In Praise of Elizabeth Alexander

What a thrill that Barack Obama has selected Elizabeth Alexander to compose and read a poem at his inauguration. Her poet’s voice expresses that rare combination of inspired passion and down-to-earth reality. The opening of “Letter: Blues” from her first book of poems, The Venus Hottentot serves as a signal example as she juxtaposes yellow freesia that are “like twining arms” with shower curtains and smoke alarms in one stanza, and a juice jug and honey pot with a “violet 3-D moon” in the next.

A mutual friend introduced us just before I returned to Connecticut from Philadelphia in 1990. It seemed that our paths were bound to cross as her grandfather, Arthur Logan, had been my parents’ doctor when they lived in New York. Given their aversion to such folk, my guess is that Mother and Daddy saw Dr. Logan more socially than medically. My mother had also met Dr. Logan’s daughter and Elizabeth’s mother, Adele Logan Alexander.

Elizabeth gave me a copy of Venus Hottentot to give to Mother with the following inscription: “For Ann Petry, What an inspiration you have been to me! For the great gift of your work, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. All the best to you.” At that point, they began a mutual admiration society in the form of an exchange of correspondence that lasted until Mother died.

Since Ann Petry is a far better writer than her daughter, I’ll let her take over the story here. Mother replied to Elizabeth: “For a brilliant young poet to say that I’ve inspired her is an accolade beyond any I have ever received.” She called Venus Hottentot “magnificent, passionate, evocative.” Elizabeth wrote in “Omni – Albert Murray” “I think a painting is a poem.” Mother responded, “and in my mind – I think your poems are paintings.” In a journal entry she included Elizabeth with John Berryman and Derek Walcott as poets that she re-read to “refresh my use of the English language.” After receiving a letter from Elizabeth, Mother wrote in her journal, “She’s an extraordinary young woman, talented beyond the telling.”

Not long after I moved back to Connecticut, Mother and I went to hear Elizabeth read and lecture on writing poetry at Wesleyan. Mother wrote to Elizabeth afterward: “It was a very great pleasure to meet you at Wesleyan and to see for myself that you are as beautiful as I imagined you to be and to listen to you read a variety of poems from The Venus Hottentot The poems are wonderful! Listening to you I found myself thinking there is poetry in the sound of your voice. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.”

Now I’ll have the last word.

After Elizabeth finished that reading, in a room so packed with people that students were sitting on the floor and standing along the walls, she told everyone that there was a distinguished writer in the room. She asked Mother to stand. Mother tried to hide because she hated to draw attention to herself. Eventually she stood and bowed to the applause, said “Thank you,” and sat down. On the drive home, Mother complained about being the center of attention. I tried to explain to her that it was important for those students to know that before there was Elizabeth Alexander, there was Ann Petry. Mother never did acknowledge that I was right. But it was then that I decided to write her biography. The “Prelude” to At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry opens with Elizabeth’s introduction of Mother at Wesleyan, so I owe the impetus to write the book, at least in part, to Barack Obama’s chosen poet. Thank you, Elizabeth! If anyone can do justice to the significance of this important moment in our history, you can.

A brief note: Even though the book signing was snowed out, the book nearly sold out. I went to the store on Saturday and signed copies that people had purchased ahead of time and then saw some dear friends: my babysitter, her mother, the mother of a high school classmate, a former neighbor whom I used to greet in the post office all the time. By the time I left, I think the store had only five or six unclaimed copies.

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