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Elizabeth Alexander's "Blues"

Updated on December 3, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Alexander

Source

Introduction and Text of Piece, "Blues"

Poetaster Elizabeth Alexander's poems consistently read as prose broken into short lines. The poem, "Blues," is no exception and despite the title, contains no music. This poem features three free verse paragraphs (versagraphs); it attempts to dramatize the theme of guilt about personal behavior, and yet despite the final avowal of desire for forgiveness, the speaker's lackadaisical performance leaves the reader unconvinced that she truly cares if she is forgiven or not.

Blues

I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, ‘til
my face is creased and swollen,
‘til my lips are dry and hot. I
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father’s money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people

who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V’s of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

For a reading of Alexander's "Blues"

Commentary

First Versagraph: Lazy Poet, Lazy "Poems"

I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, ‘til
my face is creased and swollen,
‘til my lips are dry and hot. I
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father’s money.

The speaker begins with a confession that she is so lazy that she could qualify is as "the laziest / girl in the world." Lest the reader think she exaggerates, she confides that she sleeps all day if she feels so inclined, "'til / my face is creased and swollen, / 'til my lips are dry and hot."

Furthermore, she eats whatever strikes her fancy, healthy or not: "cookies and milk / after lunch, butter and sour cream, / / foods that / slothful people eat." She wants to elicit sympathy, yet she also seems to be boasting about her slovenly behavior. As is fitting the laziest girl in the world, "Many days / I do not exercise."

The speaker does consider exercising, but she then "rub[s] [her] curdy / belly and lie[s] down." She then admits that even though she is a poet, "[her] poems are lazy." She prefers syllabics to iambs and slant rime instead of the gong of perfect rime. By claiming her station as a poet, she attempts to contradict herself, yet trying to have it both ways, she simply dumbs down her efforts.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

She claims that she writes short poems instead of those that "go / for pages." She then confesses that "yesterday, / I did not work at all!" She went shopping and spent her father's money. Apparently, the speaker is so lazy she cannot even support herself.

Second Versagraph: Wasting Time on Energy

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

The speaker then begins to look back at her childhood, in which she behaved very differently from her present slothful routine. As a schoolgirl, she missed "only / one day of school each year." She took dance lessons. She knew "only industry / the industry of my race /and of immigrants."

The speaker took to heart the advice, "Work hard / and do not shame your family" and "There is no sin but sloth." The speaker misses a real opportunity with this contrast with her youth. She does not actually reveal which behavior she prefers. Is she lamenting that she no longer has that youthful drive or is she ridiculing her earlier behavior? It is possible that she thinks of her earlier energy was wasted, and yet she fails to show how her adult sloth is not a waste of time and talent.

Third Versagraph: Say What?

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people

who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V’s of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

In the final versagraph, the speaker claims that she avoided sleep for years spending her nights "replaying / evening news stories." She worried about jailbreaks; she stressed about fat people who died from overstuffing themselves with greasy foods—the very issue that confronts her now.

Is she perhaps enthralled with the irony of her situation? Now, as she sleeps as much as she pleases, she is able to give herself the excuse that she is looking for absolution. She is

searching for the V-shape of "birds flying in formation" that she can fashion into poems, and she is watching for open arms that spread toward her with the forgiveness she craves for all of her sins, real or imagined.

But she still leaves the reader confused about her ultimate evaluation of her behavior, as she offers no indication that she will actually do anything other than sleep to procure that forgiveness she seems to covet.

Elizabeth Alexander on Language and Racial Identity

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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