Elizabeth Alexander’s third book of poetry is a delight. Antebellum Dream Book provides vivid, viscid poems about motherhood, a narrative dramatic monologue, a sequence of magical dream poems, and wonderful verbal snapshots of relatives and friends.
Alexander’s poems are well-peopled, whether they are dreams or photographs. All kinds of people appear in these poems, giving advice, providing models, supporting and chiding. Many are well-known figures: Mohammed Ali, Harry Belafonte, Nefertiti, Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt, Sylvia Plath; others are from family myth and history. The effect is a vivid collage of American, particularly African American, culture.
The dream poems are narrated with both humor and precision, and they are attractive partly because they are the dreams everyone has. They reflect shared and specific anxieties, hopes, and memories. The narrative is abrupt, engaging, and direct. “Life as Dinner Party,” for instance, begins as a common anxiety dream: “My students, invited for Friday,/ arrive Thursday, dressed to kill.” Yet the poem continues on to represent a true feast, a fulfillment that provides comfort and solace.
The mothering poems are sticky, take-no-prisoners poems about the complexities of birthing and rearing. They explore the relationship between mother and child with true originality, again using dreams as vehicles for epiphanies.
Most of these poems are free verse; a few prose poems are included. The prose poem seems a particularly appropriate vehicle for dreams. The language sparkles. This collection provides both intellectual and visceral excitement by clothing archetypes in new dress, and by insightful reflections both on motherhood and on African American history and culture.