by Elizabeth Alexander
Now is the time of year when bees are wild
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
They are dervishes because they are dying,
one last sting, a warm place to squeeze
a drop of venom or of honey.
After the stroke we thought would be her last
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
walked outside, and lay down in the snow.
Two years later there is no other way
to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.
It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.
So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.
The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.
I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.
Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.
Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.
She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.
She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.
A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.
Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?” Watch here.