Elizabeth Alexander Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry revolves around a celebration of what it means to be both African American and female. In all of her volumes of poetry, Alexander uses riffs on jazz to create a melodious sound when her poems are read aloud. She relies on sensual markers, expressing the senses of touch and sight through words. Rarely venturing out into alternative typographies, Alexander does occasionally use prose poems to form a stream-of-consciousness mentality. Her persona poems are a hallmark of her style, as she attempts to enter in the consciousness of another person and tell his or her story through her poetry.

The Venus Hottentot

The title poem of The Venus Hottentot revolves around a historical personage known as the Venus Hottentot, an African woman who was forced to be a sideshow exhibit in the nineteenth century. The poems in this volume reveal a cultural history that ranges from the Venus Hottentot to singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson to then-imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela. “Today’s News” celebrates what Alexander sees as a multitude of different types of blackness: “I didn’t want to write a poem that said ’blackness/ is,’ because we know better than anyone/ that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things.”

“The Venus Hottentot” evokes a sense of exploitation and of always being watched by others for unusual behavior. Alexander might be familiar with this feeling, as she grew up in Washington, D.C., as the daughter of a politician, under the watchful eyes of the entire political community. However, the poem also brings forth a sense of physical exploitation, a bodily invasion on the part of another. It is not a theme that continues through this volume but is used later in other books.

The Venus Hottentot also shows the blues and jazz influence of Harlem, as Alexander gives her work a musical quality even as she refers to jazz personages such as Albert Murray, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. “John Col” is one of the few poems in which Alexander uses an alternative typography, though only in certain stanzas. She divides syllables and phrases between lines to underline their meaning:

a terrible beau- ty a terrible beauty a terrible beauty a horn

Though divided between lines, the repetition melds itself into the melody of jazz.

Body of Life

Alexander’s second volume, Body of Life, also references jazz culture, but the overall theme is memories. Alexander evokes memories of New York and Chicago, as well of her grandmother. “Butter” is practically mouth-watering as Alexander goes through all the dishes her mother cooked that contained butter. She also remembers events such as the Apollo moon landing and, in “Body of Life,” explores what it means to grow up a black woman who is being taught how to be a diva.

A theme that was mentioned in The Venus Hottentot but not explored in depth until Body of Life is...

(The entire section is 1308 words.)