If all you know of Elizabeth Alexander's poems is the Inaugural reading, you're in for some good stuff when you go to her website. Reviews were mixed, but I liked the ambition of applying the praisesong form to everyone in America. I think I caught a contrast between the language of sharpness, thorn, glitter--the established edifices, the old guard--and the smoother sounds speaking of the rest of us, the everyday, the underneath.
I had seen her Hotentot Venus poems, but I didn't know some of the others, like this long poem all about what happens after you give birth. This is just one little chunk, not the most lyrical and it suffers a little out of context, but one that will make you shake your head in recognition, from the longer Neonatology, on her website.
I think the baby needs to eat. The baby’s hungry.
Look! He’s making sucking noises. Look!
His fist is in his mouth.
Why does the baby sleep all day? How
does the baby sleep at night? Three feedings? Huhn.
You need to let that baby cry.
You need to pick that baby up.
You need to put that baby down.
Kiss the baby too much, he’ll get heartburn.
What are those bumps on the baby’s face?
Why is the baby crying so?
That baby needs to eat, and now.
I found I rediscovered simplicity in language from spending so much time with my own baby. I got back rhythms and short lines. Metaphors and analogies had to simplify, too, as she got older, to explain things to her limited experience. Nature came back to me as a metaphor and teacher, because we spent a lot of time outside, that is, when we weren't hiding from snipers and "terrorists." It makes sense that birth makes you think of death; she briefly writes a parallel to her baby in her womb and a person in the hold of ship; I get stuck in the airport security line and think of boxcars. I know my own poetry can only suffer in comparison on the page, but this is what I mean--it's a piece out of a poem called TSA.
At security, they make me sip the breast milk
From the plastic baby bottle
To prove it’s not poison.
I don’t say anything.
I know better than that.
Do what they say and don’t say
Anything. They can do anything
They want. Don’t ask. Don’t try
To tell them anything. I smile—
Not too wide—and nod, even though
I can’t hear them very well. What if
I can’t understand what they want me to do?
What if they can hear
The hysteric babble in my mind, now
Rising in my throat? Yes, it’s true,
I want to say,
It’s true this is breast milk,
But it’s dangerous, so dangerous,
I shouldn’t have it here.
They tell me it’s full of my body’s toxins,
They tell me the bottle is leaching poison,
They say there’s plastic inside of me
And the plastic’s gonna get her, too.
Plastic in the water, plastic in the bottle,
Plastic in the mommy, plastic in the baby,
Plastic in your nose, plastic in your toes,
Plastic in the seeds, plastic in the root
Plastic in the stones at the bottom of the river
Plastic, plastic, in the air, plastic, plastic everywhere!
Ma’am! Ma’am! Ma’am! Ma’am!
Please keep moving! Move on through!