they saw when four white
Police officers brought batons back like
They were smashing a beautiful piñata was
“a violation of Rodney King’s civil rights,”
Just as I am trying to convince my boss not ever
To use the word “niggardly” in my presence again.
He’s a bit embarrassed, then asks, but don’t you know
the word’s etymology? As if that makes it
somehow not the word, as if a word can’t batter.
Never again for as long as you live, I tell him,
and righteously. Then I dream of a meeting
with my colleagues where I scream so loud the inside
of my skull bleeds, and my face erupts in scabs.
In the dream I use an office which is overrun
With mice, rats, and round-headed baby otters
who peer at me from exposed water pipes (and somehow
I know these otters are Negroes), and my boss says,
Be grateful, your office is bigger than anyone
Else’s, and maybe if you kept it clean you wouldn’t
Have those rats. And meanwhile, black people are dying,
Beautiful black men my age, from AIDS. It was amazing
When I learned the root of “venereal disease”
was “Venus,” that there was such a thing as a disease
of love. And meanwhile, poor Rodney King can’t think straight; 
what was knocked into his head was some addled notion 
of love his own people make fun of, “Can we all
get along? Please?” You can’t hit a lick with a crooked
stick; a straight stick made Rodney King believe he was
not a piñata, that amor vincit omnia.
I know I have been changed by love.
I know that love is not a political agenda, it lacks sustained
Analysis, and we can’t dance our way out of our constrictions.
I know that the word “niggardly” is “of obscure etymology” but probably
	derived from the French Norman and that Chaucer and Milton and
	Shakespeare used it. It means “stingy,” and the root is not the same as
	“nigger,” which derives from “negar,” meaning black, but they are per-
	paps, perhaps, eytmologyically related. The two “g”s are two teeth gnaw-
	ing; rodent is from the Latin “roder” which means “to gnaw,” as I have
	said elsewhere.
I know so many things, including the people who love me and the people
	who do not.
In Tourette’s syndrome you say the very thing you are thinking, and
	then a word is real. 
These are words I have heard in the last 24 hours which fascinate me:
	“vermin,” “screed,” “carmine,” and “niggardly.”
I am a piñata, Rodney King insists. Now can’t we all get along?