cover image Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010

Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010

Elizabeth Alexander, Graywolf, $26 (270p) ISBN 978-1-55597-568-5

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.)