by Elizabeth Alexander
“I’m making conch chowder,” says my next-door neighbor, Joe. There are no walls between our apartments. “We’ll all watch basketball,” he says, “and we’ll eat it with French bread.” I tell him that I have to run an errand.
Next thing I know, I’m outside New York, looking for a roadside Holocaust museum I’d read about, I had to see. I find it, hand-lettered signs, an old woman on a bench with a heavy Polish accent. A young man and his son go inside; you go down into the Invisible Man’s basement, which is wildly lit up and makeshift, and you look out at the world from that small space. I begin to cry. I cry and cry and cry. Then it’s time to go home, so I look for a cab. How much would it cost to go from Jersey to Chicago?
Everyone is upset when I get there. Danielle, Joe’s wife, says we have to have a family meeting, no more lateness, no more unexplained absences. My eyes fill up again when she says the word, “family.” I sit down in front of the TV and eat my conch chowder, which is cold. (2001)
I’m delighted Elizabeth Alexander is Obama’s inauguration poet, for I have always been impressed with her efforts to address herself to matters of American history especially through poems. I was particularly taken by her third book, Antebellum Dream Book, and by the apparent centrality of dreaming to her fashioning many of those poems. As such, she offered the dream space as a site of public and poetic conversation, for the poems are “interpretable” largely through communications between one unconscious and that of another.
I look forward to the new conversations.