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:
EQUINOXNow is the time of year when bees are wildand eccentric. They fly fast and in crampedloop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversantsin 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 squeezea drop of venom or of honey.After the stroke we thought would be her lastmy grandmother came back, reared back and slappeda nurse across the face. Then she stood up,walked outside, and lay down in the snow.Two years later there is no other wayto say, we are waiting. She is silent, lightas 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 ARROWSWhat 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 hisbody, if one of us doesn’t hurry nowand write it down fast? Will it besalt or late light that it melts like?Floss, rubber gloves, and a chewed capto a pen elsewhere —how are we toregard his effects, do we throw themor use them away, do we say they arerelics 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 itshould go to where are those with nolinen, or whether by night we shouldmemorially wear it ourselves, by dayreflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.Here, on the floor behind his bed isa bent photo—why? Were the two ofthem lovers? Does it mean, where wefound it, that he forgot it or lost itor intended a safekeeping? Should weattempt to make contact? What if thisother man too is dead? Or alive, butdoesn’t want to remember, is human?Is it okay to be human, and fall awayfrom oblation and memory, if we forget,and can’t sometimes help it and sometimesit is all that we want? How long, indawns or new cocks, does that take?What if it is rest and nothing else thatwe want? Is it a findable thing, small?In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,a country? Will a guide be required whowill say to us how? Do we fly? Do weswim? 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