From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Alexander is now widely known as the poet who read her "Praise Song for the Day" at President Obama's inauguration, but as this first retrospective volume attests, that poem was preceded by a substantial and varied body of work composed over the past 20 years. Alexander's two primary themes, which are interwoven into almost all of her poems, are the traumas of African-American history and the microcosm of the family, where those traumas show some of their effects and where their healing begins. Early poems look for heroes among artists and ancestors, as well as political figures, as in "A Poem for Nelson Mandela": "On a rooftop of a prison/ in South Africa Nelson Mandela/ tends garden and has a birthday/ as my Jamaican grandfather in Harlem... / raises tomatoes." In later poems, Alexander delves into black pop culture: "Was the Black Nation whispering to me/ from the Jet magazines stacked on the floor," she asks in "Tending." The book's most powerful sequence is a long series of poems recounting the 1839 rebellion on the slave ship Amistad, whose rebels were sequestered in New Haven (where Alexander lives and teaches), sparking a controversial trial. A selection of new poems, including "Praise Song," closes this volume, which will cement Alexander's status as much more than the inaugural poet. (Oct.) (c)
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Alexander, whose first collection, The Venus Hottentot, came out in 1990, is now known as President Obama’s inaugural poet. This potent retrospective collection offers the best of Alexander’s five previous books, including selections from her young-adult title, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Girls and Little Misses of Color (2007), which hold their own as poems for adults of all ages here. Chair of Yale University’s African American Studies Department, Alexander brings intellectual power, musicality, sensuousness, and vernacular immediacy to her lyrics, which entwine the personal with the social, the tactile with the imaginary, the past with the present. Her inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” is one of a group of striking new poems, in which Alexander pays empathic tribute to writer Jean Toomer, artist Elizabeth Catlett, “ordinary” black women, and all who lived during the worst of times for African Americans, holding on to their humor and wisdom, and finding their way through hate, fear, and pain to embrace the sublime. Storyteller, teacher, and poet, Alexander looks deeply within and speaks out with grace and power. --Donna Seaman