ELIZABETH ALEXANDER V. M.S. MERWIN

Merwin hunts for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet March Madness 2012 Tournament

M.S. Merwin ousted Kevin Young in a close match and Elizabeth Alexander narrowly defeated Carl Phillips.  Both now go head-to-head for the final Sweet 16 spot in the Midwest/South.

Alexander is well-represented in Dove’s anthology.  “The Venus Hottentot (1825)” refers to a real 19th century event, a sad event involving wealthy and scientific Europeans and an African.  The poet is more anxious to speak for the victim; the first part in which the scientist speaks feels tossed-off.

THE VENUS HOTTENTOT (1825)HEr

1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope..

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

pickling jar in the Musée
de l’Homme on a shelf

above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.

2.

There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? Or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays

at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.

“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
towards the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak

English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid brother. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach

is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts

and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence, I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian

archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up

from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.

The historical facts in this case are interesting, but in poems of this kind, the question must always be asked: what is it that makes the presentation interesting?  The historical facts, or the poem?  And here we must say the facts.  The attempt at the end to add some drama doesn’t really work: the notion of a “black” heart that is both “geometric” and “unnatural” seems both too obvious, and too much of a stretch.

M.S. Merwin is given four poems by Dove in her anthology.   The following, unlike Alexander’s, is personal, plain, but it, too, burdens itself with a rather heavy moral—though in Merwin’s poem it does unfold in a somewhat subtle manner. 

.YESTERDAY

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my fathers hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I dont want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

“I don’t want to keep you” and “I got up and left him then” both have more than one meaning in the psychological climate of the poem, which feels very sad, very angry, very WASPy.

The poems evince a certain amount of skill, but they both finally prove unsatisfying. 

A close game—Merwin advances, 68-67.

The four Sweet 16 winners in the Midwest/South:

Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, Patricia Smith, and M.S. Merwin.

2 Comments

  1. Yeah said,

    May 16, 2012 at 4:04 am

    Could you be the voice of E.A. Poe? Here’s your chance.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    May 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    John Cusack did not go for the Southern accent at all. I generally liked what he did, though. Even though it wasn’t Poe, it was at least a Poe who had a sense of fun, a sense of humor, a rascal by nature, which is much closer to Poe than the silly ‘macabre’ caricature.

    When I find the technology, I hope to make Thomas Brady heard on this blog…


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