The Venus Hottentot: Poems

The Venus Hottentot: Poems

by Elizabeth Alexander




Elizabeth Alexander's highly praised first collection is available once again

I didn't want to write a poem that said "blackness

is," because we know better than anyone

that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things

Not one poem

-from "Today's News"

Originally published in 1990 to widespread acclaim, The Venus Hottentot introduces Elizabeth Alexander's vital poetic voice, distinguished even in this remarkable first book by its examination of history, gender, and race with an uncommon clarity and music. These poems range from personal memory to cultural history to human personae: John Coltrane, Frida Kahlo, Nelson Mandela, and "The Venus Hottentot," a nineteenth-century African woman who was made into a carnival sideshow exhibit.

In language as vibrant within traditional forms as it is within improvisational lyrics, the poems in The Venus Hottentot demonstrate why Alexander is among our most dazzling and important contemporary poets and cultural critics.

"Alexander creates intellectual magic in poem after poem."

—The New York Times Book Review

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Readers owe themselves the many pleasures to be found in this book; Elizabeth Alexander creates intellectual magic in poem after poem.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The poems are catchy, seductive, steeped in history, more rewarding on successive readings. The Venus Hottentot is a superb first book,” —Poetry

“One of the most exciting books of poetry to come out in a very long time. An extraordinary new voice has been added to literature.” —People

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555973926
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 01/01/2004
Pages: 64
Product dimensions: 5.29(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.21(d)

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

Chapter One

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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