When Elizabeth Alexander recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, I didn’t like the poem. Like many poetry readers I thought I heard something too rhetorical, too made-to-order, a bit flat. I was completely wrong.
In 2012, Alexander’s husband died, just after his fiftieth birthday, and a few years after that she published The Light of the World, a deeply moving memoir of their relationship and her grief. That book was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and it became an essential book people have turned to in their own grief. In a new afterword to the paperback edition, Alexander writes that she hoped “the particulars” of her marriage and family life would “radiate outward and be meaningful in ever-widening circles. For loss is our common denominator.”
One of the best things a book like this can do for a poet is to send its readers back to her earlier work. I went back to Crave Radiance, her 2010 collection that covers her writing life from 1990 to 2010. In her early work, Alexander moved into history—primarily African American history—and entered the characters she wrote about. The poems are a deep lesson in empathy for people as diverse as Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Monet, Romare Bearden, Pablo Neruda, Nelson Mandela, and Frank Willis, the almost-forgotten security guard who first discovered the Watergate break in.
Alexander also writes wonderful dream sequences, and she has written memorably about pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum depression. In “Postpartum Dream #12” she dreams she has been called to be a Supreme Court Justice:
Maybe I could do it
when the baby
goes to kindergarten. Maybe
I could do it
on alternate Mondays.
The dream is funny, of course, but it is also a bit of a nightmare. Although I suspect these poems are loved by women who share her experience, they are also necessary for men like me.
Reading Crave Radiance today, I found myself completely startled when, near the end, I came again to “Praise Song for the Day.” Perhaps my reading of the poem has been changed by everything we’ve been through recently—now the end of the poem hits like a hammer. “What if the mightiest word is love?” Alexander asks, and then concludes
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Alexander reads at UMMA as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series on Tuesday, December 4.