ELIZABETH ALEXANDER BATTLES CARL PHILLIPS IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

 
Elizabeth Alexander, who rocked Obama’s inauguration, hopes to advance in Scarriet Madness play
 
Rita Dove’s anthology has amply provided the poet Elizabeth Alexander, Department Chair of Black Studies at Yale, with 6 pages of 3 poems.  Alexander’s poem which meets Carl Phillips in Madness action is short one: 
 
EQUINOX
 
Now is the time of year when bees are wild
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
 
They are dervishes because they are dying,
one last sting, a warm place to squeeze
a drop of venom or of honey.
After the stroke we thought would be her last
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
 
a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
walked outside, and lay down in the snow.
Two years later there is no other way
to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
 
Metaphor is the chief—perhaps the only—device which we might call poetic used by the poet in “Equinox.”   The metaphoric equation is complex and the whole poem is essentially the explanation of it—which is a problem.  When, after September bee behavior and its effects are described in the first half (8 lines) of the poem, and we are introduced to the other half of the equation, “After the stroke we thought would be her last,” we do experience a kind of dramatic shift, but we also experience an equal sign in a mathematical formula, and the final “she is silent, light as an empty hive” stings us with its associative logic. 
There is no doubt that analogy, metaphor, and comparison are central to poetic rhetoric, but when the equivalence is strained, strange, or overly complex, (my love is like a steamship, for instance) there is a danger of the metaphor eclipsing all the movement of the poem.   like a steamship, you say?
 
Elizabeth is a smart poet and fights against metaphor-drift by giving us hard facts: “my grandmother…slapped a nurse across the face” and “walked outside, and lay down in the snow.” 
 
But unfortunately, lines like “I have found their dried husks in my clothes” are too transparently laid on for the metaphoric effect in a manner that suggests it is only the metaphor that is driving the poem.  The best analogies seem either accidental or inevitable, not programed or manufactured. 
 
This may seem harsh, as if we are attacking the poet’s sacred imagination.  But we must push ahead and ask: what does the grandmother have to do with the bees?   Bees sting while dying—and the dying grandmother slapped the nurse.  “One last sting,” as Alexander puts it, and this is all well and good, but in the poem we are being instructed about bees—they are not a part of the drama of the poem (the grandmother dying is) and thus the specter of the didactic rears its ugly head.  “I found their dried husks in my clothes” is an attempt to naturalize the lecture, but the attempt only calls more attention to the trick.
 
The poor grandmother: we only see her dying—and compared didactically to a “dried husk” and an “empty hive!” 
 
Carl Phillips (he has 2 poems and 3 pages in the Dove anthology) is a few years older than Alexander.  His poem completely avoids the metaphor issue: he asks a series of questions of what to do with real things.  His poem is also about death:
  
AS FROM A QUIVER OF ARROWS
 
What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and then gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?
 
What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now
and write it down fast? Will it be
salt or late light that it melts like?
Floss, rubber gloves, and a chewed cap
 
to a pen elsewhere —how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
or use them away, do we say they are
relics and so treat them like relics?
Does his soiled linen count? If so,
 
would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
should go to where are those with no
linen, or whether by night we should
memorially wear it ourselves, by day
 
reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
a bent photo—why? Were the two of
them lovers? Does it mean, where we
found it, that he forgot it or lost it
 
or intended a safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
other man too is dead? Or alive, but
doesn’t want to remember, is human?
Is it okay to be human, and fall away
 
from oblation and memory, if we forget,
and can’t sometimes help it and sometimes
it is all that we want? How long, in
dawns or new cocks, does that take?
What if it is rest and nothing else that
 
we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
a country? Will a guide be required who
will say to us how? Do we fly? Do we
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
 
The poem asks questions from start to finish about an anonymous dead person, but at the end of the poem the questions asked on behalf of a “we” suddenly lurch into “What will I do now, with my hands?”  The loss has infected the speaker, but rather strangely and obscurely: why hands?  In the latter half of the poem, forgetfulness and rest take center stage as the memorial task hinted at in the beginning, (“hurry now and write [the memory] down”) is left behind. 
 
One feels a little that the questions go on too long, and they are too abstract.  It feels a little bit: what’s the point, here? 
 
Elizabeth Alexander 79 Carl Phillips 76
 

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