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

And so I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.

I been in sorrow?s kitchen and done licked out all the pots. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Steal away to Jesus. I ain?t got long to stay here.

On suffering, which is real. On the mouth that never closes, the air that dries the mouth. On the miraculous dying body, its greens and purples. On the beauty of hair itself. On the dazzling toddler: ?Like eggplant,? he says, when you say ?Vegetable,? ?Chrysanthemum? to ?Flower.? On his grandmother?s suffering, larger than vanished skyscrapers, September zucchini, other things too big. For her glory that goes along with it, glory of grown children?s vigil, communal fealty, glory of the body that operates even as it falls apart, the body that can no longer even make fever but nonetheless burns florid and bright and magnificent as it dims, as it shrinks, as it turns to something else.

There will always be children and there will always be old people. We spend most of our lives somewhere in between. When we produce the children, we get to be royalty for a short while--the world pulls out its chair for the pregnant woman--but soon we are once again worker bees, tending the little ones.

Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes its? quicksilver. Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other?s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, work always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.

I have heard from so many different kinds of people who have experienced loss?yes, some widows, but mostly people who have lived to tell the stories of many kinds of loss and want to share them. We need to tell our stories. I never imagine a reader because I think you can?t; it interferes with the writing process. And then, you get the beautiful surprise of all the people out there who connect with your words and share themselves.

One night at bedtime, Simon asks if I want to come with him to visit Ficre in heaven. Yes, I say, and lie down on his bed. ?First you close your eyes,? he says, ?and ride the clear glass elevator. Up we go.? What do you see? I ask. God is sitting at the gate, he answers. What does God look like? I ask. Like God, he says. Now, we go to where Daddy is. He has two rooms, Simon says, one room with a single bed and his books and another where he paints. The painting room is vast. He can look out any window he wants and paint. That room has four views: our backyard, the dock he painted in Maine, Asmara, and New Mexico. New Mexico? I ask. Yes, Simon says, the volcano crater with the magic grass. Ah yes, I say, the caldera, where we saw the gophers and the jackrabbits and the elk running across and Daddy called it the veldt. Yes. Do you see it? And I do. The light is perfect for painting. His bed in heaven is a single bed. Okay, it?s time to go now, Simon says. So down we go. You can come with me anytime, he says. Thank you, my darling. I don?t think you can find it by yourself yet, he says, but one day you will.

They shared an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.

Art that speaks to any of us always comes from a very particular place, and then we find ourselves in it in some kind of way.

I have not yet learned to use our television DVR. One of the points of marriage is that you split labor. In the olden days that meant one hunted and one gathered; now it means one knows where the tea-towels are kept and the other knows how to program the DVR, for why should we both have to know?

Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.

This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers? heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year? Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God?s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and then they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them? What is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.

Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other?s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth.

I hope you?re not turning all Christian, Simon says, when he comes home and finds me uncharacteristically blaring gospel music. I am not, but I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder, I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.

Poetry can indeed be taught, like most skills. But the gift of voice is its own thing, as well as the determination to work through and despite discouragement.

To live in memory and in dreams is a cruel comfort.

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.

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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