Friday, January 9, 2009

Two Poems by Elizabeth Alexander from "The Venus Hottentot"

"Van Der Zee" (1886 - 1983)

I say your name: James Van Der Zee
for dancing girls and barbershops
when names were names. That was a time.

From Dutch your name is "by the sea."
A boy in endless Lenox snow
you're open-eyed, lean as the trees.

Waiter and elevator jobs.
Your cigar fingers, rolled-up sleeves,
the sent-away-for photo kit:

Those brownstone textures, marcelled hair,
iron faces, gathered drapery,
smooth foreheads, porcelain basins,

hoary beards, brocaded chairs.
Brown knees and calves in smooth nylons,
straw flower baskets, blacksmith's flames.

Father Divine or Daddy Grace
the blind will see        the lame will walk
Garvey's white plumes and epaulets.

Big Jack Johnson. Bojangles.
Sunshine Sammy. Harlem "Y.M."
Somebody's boy scout son salutes,

a brownskin time-steps. Funerals,
babies. The New York Black Yankees.
"Hey! It's the picture-takin' man!"

Black stories in brown photographs—
You're drinking ginger ale and Scotch.


I notice older women have better penmanship
than I do. Smooth and even, free from stray hairs,
readable, learned by copying lessons onto
wide-ruled paper in marbleized notebooks, the product
of discipline, of knowing what was expected
and then doing it. I would have done it too, then.

My blue cursive crazes the white letter paper.
"I cannot read you!" friends shriek back, in neater
hand as intimate as pica or block-print.
In grade school I painted wild-eyed art class sunsets
with tempera colors absent from nature, finger paints.
One bold boyfriend returned typed letters to sender.

Long before teacher-training school, Grandmother's friends
made miles and miles of ms with camel-humps that
grazed the middle, dotted line, humps swelled with plenty
of water to go across deserts and deserts
of vast first halves of alphabets, each uppercase q
a perfect, backward 2. Commas swam off the page.

A favorite teacher's purple curlicues startle
my essays with snarled lines and no Rosetta stone.
I'm trying to neaten up my hand, my open-
classroom, flower-power hand. Am I creeping in
from the margins? Am I now current, legible,
when gold-foil stars, are not enough, nor penmanship?

A great post on James Van Der Zee can be found here.

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