Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 7, 2014

What I’m Reading: how i discovered poetry by Marilyn Nelson

how I discovered poetry by Marilyn Nelson is written in forty unrhymed sonnets, showing a life based on her own, but with added research and imagination, during the 1950’s, when she grew from four years old (as she is in the picture taken by her father below) to fourteen. The first words are “Once upon a time,” and we hear the small child in bed amusing herself not only with the idea of time, but prepositions. The next poem is set in church, where upon hearing that Lot and his wife flee, she imagines companionable fleas within the Biblical story.

Marilyn by her dad

As the narrator grows up, the poems told in first person reflect what she learns within the fourteen line frames that, one after another, with line illustrations by Hadley Hooper and a few black and white photographs, seem like blankets pinned at the corners by the four members of the family. The father’s work as one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force, mean they travel a lot. Her mother teaches second grade and oversees what happens to her two daughters in classrooms where Marilyn sometimes “has the darkest eyes in the room” and sometimes is in an all-black classroom. She shows how both places have their pleasures and difficulties. She sometimes briefly reflects on what she overhears about integration and segregation, thoughts broken by a child’s common wish for a pony. As she grows older, her mother brings home some Africans from grad school and tells her daughter “these are our people.” As the growing poet puts away the supper dishes, she asks herself “who are not my people.”


A developing awareness of the implications of race is a theme, the failures and small triumphs of justice on school playgrounds (we get some seesaw imagery), but the collection is as marked by the travel of a parent in the military, the repeated leave-takings and trying to make new homes, and the glimpses of the variety of people and natural beauty in the nation. As the narrator enters her teens, there’s more sense of her looking for a place for herself beyond her strong family, and while the poet is tentative, as poets tend to be, we are sure she will make mark. In the last lines of the last sonnet, she closes a book, turns off her lamp, and speaks into the dark: Give me a message I can give to the world. The plea or prayer echoes a line from Emily Dickinson, who would become a cherished influence. Then the poem and book concludes with her “afraid there’s a poet behind my face.” Here’s the life: both the yearning and fear of hearing and being heard. I’ll be reading this thought-provoking and beautiful book again.

For the Poetry Friday roundup, please visit No Water River.


  1. This looks wonderful . . . I love Marilyn’s work and haven’t read anything by her in a long time. A slender memoir in verse. Sometimes less really is more . . .

    • I’ll be reading it again, but for me it may not have the impact of what she calls “lyric histories,” which is partly because some of those, especially Carver: A Life in Poems, are my favorite books ever. You won’t be surprised. But this is nice because poems like those or say, A Wreath for Emmett Till, I come to more from the outside, looking back and in. This is not as taut or formal as some of her verse, and it’s easier to slip in and become part of the story. It’s not exactly Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus, yet you feel they and the parents could be friends. The parents set down rules: No one, even a policer offer, may call the father ‘boy.’ No one, not even a teacher, may whack the children’s hands. All this takes place without high drama. And while the child is attentive and a good student, she also has plenty of fun.

  2. This sounds beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

    • It really is lovely. Thanks for reading!

  3. Oh wow-just found at my conference!

  4. Thank you, Jeannine. Wonderful!

  5. I do love Marilyn Nelson’s poetry. Why am I not surprised her book on George Washington Carver is one of your all time favorites, and mine. I just pulled it out this week to read again and still get chills and tears as I read. Also found her “Footprints on the Roof” at my library this week. I had not read it before, but it’s a gem, too. I will need to go find this one now. Sounds wonderful.

    • Yes, Carver can be read again and again. Excerpts from it, as well as the words to some published in picture book format, such as A Wreath for Emmett Till and Sweethearts of Rhythm, are included in FASTER THAN LIGHT: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1996-2011. You will want to get ahold of that!

      I think you conflated two brilliant poets named Marilyn re FOOTPRINTS ON THE ROOF. That’s Marilyn Singer, but I’m glad you mentioned it as a gem. I just ordered it.

      Oh, and while we’re book chatting, I think you’d like Pamela White Hadas who wrotes poems based on biographical history for adults. I’m slowly and happily making my way through SELF-EVIDENCE. We’ve got our homework (though in memorium, I’m devoting my weekend to Maxine Kumin).

  6. You’ve peaked my interest, Jeannine! I’m going to get this book. Thanks for the recommendation. =)

    • So happy to peak interest! There’s a clear, gentle peek into U.S. history in the 1950s and into our selves, too.

  7. Someone just recommended this book to me yesterday, so thanks for the peek inside. It sounds just beautiful.

    • I hope you enjoy it. There’s such a nice balance of the warmth of family, the fun of friends, and a sense of challenges beyond the walls of home.

  8. So glad to know of this, Jeannine. Thanks.

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