Elizabeth Alexander


American Poet, Essayist and Playwright. Poetry Professor and Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University, Professor at Columbia University

Author Quotes

Blues: 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.

I wake up grateful, for life is a gift.

Poetry has always existed, and always existed in a communal context. Part of what people get from that is the story of who I am and who we are. I gotta tell you my story. I gotta tell you what happened. Let?s think about who we are.

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin? A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath? What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: ?The things / themselves.?

If we?re evolving in life I think that the difficult things that happen to us?I don?t think they necessarily get better in a straight line, just climbing the steps one at a time straight up and then you?re better. But I do think that it changes depending on the circumstance, depending on who you?re intersecting with, you know? Because sometimes when you share a sorrow with somebody else that can be sometimes seemingly more painful and more intense but ultimately very, very beautiful and powerful.

Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.

Using the voice is a physical act, one that first announces the existence of the body of residence and then trumpets its arrival in a public space.

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

In all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, ?There you are, my love.?

Poetry, I tell my students, is idiosyncratic. Poetry is where we are ourselves, (though Sterling Brown said Every 'I' is a dramatic 'I') digging in the clam flats for the shell that snaps, emptying the proverbial pocketbook. Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there. Poetry (and now my voice is rising) is not all love, love, love and I'm sorry the dog died. Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) is the human voice, and are we not of interest to each other?

What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.

Every shut eye ain?t asleep, every goodbye ain?t gone.

In the absence of organized religion, faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.

So ?what if the mightiest word is love?? is ? it?s a question of fact that perhaps asks in these times, as an incredibly heterogeneous collective, as an incredibly diverse country, is there such a thing as a love that can supersede or guide or take us through disagreement? What would that mean? What would that love look like? Mighty, that?s a very, very particular kind of word. Is there a kind of enduring power of love as I so fervently want to believe, but then I think, once again, love with no need to preempt grievance, love that is not about marital love, it?s not just about familial love. It?s not even about national love. In fact, love cannot just be for the people in our nation, even though right now we?re having this incredible national moment ? when I say now, in the moment of the inaugural.

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? ? Art is certainly my religion. I believe in the chosen family, especially as I get older. I believe in some kind of encompassing black culture that I am part of ? ?syncretic,? to use the word Ficre liked ? but I am also aware of the romance behind that sense of belonging. I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do: Rosh Hashanah. Days of Awe. Invite the dead to Sukkot. There seems to be a poetic ritual for everything? I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

Everything was told! Then we could begin something new.

It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.

So I think that then going through such an extreme of both grief but also shock, you know, we lose people in all kinds of different ways and so one factor that was part of ours was the shock of it. And so I was very interested to find that the way I really knew how I felt, and not just how I felt like I feel happy, I feel sad, but what was happening was to write it down. And that the process of writing is a process of living.

What if the mightiest word is love? Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance. In today?s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

It?s a big, beautiful, connected world, and I want my children to experience it that way. You belong to more than just where you are standing at any given moment.

So something that I?m really interested in is this the connection between what is universal and what is particular and how what is particular illuminates the universal. So recently I had a conversation with the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain who said this striking thing that he thinks moral imagination begins with universality and ends with particularity, which is kind of the reverse of how we?ve come to think of it maybe superficially of diversity in Western culture, is that the goal, is to get to a place where we realize how alike we are, right? Where we can celebrate what we have in common.

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre. When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself. When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us. His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us. Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

Friendship in marriage is its own thing: friendship in a cup of tea, or a glass of wine, or a cappuccino every Sunday morning. Friendship in buying undershirts and underpants. Friendship in picking up a prescription or rescuing the towed car. Friendship in waiting for the phone call after the mammogram. Friendship in toast buttered just so. Friendship in shoveling the snow. I am the one you want to tell. You are the one I want to tell.

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American Poet, Essayist and Playwright. Poetry Professor and Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University, Professor at Columbia University