Art / Culture //

Elizabeth Alexander’s Moving Tribute Poem To Fallen Black Gay Men

The poem "When" is a study in how potent the quick-sketch can be.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

 

Director Marlon Riggs (in front) and cast in still from classic 1989 documentary, Tongues Untied, about the lives of black gay/same-gender loving men.

In February of this year, acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander, who came to the attention of most Americans when she composed and read the poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony, earned praise from all quarters for a brilliant bit of writing she’d clearly have preferred to have never written. “Lottery Tickets,” her meditation on grief, loss, and her late husband, the artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus, was published in The New Yorker and drew immediate favorable comparisons to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking for its powerful navigation of death and its fallout. An excerpt:

 The day he died, the four of us were exactly the same height, just over five feet nine. We’d measured the boys in the pantry doorway the week before. It seemed a perfect symmetry, a whole family the same size but in different shapes. Now the children grow past me and past their father. They seem to grow by the day; they sprout like beanstalks toward the sky. Simon’s anklebones appear shiny at his pants’ hems. He complains his feet hurt, and indeed his toes have grown and are pushing against the tips of his shoes. His growing seems avid, fevered. It feels like the insistent force of life itself.

The words are lush in their straightforwardness, moving without indulging sentimentality. Much is packed into a single paragraph.

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Last week, in the midst of gay pride mania, another work by Alexander about loss and grief was put in the spotlight. “When,” a poem about black gay/same-gender-loving men who have died of AIDS, was widely circulated through emails and shared links. The poem originally appeared in Alexander’s poetry collection American Sublime (Graywolf Press) and was reprinted on hivhereandnow.com as part of their “Poem a Day Countdown to 35 Years of AIDS” series. An excerpt:

In the early nineteen-eighties, the black men
were divine, spoke French, had read everything,
made filet mignon with green peppercorn sauce,
listened artfully to boyfriend troubles,
operatically declaimed boyfriend troubles,
had been to Bamako and Bahia,
knew how to clear bad humours from a house,
had been to Baldwin’s villa in St. Paul…

Elizabeth Alexanver; Yale News

Elizabeth Alexander; Yale News

It’s a study in how potent the quick-sketch can be. The imagery evoked is powerful. The cumulative effect is of those celebrated black men not just being celebrated but actually summoned forth again before the poem’s gut wrenching final line. And yet… At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, the poem also traffics heavily in stereotypes of what a black gay/same-gender-loving man is (or was). They’re “positive” stereotypes, sure, and undoubtedly speak to a certain class of black queerness, the class Alexander was likely most familiar with as she made her way through academia and the world of arts & letters as a young woman in the early 1980s. It’s the kind of self-flattering stereotype that many members of oppressed groups often encourage and sell about themselves, the notion of them actually being elevated (superior) beings despite their oppression. But that’s also what limits the poem, keeps it from staying afloat just after it soars. The men are celebrated in uneven terms; the poem leans heavily on possessions and poses, externals, meant to capture their intrinsic worth and beauty. It’s what keeps the poem from being quite as devastating as it’s meant to be.

Marlon Riggs and cast in still from classic 1989 documentary Tongues Untied, about the lives of black gay/same-gender loving men.

Marlon Riggs and cast in still from classic 1989 documentary Tongues Untied, about the lives of black gay/same-gender loving men.

 


Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism,Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.