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Noted poet Elizabeth Alexander returns to Harlem

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 4:44 p.m.

Elizabeth Alexander recently stood at the center of a circle of admirers on 137th Street in a gorgeous duplex two blocks from where she was born and down the street from where Dr. John Henrik Clarke used to live. "Stokely says, 'Now,'" she began, reading from her latest collection. "Adam says, 'Soon.'"

The exchange between Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. continued for several stanzas, and Alexander, who gained everlasting acclaim when she delivered her poem at President Barack Obama's inauguration, is aware that she is not in Washington on the chilly mall, but surrounded in warmth by friends, relatives and colleagues in Harlem.

"Adam says, 'Inside the system.' Stokely says, 'The system will bite you in the ass,'" she read. The crowd in Rodney Terich Leonard's salon, with all the trappings and ambiance of the Harlem Renaissance's "Dark Tower," erupted at the line and swayed gently with each word as she moved toward the close.

"'Sugar in their eyes,'" Alexander recited. "'Ketchup in their hair, I was burning,' said Stokely Carmichael, witnessing the kids at the lunch counter. 'Why I do what I do. Why I burn. Why I work,' said Adam Clayton Powell. 'Why I serve.'"

This was just one of several poems that Alexander read from her "Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010." A number of historical figures are invoked, including the eminent writer Albert Murray, photographer James Van Der Zee and Nelson Mandela, in poems her most ardent followers will recall from her first book "The Venus Hottentot."

Among her new poems is "Luck," which left folks salivating and licking their chops. "Red beans and rice, pot fulla knuckles, collards on New Year's Day. Black-eyed peas poured into a pot," she read. None of these were served but her audience did feast on endless rounds of shrimp, chicken and other hors d'uvres.

Equally sumptuous was the music provided by singer/trumpeter Kafele Bandele, drummer Matt Vorzimer and pianist Cathy Harley. Their silky renditions of soft ballads contrasted with the imposing African masks and the other artifacts in the salon that suggested thunderous rhythmic rituals.

The music was perfect for visitors to commune--and if this gathering is representative of the "New Harlem," it is one that indicates we have little to fear about the wave of gentrification.

Even so, there are landmarks in the community that are gone and may never return. Alexander, who chairs the African-American studies department at Yale University, recalled one of them in her poem "Harlem Birthday Party." "When my grandfather turned 90 we had a party in a restaurant in Harlem called Copeland's," she wrote, but Copeland's no longer exists.

What remains are venues like Leonard's salon. And if the menu here is not as diverse as Copeland's, the host, himself a poet, is as gracious and genteel as Mr. Copeland was.

Alexander chose the right place to close the circle on her birthplace.