Elizabeth Alexander’s first book of poetry, The Venus Hottentot, is organized as an oscillating dialogue between the personal and the social spheres, connected through the channels of culture and race. Thus, the second section of the collection concerns her family lineage and her life as a child and teenager, while the third section focuses exclusively on African American intellectual and artistic icons and influential European and Mexican painters. The fourth and final section brings the public and the private together in a series of poems that explicitly ponder the relationship between Alexander’s personal history, particularly as it relates to gender, and that of the larger social and cultural world.
The first section of the book consists of one poem, “The Venus Hottentot,” divided into two parts. Part 1 is narrated by the scientist Baron Cuvier. He celebrates the acquisition of “facts” and knowledge as inextricable from his acquisition of animal and human fossils, including his most controversial prize, the genitalia of the African woman Saartjie Baartman, who was popularly known in nineteenth century London as the Hottentot Venus. In part 2, the Hottentot Venus has the last word, as she articulates her multilinguistic proficiency, her wealth of knowledge and culture, her unimpeachable humanity, and her resolve and strength as an African woman. This poem functions, then, as the overture to a collection that locates Alexander amid cultural icons and social forces that attempt to...
(The entire section is 620 words.)