Elizabeth Alexander

Two Poems

Deadwood Dick

“Come on and slant your eyes again, O Buffalo Bill” —Carl Sandburg

Colored cowboy named Nat Love,
They called him Deadwood Dick.
A black thatch of snakes for hair,
Closed-mouthed. Bullet-hipped.

One knee bent like his rifle butt,
Just so. Rope. Saddle. Fringe.
Knock this white boy off my shoulder.
Stone-jawed, cheekboned man.

Mama, there are black cowboys.
A fistful of black crotch.
Deadwood Dick: Don’t fuck with me.
Black cowboy. Leather hat.


Autumn Passage

On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.
On the miraculous dying body,
its greens and purples.
On the beauty of hair itself.
On the dazzling toddler:
“Like eggplant,” he says,
when you say “Vegetable,”
“Chrysanthemum” to “Flower.”
On his grandmother’s suffering, larger
than vanished skyscrapers,
September zucchini,
other things too big. For her glory
that goes along with it,
glory of grown children’s vigil,
communal fealty, glory
of the body that operates
even as it falls apart, the body
that can no longer even make fever
but nonetheless burns
florid and bright and magnificent
as it dims, as it shrinks,
as it turns to something else.


Elizabeth Alexander was born in New York City and raised in Washington, DC. She is the author of six books of poems: Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2012), American Blue (Bloodaxe Books, 2006), American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize), Antebellum Dream Book (Graywolf Press, 2001), Body of Life (Tia Chucha Press, 1997), and The Venus Hottentot (University Press of Virginia, 1990). She is also author of the memoir The Light of the World (Grand Central, 2015, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award), and the nonfiction books, Power and Possibility (University of Michigan Press, 2007), and The Black Interior (Graywolf Press, 2003). She edited collections of poems by Melvin Dixon and Gwendolyn Brooks, and co-wrote a book for young adults with Marilyn Nelson, Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (Front Street Press, 2007). Alexander composed and read a poem, "Praise Song for the Day," for the Presidential inauguration of Barak Obama. She is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and a founding member of Cave Canem.