A GREAT VOICE IN AMERICAN POETRY...
Poet Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of twelve books and three chapbooks. Her book The Homeplace won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award. The Fields Of Praise: New And Selected Poems won the 1998 Poets' Prize and was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award, the PEN Winship Award, and the Lenore Marshall Prize. Carver: A Life In Poems won the 2001 Boston Globe/Hornbook Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Fortune's Bones was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. A Wreath For Emmett Till won the 2005 Boston Globe—Horn Book Award and was a 2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book. The Cachoeira Tales And Other Poems won the L.E. Phillabaum Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Her honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, an A.C.L.S. Contemplative Practices Fellowship, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, three honorary doctorates, and a fellowship from the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut; founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers' colony; and the former (2001-2006) Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut.
Marilyn Nelson came to Providence in May 2009 as judge for The Philbrick Poetry Prize at the Providence Athenaeum, where she also read her work and met with high-school student poets. Brett Rutherford "rhapsodized" over Nelson's work during the program, and the following is the text of his introduction to Marilyn Nelson and her work. See links at the bottom of this page to purchase Nelson's books.
INTRODUCING MARILYN NELSON
by Brett Rutherford
Back in 1770, Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, penned her longest work, an adaptation of one episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was the story of Theban Queen Niobe, one of the cruelest tales from mythology. Until very recently, this work of Wheatley’s was scorned by most critics as Wheatley’s walking in the footsteps of her white captors, a useless exercise in “white” neoclassical poetry. Yet the story Wheatley told included her own story in a subtle way. Niobe, a great queen, loses all fourteen of her children to the bows and arrows of the rogue gods Apollo and Diana. Wheatley had been torn from her mother in Africa by slave traders, the agents of rogue nations answerable to no moral law. Wheatley found in classical Greece the cry of the African mother.
Like Wheatley, Marilyn Nelson claims all myth, all stories, all nations as her own. She knows she needs no permission to step inside another person’s skin in another place and time. Like all great poets she knows that all poetry is hers, in whatever language. So I was thrilled to see that she has translated Euripides Hecuba, whose central character is the Queen of Troy, another bereft mother. And I see that she has translated some of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. When I say this, it’s like saying, “She has climbed Mt. Everest.” Rilke is the most rarified and difficult of all poets to grasp and translate, and Marilyn Nelson renders him with stiletto sharpness, retaining her own voice and manner. Do this, and you are flying with the eagles!
I delight in Nelson’s choice of topics. She knows there are great stories to tell about great people, or ordinary people who prove themselves greater in soul than their oppressors. When she writes of her slave and liberated ancestors, she rises above victimhood and depicts them with dignity, power, and agency. Her poems around her homecoming to family history are poignant, and tinged with a curious irony: if those who came before did not do as they did, good or evil, then I would not be here to tell it. I would be someone else, all one color, all one thing, and maybe not even very interesting. To forgive history even while enduring the knowledge of the hand holding a whip takes a large soul.
Nelson’s life-in-poems of George Washington Carver, the great botanist and artist, should be studied by young poets, who seem so in lack of something to write about beyond their everyday lives and love affairs. History teems with heroes, whose story only a poet can tell.
After 9/11, Nelson set out to write a requiem work “to everyone in the world who died on that day,” including the 24,000 people who died of starvation on that day. Making everything out of one life and death, she wrote Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, about a Connecticut slave whose skeleton was extracted for “educational” use by a doctor – a polite way of saying his body was cooked down in a pot until nothing was left but the bones. The central poem in this book, “Not My Bones,” is one of the great poems of our time.
Her poems about her father, one of the heroic Tuskegee airmen of World War II, and the poems about his fellow flyers, her extended family of “uncles,” convey both the heroism of these men, and the horrific prejudice and race violence that still prevailed in America in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether it is the story of the World War I black soldier lynched on returning home in uniform, or the more subtle story of her father in uniform on a train, mistaken by a white woman for a porter, Nelson has the right words, the right giving and holding back, the right way of putting the anger in the events told, not the voice telling. These poems make you gasp, weep, and stagger, hit right between the eyes.
She writes “everyday” poems, too, and makes them extraordinary. I love her “Dinosaur Spring,” and her hilarious “Levitation with Baby” (a Muse poem), and her childhood recollection of “How I Discovered Poetry.” It is no accident, then, that she can sing to the young in sonnets, and her poignant cycle about a lynched 14-year-old boy – a most unlikely topic for a young-audience book – is A Wreath of Emmett Till. Nelson’s book is challenging, high-toned, in gorgeous language a young person would take to heart and live with for a lifetime, even while teaching a dark moment in our history. Its presentation and kindly author’s notes are a model for how we might turn a new generation into poetry readers.
Nelson also has the gift of a great narrator: she has a keen understanding of human psychology, as keen as a Dostoyevsky or a Maupassant. She knows we are not all culture but instinct, too. She sees the raw power of desire, anger and lust, the seed impulse coursing inside everything that lives. In “Churchgoing,” in classically formal language, she has finally explained to me, in terms that convince me, why slaves and former slaves could be Christians after being slaves to Christians. She writes:
That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy
nevertheless was by these slaves ignored
as they pitied the poor body of Christ!
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble,
that they believed most, who so much have lost.
She is the poet Phillis Wheatley would have wanted to be.
I could rhapsodize for a long time about Marilyn Nelson, but that would deprive her –and you – of more precious moments of hearing her voice. Here is a poet who embraces the whole inheritance of poetry, encompasses the whole history of an oppressed people, and writes in unforgettable words for you, the reader, the future, the audiences yet unborn and yet to come. Welcome, with jubilation and awe, Marilyn Nelson.
SAMPLE POEMS TO COME...