A brilliant new collection by Elizabeth Alexander, whose “poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh” (Rita Dove, The Washington Post)
Too many people have seen too much
and lived to tell, or not tell, or tell
with their silent, patterned bodies,
their glass eyes, gone legs, flower-printed flesh . . .
-from “Notes From”
In her fourth remarkable collection, Elizabeth Alexander voices the outcries, dreams, and histories of an African American tradition that goes back to the slave rebellion on the Amistad and to the artists’ canvases of nineteenth-century America. In persona poems, historical narratives, jazz riffs, sonnets, elegies, and a sequence of ars poetica, American Sublime is Alexander’s most vivid and varied collection and affirms her place as one of America’s most lively and gifted writers.
“Alexander is an unusual thing, a sensualist of history, a romanticist of race. She weaves biography, history, experience, pop culture and dream. Her poems make the public and private dance together.” –Chicago Tribune
From Publishers Weekly
Barbecues, midwives, “Soyinka and Senghor,” “Etheridge Knight, from prison,” grandparents, students, “not Congo but Zaire,” mom, “aggressive magic,” jail, “my book,” “children, fathers, brothers”—in this kaleidoscopic fourth collection, Alexander traces shifting global histories, family alliances, ways of working and being trapped, and means of escape in four broad parts. The first, “American Blue,” takes in the U.S.’s post- ’60s history alongside Alexander’s child-, student- and adult-hood (with stops at Ellington/Strayhorn’s ’40s, Monk’s ’50s and a dream of Krishna along the way). A selection from a larger series titled “Ars Poetica” covers the ways poetry confronts history: ” ‘Poetry,’ I shouted, ‘Poetry,’/ I screamed, ‘Poetry,/ changes none of that/ by what it says/ or how it says, none./ But a poem is a living thing/ … and as life/ it is all that can stand/ up to violence.’ ” “Amistad,” the third section, channels the black Atlantic convincingly, while the last section, “American Sublime,” consists of just two short lyrics; the latter ends “light that carries/ possibility, illuminates,// but can promise nothing but itself.” This collection makes similarly restrained promises and delivers lucidly. (Oct. 1)
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With a scholarly grasp of personal, political, and private histories, Alexander’s newest collection examines the African American experience, particularly during the nineteenth century, in poems about ancestry, language, religion, poetry, and art. The “Amistad” cycle is a potent account of the slave-ship rebellion and the kidnapped Africans’ subsequent imprisonment. In a manner reminiscent of Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, Alexander adroitly retells events from different points of view with a dramatic voice and carefully selected details. The “Amistad” poems are skillfully linked to persona and personal poems that reflect modern African American experiences, from being singled out in school, as in “Tina Green,” to carefully responding to white authority figures, in “Smile.” Alexander has a musical voice that shifts from jazz-quick to bluesy to soulful lamentation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible poem “Notes From.” Although many poems in the “Ars Poetica” sequence seem less cohesive, less melodious, and at times less poignant, the collection as a whole is a powerful contribution to American poetry. Janet St. John
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