Saturday Poetry Blogging

Over at Ta-Nehisi’s blog, I found a wonderful poem by Elizabeth Alexander, who has been invited to write a poem for Obama’s inauguration. It’s ‘Hottentot Venus’, about a woman from what is now South Africa who was taken to Europe and exhibited throughout Europe. When I was 12 or 13, I saw her skeleton, and I think some sort of cast, in Paris, where it was on exhibit in a museum (apparently, it has since been put away, thank God, along with her preserved brain and genitalia, which I do not recall. France returned her remains to South Africa in 2002.) I’ve put the poem below the fold; it’s really, really good. Ta-Nehisi:

“I don’t know how, but in my early readings of this piece, I missed perhaps the most important emotion–a kind of slow-burning rage. There are many ways to read those two quotes. But I’m black and Ta-Nehisi and what I see is the irony of science, how disciplines founded to better understand the world so often obscure the world.”

I think that’s right: right about the rage, right about the science. But it’s also striking to me how she manages to combine a kind of generosity to Cuvier with that rage. The first part starts with such beauty, though as it goes on, you can see the inhumanity peering out from behind it. But a less generous poet would have left it out entirely.

But politics obscures the world as well. Googling around to find out more about the woman who wrote this poem, I found some other responses, from people who didn’t seem to want to bother giving her a try. This from Newsmax is typical (it’s worth reading the poem it excerpts in its entirety. You can make snippets from any poet sound dumb. Think of TS Eliot:

“Twit twit twit

Jug jug jug jug jug jug”

What a dope!)

In any case, enjoy!

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 close,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

pickling jar in the Musee
de l’Homme on a shelf

above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.


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 powder 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
towards 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 Xhosa
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.

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