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Marilyn Nelson
by Kathrine Varnes

arilyn Nelson has published more than a dozen books and served from 2001 to 2006 as Connecticut's Poet Laureate. And yet, despite this well-deserved international reputation, she may also qualify for the title of Most Down-to-Earth Poet, remarking recently to friends that "it's easier to call oneself a poet when one isn't writing than it is when one is trying to write." So many writers get lost in the channels of their public personae, and their readers see their subsequent poems flounder, awash in the backwaters of ego. Nelson, however, remains a working poet, in the sense that she never rests on laurels. It seems that she is always moving on to something new, each project different from the last. And perhaps this peripatetic nature can be traced not only in her creative activities but in her biography as well.


Marilyn Nelson was born in 1946 in Cleveland Ohio to Melvin and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson. Melvin Nelson's career in the US Air Force moved the family ten times during her childhood. Her zig-zagging continued in her studies (inspired perhaps by her mother's own career as a teacher), earning her a Bachelor's on one coast, at the University of California at Davis (1968), a Master's degree on the other, from the University of Pennsylvania (1970), and a doctorate in the Midwest, at the University of Minnesota (1978). These swings perhaps only intensified as she herself began teaching, from Reed College in Oregon, to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, to Universität Hamburg. Even after establishing herself at the University of Connecticut in 1978, where she taught for a quarter of a century, she nevertheless held many visiting posts around the country and, most notably, a Fulbright at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France in 1995. After two years as a chaired professor at the University of Delaware, Nelson retired to become Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut in 2004. In that year, Nelson founded Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writer's colony in East Haddam, Connecticut, where she hosts a handful of writers each year. And as I suggested, Nelson's peregrinations serve as a metaphor for her writing career: books of free-verse lyrics about grieving, the writing life, and womanhood (For the Body [1978], Mama's Promises [1985]); more formal lyrics exploring family history and the collective identities of family and race (The Homeplace [1989]); largely free verse love poems to and about a monk that explore the interstices between sexuality and spirituality (Magnificat [1994]); translations of Rilke, of Danish poets, Thorkild Bjørnvig, Inge Pedersen, and Halfdan Rasmussen, and of Euripedes (Fields of Praise [1997], The Ladder [2006], The Thirteenth Month [2005], and Hecuba [1998]); collaborations with other poets (Miss Crandall's School [2007], with illustrators and photographers (Beautiful Ballerina [2009], Sweethearts of Rhythm (2009)], and with composers (Fortune's Bones [2004]). She moves with ease from adult, and decidedly dark subjects (A Wreath for Emmett Till [2005]) to light and joyous children's nonsense (The Cat Walked Through the Casserole [1984]).

Nelson's first book of poems, published under her then-married name, Marilyn Waniek, For the Body, in 1978, opens with a simple dedication that could apply to any of her books: "For my people: you know who you are." In one sense, those people are anyone who picks up one of her books. Her breadth of travels and experience allows her to speak to a very broad audience, unearthing dark histories that we all share to varying degrees, evoking through them complex and contradictory emotions common to all of us: admiring the determination of those who struggle while acknowledging their shortcomings. As is true for many poets in their first books, Nelson's early creative work appears an exercise in meditative autobiography. "Mama, I remember," is a good example, the speaker looking back on her mother's life — constantly moving, surviving a toddler's death and then a husband's — and intimating that her own tribulations allow her now to understand her mother's (For the Body 6). But by the midpoint of her career, with the publication of The Homeplace, her strength is in bringing to life inspiring and under-appreciated African-American figures, in monologues, or in different voices speaking in concert. And she does so with the humor that is possible when one abandons hagiography: "They say she killed a woman / over a good black man," she writes in "The Ballad of Aunt Geneva," adding "by braining the jealous heifer / with an iron frying pan" (26). Putting lively and imperfect flesh on old bones is an apt metaphor for her work, nowhere more apt than in Fortune's Bones, a Manumission Requiem, a work commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum as the culmination of a three-year process to recover the history of the skeleton of Fortune, a slave-turned-medical-specimen of Dr. Preserved Porter. But, while the work aims to free something of this man, Fortune, who died at about sixty years of age in 1798, Nelson's dedication for the book again indicates how she thinks such narratives speak to a much broader audience than only those with slave ancestors: it is dedicated to "everyone in the world who died on 9/11 — the victims of the terrorist attacks, but also the victims of starvation, of illness, of poverty, of war, of old age, of neglect: Everyone" (9). Lyrics that memorialize the dead so inclusively, of course, aim to connect to a universal audience. In this we might find the fixed foot of Nelson's broadly roaming compass, ever circling questions of the relations between spirit and body, between individual and community, and between conflicting moral grounds.

On the other hand, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, Nelson's "people" are more specifically those who have suffered the effects of oppression, some gender, but mainly racial oppression. So the lives she celebrates are often remarkable. In Carver, Nelson gives voices to people in the course of George Washington Carver's life, such as Mariah Watkins, who describes the young Carver, about age ten, coming to her door, asking to do odd jobs for her to support himself as he attends the local school (13). In Beautiful Ballerina, Nelson sings the praises of young ballerinas from Harlem, whose dedication to their art is clear in Susan Kuklin's photographs. In Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, the focus is on the musicians in the first integrated all-woman big band. In The Homeplace, a handful of the poems are about the heroic pilots now known as the Tuskegee Airmen. It is easy to note that these figures have been selected to serve as inspirations, their achievements in arts or science or public service marking successes despite the oppressions, some mundane, some epic, that they suffer. But Nelson also celebrates those some would not at first consider particular successes — schoolchildren, slaves, mothers, soldiers, even preachers to mules and slave owners — whose physical, intellectual and spiritual struggles turn them into inspirations in their own right. In this sense her work is deeply political, countering the erasures and distortions of black history; that Nelson can find so much material to work with in this vein shows that, though that project has been ongoing for decades, it is clearly still necessary. Nelson's work is again like Brooks' in that these deeply political poems often make use of traditional forms, most notably the sonnet, such as in "Thus Far by Faith" (a sonnet crown in The Fields of Praise 99-102) and another crown, A Wreath for Emmett Till, which was scandalously banned from a California middle school's Black History month celebration. Sometimes these works are published in formats appealing specifically to young adults, as with her collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander, Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.

Whether Nelson pitches her work toward adult or child audiences, however, the poems never condescend or overreach, making it difficult to separate her poetry into such genres. While Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color might be classified as "Juvenile Poetry," the open violence and legal harassment retold in the narrative are adult themes. And while the historical hypocrisies will be familiar to an older audience, Nelson's specificity will nevertheless chill any reader. Consider "The Tao of the Trial":

Your Honor, I submit as evidence
of the alleged teaching of alleged students
this colored girl here, who openly reads books
and gazes skyward, who has been overheard
conversing animatedly in polysyllabic words
and referring off-handedly to the ancient Greeks. (25)

Nelson makes the contradiction clear without stating it explicitly: the prosecutors ask a witness to testify, assuming her intelligence will work against her, but when she pleads the fifth, they use that fact and hearsay to win the case. She cannot win, whatever her actions. Another sonnet, "Sisters," appearing first in Partial Truth, and later collected in Fields of Praise, ostensibly addresses an adult audience, but many a teen girl will recognize this scene and appreciate its wit:

The school bus drove us home from high school, where
we got off in the Negro neighborhood
and several times a week there was a fight:
one sister called another sister "hoe,"
pulled out black handfuls of her straightened hair,
clawed at her face and hands, and ripped her shirt.
I walked home. I believed in sisterhood.
I still do, after thirty years, although
I'll never understand why several white
sisters walked on me as if I was dirt.
We were all sisters, feminists, I thought,
forgetting what those catfights should have taught.
I was too well brought-up, too middle class
to call a heifer out, and whup her ass. (68)

The insights — that even sisters fight, whether they be the "sistahs" of the "Negro neighborhood" or the sisters of adult feminism, that the lessons of childhood stick, if we learn them — are satisfying for readers of 14 as well as 44, but the pleasure surely rides on the poem's style shifting. One minute, we are in the world of adult and middle class diction where scare quotes carefully quarantine the word "hoe;" but by the last line, the poem calls a heifer a heifer, with no apologies proffered.

No matter how political, dark, or philosophical Nelson's poems may be on occasion, she knows when to laugh — not frivolously, but knowingly. She writes of tricksters, of sly jokesters in unexpected places, as for instance Abba Jacob in "May Your Love Convert Lucifer." The poem begins almost as an exercise in logic:

Abba Jacob said: I pray for Lucifer.
I rather like him, you know. My moral
theology professor once said God hates Satan.
I said I hope that's not true:
If God hates Satan, God must hate me, too,
because I am a sinner. But God loves me. (Fields 151)

The first line seems not at all outrageous, but the second line is a surprise. The monk likes Satan? Is that allowed? Is it advisable? The unexpected claim opens up a deliciously complex space for Nelson's poem. While Abba Jacob's disagreeing with his moral theology professor might be risky, it is done respectfully, with "hope." The poem follows the logic out and ends:

So I pray for him once in a while,
when I think of it.
I'll bet it makes him
mad as hell.

The colloquial joke of making Satan "mad as hell" delights, not just because of the shift in diction but the play on words, the naughtiness of a monk cursing in this context. But even more surprising is the offhand "when I think of it" — that one might be so casual seems to break with all stereotypes of monks. Of course, breaking with stereotypes is common in her work.

At other times, Nelson's wit is subtle, evidenced in the carefully chosen phrase, the damning praise, the judicious repetition. So begins the sonnet-influenced poem "Is She Okay?"

Easy to forget the little lies: I'll call you,
let's do lunch, I promise. Then all at once
you're hearing yourself say you'll stick by her,
you'll marry her, there's no need to worry, she
won't be alone, and you're up to here in hot water.

The little lies cascade, as Nelson tells it, until the "you" of this narrative finds himself increasingly uncomfortable. The voice of the poem seems sympathetic, somewhat, until the description of his very physicality seems a lie:

Clean-shaven, natty and trust-me handsome
in your Levi's and linen, you're really sorry;
you meant to call her back; it was just more
than you could handle at that point in your
life. You still think about her once in a while. (Fields 171)

Surely, Mr. "trust-me handsome" becomes rather unattractive in the poem, as unreliable as his memory. In the next portion, moving through a late turn in this semi-sonnet, we meet the woman:

Only you and she know. And she remembers what it was
to stand up in a silent room when her name was called.
She remembers the hard eyes of the Jesus Saves people.
She remembers what one woman said.

The repetition of "she remembers" three times, brings home the contrast between the two people his forgetfulness, her memory, perhaps her unwillingness — perhaps her inability — to forget, largely because of how different their experiences are. It was "more than he could handle," but she had no easy way to opt out. Abortion is never easy, for the woman. Is this information — "what one woman said" — passed onto the handsome fellow at this point, or have we fully traversed into the woman's point of view? It seems as if we have shifted from a 2nd person perspective to another's 3rd person view, a technique rarely exploited by fiction writers let alone poets.

Much of Nelson's poetry could be described as reading like fiction in that sense. One needn't parse every line to enjoy her work. Her ability to express multiple points of view also comes through in the poetry that brings the voices of others to life, as with "Dinah's Lament," a song from Fortune's Bones, in the voice of Fortune's wife:

Miss Lydia doesn't clean the Doctor room.
She say she can't go in that room: she scared.
She make me take the dust rag and broom
and clean around my husband, hanging there.
Since she seen Fortune head in that big pot
Miss Lydia say that room make her feel ill,
sick with the thought of boiling human broth.
I wonder how she think it make me feel? (15)

It's an exquisite expression of grief, love and anger. That she is forced to "To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast" seems unthinkable, but Nelson brings us into a point of view that lets us see the excruciating conflict in Dinah, who becomes a kind of Mary figure caring for this scientific relic who used to be her husband.

Nelson's power as a poet can be seen in the way she can wring everyday phrases like "my husband" so that her readers may see the troubling historical nuance of ownership they now carry. Her retelling of the story of Venture in The Freedom Business does not shy away from showing how his freedom after slavery, even though he began as an African prince, still bears the mark — the acculturation — of having been owned. Near the end of the book, Nelson brings her readers to his "Farm Garden" when he has reached the age of approximately 46 to hear him "inventory [his] riches" (61). Near the end of his list including potatoes, tobacco, and cabbages, come these lines:

My effigies to scare raccoons and crows
frown fiercely, wearing a clattering fringe of shells,
like dancers in the whatdidwecallit? dance.
My wife and two of my children stir in my house.
For one thirty years enslaved, I have done well.
I am free and clear; not one penny do I owe.

I own myself—a five-hundred-dollar man—
and two thousand dollars' worth of family.
Of canoes and boats, right now I own twenty-nine.

The poem describes an Eden of ownership —"seventy acres of bountiful land is mine" — but it is a postlapsarian garden at best, where everything and everyone is counted and accounted according to dollar value. We cannot help but delight in his freedom, but we are reminded of how much he has lost, far beyond the "whatdidwecallit? dance." The very terms that define freedom for Venture stem from a language and culture not originally his own, and the poem makes clear that his native birthrights have faded into an urgent question that will not be answered.

The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems is the volume that deals most autobiographically with the importance of ancestral homelands. The title poem, specifically, narrates in couplets what Nelson calls "some kind of 'pilgrimage'"(11), which she undertook with her extended family. The narration seems suspicious but still committed to the project as she explains it:

Thinking of a reverse diaspora,
I'd planned a pilgrimage to Africa.
Zimbabwe, maybe, maybe Senegal:
Some place sanctified by the Negro soul. (11)

Short on fellowship money, she takes them instead to Salvador, Brazil, where her son is studying. Each poem in the Tales is a resulting story, or sometimes collection of yarns, by and about the people they encounter during their travels, many of them surprises. In "Cachoeira," for instance, a gentleman (via translator) asks:

Would we come to his nightclub, be his guests?
We didn't understand, but shrugged and went
a few doors down the street. "What does he want?"
we asked. The club hadn't been opened yet;
by inviting us in, the owner hoped to get
our blessings for it. Which we humbly gave:
visiting rich American descendants of slaves. (50)

Her apparent wealth as an American casts her in a superior role, one in a position to offer blessings. Rather than a constant unearthing of a mystical past, she arrives to bless the club owner's future. And yet, it is humbling to be asked for such a powerful gift, to have another believe in your ability to help.

Humbling though it may be, Marilyn Nelson is hardly one to shrink from offering her blessings. She has looked in the bleakest, the most evil corners of humanity, and still she has found so much worthy of redemption and praise. Reading her poems, or — for the lucky — hearing them read, we keep our feet on the ground, with Nelson, but with a gratitude for the grace her poems offer.


Abba Jacob and St. Francis

Abba Jacob with his invention—
a flashlight lantern on a cord around his neck—
balances tiptoe on an upended barrel.
There's one,
he mutters, and reaches.
The damned creatures
are making lace
of my arbor.
He holds each beetle for a moment,
then breaks it and tosses it aside.
The watching guests,
laughing, tease him:
So much for St. Francis.

Abba Jacob says:
Well, at least I don't call them
and then kill them.

But I do ask God's pardon.

Photographs of the Medusa

Column six, page thirty-six
shows you goateed and smirking.
After thirteen years on death
row your stare still dares the camera
, unflinching and remorseless.
A fish knife to that girl's throat,
one hand fumbling your zipper,
when she thrashed under your heartbeat,
did you taste her blood, or your pleasure?
And you, freckled little boy
in aviator glasses,
when you waylaid a playmate
and bludgeoned him in the woods,
was it fun, like killing cats?
Was it like, the bases loaded,
you'd hit one out of the park?
And you, prosperous young shipping
company executive
whose eyes are snake eyes, too:
When you sent eight hundred tons
of milk powder unfit
for human consumption
to the Sudan, to feed
victims of famine,
did you count it a profit, or a thrill?

Pedophiles and parricides;
cannibals; perpetrators
of atrocities; inhuman,
evil celebrities; just
bad kids out for a good time:
Your reptile eyes confront mine
in the daily newspaper.
What is it you think you know
about yourselves, about me?
That I no longer wince? That
no ugliness is unimaginable?
That my heart is turning to stone?
And my God my shield, my only mirror,
is my own face looking back
with this simpleton love.

Farm Garden

(ca. 1780)

By the time I was thirty-six I had been sold
three times. I had spun money out of sweat.
I'd been cheated and beaten. I had paid and enormous sum
for my freedom. And ten years farther on I've come
out here to my garden at the first faint hint of light
to inventory the riches I now hold.

My potatoes look fine, and my corn, my squash, my beans.
My tobacco is strutting, spreading its velvety wings.
My cabbages are almost as big as my head.
From labor and luck I have much profited.
I wish I could remember those praise-songs
we used to dance to, with the sacred drums.

My rooster is calling my hens from my stone wall.
In my meadow, my horses and my cows look up,
then graze again. My orchard boasts green fruit.
Yes, everything I own is dearly bought,
but gratitude is a never-emptying cup,
my life equal measures pain and windfall.

My effigies to scare raccoons and crows
frown fiercely, wearing a clattering fringe of shells,
like dancers in the whatdidwecallit? dance.
My wife and two of my children stir in my house.
For one thirty years enslaved, I have done well.
I am free and clear; not one penny do I owe.

I own myself—a five-hundred-dollar man—
and two thousand dollars' worth of family.
Of canoes and boats, right now I own twenty-nine.
Seventy acres of bountiful land is mine.
God, or gods, thanks for raining these blessings on me.
I turn around slowly. I own everything I scan.

"Farm Garden" is reprinted with permission, from The Freedom Business by Marilyn Nelson, © 2008. Published by Front Street Books, an imprint of Boyds Mill Press.

"Sisters", "Is She Okay?" and "Photographs of the Medusa" are reprinted with permission, from The Fields of Praise, published by LSU Press.

Notable Awards

Coretta Scott King Award (twice), 2001 and 2006)
Annisfield-Wolf Award, 1992
Poet's Prize, 1998
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (twice), 2001 and 2005


Works by Marilyn Nelson (Waniek)

For the Body. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Rasmussen, Halfdan. Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children. Translated by Marilyn Nelson et al. Minneapolis: Black Willow Press, 1982.

The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children. With Pamela Espeland et al. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1984.

Mama's Promises. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

The Homeplace. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Partial Truth. Illustrated by Eric Spencer. Willington, CT: The Kutenai Press, 1992. (Chapbook)

Magnificat. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

La Peste. West Chester, PA: Aralia Press, 1996.

"Nelson, Marilyn, 1946" Gale Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Vol. 23 (1996): 247-67.

Euripedes. "Hecuba." Euripides I. Translation by Marilyn Nelson. The Penn Greek Drama Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

The Fields of Praise. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Carver: A Life in Poems. Asheville, NC: Front Street, Inc., 2001.

She-devil Circus. West Chester, PA: Aralia Press, 2001.

Triolets for Triolet. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2001.

Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Notes and Annotations by Pamela Espeland. Asheville, NC: Front Street, 2004.

The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Inge Pedersen. The Thirteenth Month. Translated by Marilyn Nelson. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2005.

A Wreath for Emmett Till. Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Halfdan Rasmussen. The Ladder. Trans. Marilyn Nelson. Illustrations by Pierre Pratt. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color. Poems by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson. Pictures by Floyd Cooper. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong Press, 2007.

The Freedom Business, Including A Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa. Art by Deborah Daney. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong Press, 2008.

Pemba's Song: a Ghost Story. With Tonya Hegamin. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008.

Beautiful Ballerina. Photographs by Susan Kuklin. New York: Scholastic, 2009.

Rasmussen, Halfdan. A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Young. Translated by Marilyn Nelson et al. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2010.

Snook Alone. Illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick (September 2010).

Marilyn Nelson
Years: 1946-
Birthplace: USA
Language(s): English, German, Danish
Forms: sonnet, villanelle, ballad, free verse, narrative
Subjects: race, gender, motherhood, sexuality, spirituality, history, family, ancestry, travel, religion, pilgrimage, sisterhood
Entry By: Kathrine Varnes
32 Poems
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