The Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Alexander, Elizabeth. “An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander.” Interview by Christine Phillip. Callaloo 19, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 493-507. Interview deals primarily with Alexander’s first performed play, Diva Studies, the difficulty of and differences between writing for the stage and writing poetry, and Alexander’s ideas on the relationships among feminism, writing, and black women.

Austin, Doris Jean. “The Woman in the Sideshow.” Review of The Venus Hottentot, by Elizabeth Alexander. The New York Times, September 30, 1990. Focuses for the most part on the title poem, “The Venus Hottentot,” and its connection to the real historical figure of Saartjie Baartman. Tends to summarize Alexander’s poems without offering critical commentary.

Johnson, Judith E. “Deep Noticing.” The Women’s Review of Books 14, no. 10 (July, 1997): 128-130. Reviews seven books of poetry published by women, including Alexander’s second collection, Body of Life. Links that work to the poems in The Venus Hottentot, demonstrating how the motifs of “race and character” continue to inform Alexander’s writing.

McElroy, Colleen J. “Review: Seductive Histories.” The Women’s Review of Books 9, nos. 10/11 (July, 1992): 25-26. Reviewing three books by women poets, McElroy offers praise and criticism for The Venus Hottentot. Approvingly notes Alexander’s construction of a “montage of voices” and her deployment of “rich imagery.” Sees this first collection of poems as “typical,” however, and the lionization of African American and other historical and cultural figures as predictable.

Yenser, Stephen. Review of The Venus Hottentot, by Elizabeth Alexander. Poetry Magazine 158 (July, 1991): 214. Focuses on the historical figures that Alexander writes about in her book, noting her invocations of a “café of voices” from critic and novelist Albert Murray, photographer James Van DerZee, and painters Frida Kahlo and Romare Bearden. For Yenser, Alexander demonstrates not only the diversity of her own family and cultural upbringing but also that of the entire American hemisphere.