Read an Excerpt
The Venus Hottentot
By Elizabeth Alexander
Graywolf Press Copyright © 1990 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-55597-392-2
THE VENUS HOTTENTOT (1825) 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 toward 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 broth. 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 Khoisan 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.
Excerpted from The Venus Hottentot by Elizabeth Alexander Copyright © 1990 by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia . Excerpted by permission.
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