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A son’s tribute to poet-Mother: The Egyptian Cycle by Sheila Alexander

Posted on the October 23rd, 2012


The poet-writer

In thinking about a recent publication of a book of poems by Sheila Alexander (1918-1984), I can’t stop wondering what this remarkable poet and writer would wish to have said about her. It strikes me as a question Alexander herself might have pondered, given some confusion and neglect in critiques about her previous published writing.

Very much on the plus side were some encouraging words from the first US writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, Sinclair Lewis. The young Alexander took night courses at the University of Minnesota and was fortunate to have Lewis as one of her instructors. In a private letter to Alexander, Lewis praised her first published novel, “Walk With a Separate Pride”:

…Separate Pride isn’t merely a promise that urges you to go on – though it is that too. It is in itself a fine achievement, original and full of power.” (April 28, 1947)


But then there was this damning-with-faint-praise piece from the New Yorker:

Probably only women will want to bother with this novel, another of those stream-of-consciousness stories about a pregnancy. Mrs. Alexander, who is possessed of a lively imagination… and a poetic cast of mind, almost certainly does not speak for the typical expectant mother. It is possible though that she has pioneered a rich field that almost any lady author in search of a subject can make her own.” (April 19, 1947)


Similar ambivalence came in a whirlwind of conflicting commentary in a review in the New York Times:

Probably no mere man could ever properly appreciate “Walk With a Separate Pride”… How could a man be expected to understand all that there is to understand in a book that is entirely about having a baby? Yet, since Mrs. Alexander’s book is not an obstetrical text but a novel of unusual emotional intensity, it is to a certain extent news in the world of books and cannot be ignored. So, doing my best to suppress any natural masculine diffidence, I will now try to describe a completely feminine book… (April 2, 1947)


The NY Times reviewer went on to describe the book as an astonishing performance and an amazing tour de force. Then with a condescension breathtaking in its disdain, the critic summed up by declaring that though women readers may find pleasure in the emotion described in the book, “… it is not remotely likely that any man would choose to read ‘Walk With a Separate Pride’ of his own free will.”

To be fair, the two reviewers were expressing societal views toward women that were overwhelmingly the cultural norm at the time. Pointless here to bash them for airing sexist perspectives. And it’s doubtful that the brutal condescension came as much of a surprise to Alexander. A consistent theme in her writing, presented clear-eyed and without bitterness, is a powerful sense of the world as it is.

Noting the head-spinning confusion in these reviews, however, serves well to illuminate the magnitude of the task the very courageous Alexander took on in writing her first published book entirely about having a baby, to quote the flabbergasted reviewer. How truly extraordinary that Alexander wrote and won publication of this book in a time of such overriding and contemptuous dismissal of childbirth as a minor matter that could possibly interest women, but never men!

Blinded by the unapologetic sexism of their time, the reviewers in two of the most important publications in the country missed completely the true literary feat of Alexander’s novel — creation of a groundbreaking narrative, poetically personal, that explores the inexorable proximity of birth and death. Recognition of this theme did come in an introduction to an excerpt of ‘Separate Pride’ from North Country Reader: Classic Stories By Minnesota Writers, Editor Jean Ervin, (1979/2000):

It was the pervasive atmosphere of death during the Second World War that moved her to write of a young woman about to give birth to her first child.


Though brief, this sentence calls up a vivid image of the worldwide catastrophic events of the times Alexander had just lived through. It locates for us the powerful genesis of the imaginative leap that became ‘Separate Pride.’

Alexander’s depth and ambition of perspective can be seen in the excerpt below from the third chapter of the book. The very pregnant protagonist Nessa is sitting in a waiting room full of other pregnant women, all waiting to see the doctor. It’s titled “Intimately, As Women With Strangers”:

Nessa looked along the row of faces opposite her. She remembered the Chinese poem that began, ‘Since there is joy in suffering for a woman,’ and her ear made soundings for the ripe and authentic word in the harsh flow of their speech. When you only listen, she thought, you don’t impose yourself. When you stare they hate you like an animal would hate you; eyes excite them to a deep rage. But you must get as close to them as they will let you come, even when you have a sensation of suffocation, of oppression; not because they are people only, but ill, people with mortal problems and mortality, with their deaths in them, and living things leaping under their clothes, and not simple as you had once supposed but unendurably complex, each with a labyrinth brain, each heavy with childhoods, mothers, fears, and deaths. They are so excessive, and you try to understand them because that’s all you can do, and they try to understand you, and it is the trying that matters…


Alexander was born in Davenport, Iowa in 1918. While taking night classes in writing at the University of Minnesota, her instructors included both Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren. She was married and had three children at the time she published her first novel. And even though the praise was restrained, to win reviews of her novel in such prestigious publications as the New Yorker and The New York Times was in itself a remarkable achievement.

Alexander’s second novel, “King’s X” won the Eugene F. Saxton Award, and her poetry was published in Poetry magazine.


Colin Alexander, son of Sheila Alexander, in Rome (Oct 2012)


The son’s tribute

In deciding how to pay homage to the life and work of his mother, Colin Alexander chose to use the writer’s own words. The tribute is a series of nine poems written by Alexander following a first time trip to Egypt in 1974. Previously unpublished, the poetry was transcribed directly from voice recordings and manuscript compositions made by Alexander between 1974-1977 (see introduction).

Each of the poems describes a historic site Alexander saw during the trip to Egypt. Though the places are routine stops on a tourist’s itinerary, Alexander, with her characteristic depth of perspective, offers far more than a mere travelogue view. History, humanity, cosmos, philosophy and metaphor weave together as the poet regards the mix of ancient and modern world before her.

From the opening poem, Son et Lumière, describing a night visit to the pyramids:

Lights kiss the shapes.
The pyramids are on stage
But once you look up,
The sky is full
Of wicked smiles.
Stars think they know everything.
Only the moon
Admits her faults,
Waxing, waning —
A dust ball, a sweet wooer,
Out of her blackness
Like a woman at a window.


“The Egyptian Cycle” is available in paperback and ebook through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and Powell’s Books.com.

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