About Marilyn Nelson

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 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 children’s book – is A Wreath for 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 of young people 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.

The above text was my introduction to Marilyn Nelson when she appeared as judge and reader for the 2009 Philbrick Poetry Prize at the Providence Athenaeum.

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