Glowing in the newly restored Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, poet and former Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 read selected poems and prose Monday before the Yale community.
Alexander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry and a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, presented her writing as part of the kickoff celebration for the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection’s 75th anniversary celebration. The collection showcases African-American literary and artistic achievements. The works Alexander read Monday, including her poems, “The Black Woman Speaks,” “Amistad,” “The Dream I Told My Mother-in-Law” and prose from her memoir, “The Light of the World,” addressed love, memory and African-American rights.
Nancy Kuhl, the Beinecke’s curator for American literature, said that while Alexander’s body of work — which consists primarily of six books of poems, two collections of essays, a play produced by the Yale School of Drama in 1996 and a memoir — represents a specific moment in time, it will be read and reread into the future. Kuhl added that Alexander, who taught at Yale for 15 years and was named the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry in 2015, has remained close to the Yale community despite having relocated to New York City.
“Hers is a verse that brings together family and history, reminding us of what ties us to one another, generation after generation,” Kuhl said. “The past is alive in music and image in Alexander’s language.”
Kuhl noted that when Alexander was an undergraduate, she could often be found in the Beinecke’s archives, epitomizing the connection between poets and libraries.
Alexander began her presentation by highlighting the significance the Beinecke’s collection held for her. She said she feels the pages of books in Beinecke library are “real and human.”
“The experiences I’ve had with dead people in books and in archives are as significant and meaningful as the experiences I’ve had with people I’ve walked this earth with.”
Alexander said every poem pieces together history, story and personal experience. Her poem “Race” is a family story, while “At the Beach” is a commemoration of the knowledge and friendship she gained from two deceased loved ones, she said.
Before reading prose from her 2015 memoir, Alexander read a series of poems she wrote 20 years ago. She said these poems are relevant today because they address the violence against and violation of African-American youths’ rights prevalent in contemporary American society.
“When I see a black man smiling / like that, nodding and smiling / with both hands visible, mouthing / ‘Yes, officer,’ across the street, / I think of my father, who taught us / the words ‘cooperate,’ ‘officer,’ / to memorize badge numbers, / who has seen black men shot at / from behind in the warm months north,” Alexander read from her poem “Smile.”
The prose Alexander read centered on her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died suddenly in 2012. Alexander said her husband’s presence was so strong that those who surrounded him felt “there was all the time in the world” when they were with him. She said she feels her husband’s spirit in bookstores, noting the difficulty of returning to places she loves but continues to associate with him after his death.
“People ask me a lot why [the memoir is] prose and not poems,” Alexander said. “They’re not poems, but they come from the same place, with the same intensity. The memoir is about many things, but I think most importantly, it’s about love.”
Zulfiqar Mannan ’20, a contributing reporter for the News, said the poetry reading was a mind-opening experience, adding that while his experiences were different from those Alexander shared, the elegance and beauty of her language resonated with him.
President Barack Obama invited Alexander to compose and deliver a poem at his first inauguration in 2009.