Nelson, Marilyn 1946- (Marilyn Nelson Waniek)
Nelson, Marilyn 1946- (Marilyn Nelson Waniek)
Born April 26, 1946, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Melvin M. (in the U.S. Air Force) and Johnnie (a teacher) Nelson; married Erdmann F. Waniek, September, 1970 (divorced, 1979); married Roger R. Wilkenfeld, November 22, 1979 (divorced, 1998); children: (second marriage) Jacob, Dora. Education: University of California, Davis, B.A., 1968; University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1970; University of Minnesota, Ph.D., 1978. Politics: "Yes." Religion: "Yes." Hobbies and other interests: Quilting, traveling.
Home—East Haddam, CT. Office—Department of English, University of Connecticut, Box U-4025, 215 Glenbrook Rd., Storrs, CT 06269-4025. E-mail—[email protected]
National Lutheran Campus Ministry, lay associate, 1969-70; Lane Community College, Eugene, OR, assistant professor of English, 1970-72; Norre Nissum Seminariam, Norre Nissum, Denmark, English teacher, 1972-73; Saint Olaf College, Northfield, MN, instructor in English, 1973-78; University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, assistant professor, 1978-82, associate professor, 1982-88, professor of English, 1988-2002, professor emeritus, 2002—; University of Delaware, Newark, professor of English, 2002-04; Soul Mountain Retreat, East Haddam, CT, director, 2002—. Visiting assistant professor, Reed College, 1971-72, and Trinity College (Hartford, CT), 1982-83; visiting professor, University of Hamburg, spring, 1977, New York University, spring, 1988, spring, 1994, and Vermont College, spring, 1991; Elliston Professor, University of Cincinnati, spring, 1994; U.S. Military Academy, visiting faculty, spring, 2000.
Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Society for Values in Higher Education, Modern Language Association, American Literary Translators Association, Poetry Society of America, Associated Writing Programs, Third World Villanelle Society, Phi Kappa Phi.
Kent fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1981, 1990; Connecticut Arts Award, 1990; National Book Award finalist for poetry, 1991;
Annisfield-Wolf Award, 1992; Fulbright teaching fellowship, 1995; National Book Award finalist for poetry, 1997; Poets' Prize, 1999, for The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems; Contemplative Practices fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, 2000; named Poet Laureate for the State of Connecticut, Connecticut Commission on the Arts, 2001; J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, 2001; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and National Book Award finalist in young-people's literature category, both 2001, and Coretta Scott King Honor Book designation, Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction, and Newbery Honor designation, all 2002, all for Carver: A Life in Poems; Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2005, for Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem; two Pushcart prizes; Michael L. Printz Award honor book designation, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award honor book designation, and Coretta Scott King Honor Award, all 2006, all for A Wreath for Emmett Till; Lifetime Achievement honor, Connecticut Book Awards, 2006.
(Translator) Pil Dahlerup, Literary Sex Roles, Minnesota Women in Higher Education (Minneapolis, MN), 1975.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) For the Body (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1978.
(Translator, with Pamela Espeland) Halfdan Rasmussen, Hundreds of Hens, and Other Poems for Children, Black Willow Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.
(As Marilyn Waniek, with Pamela Espeland) The Cat Walked through the Casserole, and Other Poems for Children, Carolrhoda (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Mama's Promises (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1985.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) The Homeplace (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1990.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Magnificat (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1994.
The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.
Carver: A Life in Poems (young adult), Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2001.
Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (young adult), Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2004.
(Translator) Inge Pederson, The Thirteenth Month (poems), Oberlin College Press, Oberlin, OH), 2005.
The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2005.
A Wreath for Emmett Till (fpr young adults), illustrated by Philippe Lardy, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2005.
(Translator) Halfdan Rasmussen, Ladder (picture book), illustrated by Pierre Pratt, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.
The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes through the Eyes of Venture Smith: Poems, Lyme Historical Society/Florence Griswold Museum (Old Lyme, CT), 2006.
(With Elizabeth Alexander) Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color: Poems (for young readers), illustrated by Floyd Cooper, Word-song (Honesdale, PA), 2007.
Contributor of poetry to numerous anthologies, including A Formal Feeling Comes: Contemporary Women Formalist Poets, 1993, and The New Breadloaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 1999. Contributor to literary journals and periodicals, including the Gettysburg Review, Obsidian II, Southern Review, MELUS, Minority Voices, Field, and Studies in Black Literature. Manuscripts by Nelson and other archives relevant to her writing are held in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and in the archives of the University of Connecticut.
Poet Marilyn Nelson, who published her early work under the name Marilyn Nelson Waniek, writes in a variety of styles about many subjects, often dealing with topics involivng the African diaspora. She has also written verses for children and translated poetry from the Danish and German. As fellow poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote of Nelson's work in Prime Zone Media Network: "Rooted in the basic soil of redemptive imagination, the voices in Marilyn Nelson's poems seek a lyrical foothold in our daily lives. Her words teach us how to praise ourselves by praising each other."
Nelson's first poetry collection, For the Body, focuses on the relationships between individuals and the larger social groupings of family, extended family, and society. Using domestic settings and memories of her own childhood, she fashions poetry that "sometimes sings, sometimes narrates," as a Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist described it. In Mama's Promises Nelson continues to experiment with poetic forms in verses about a woman's role in marriage and society, but she utilizes stanzaic division more than in her previous work. The poems in Mama's Promises also bear a cumulative theological weight, as the "Mama" named in each poem is revealed in the last poem to be God.
In The Homeplace Nelson turns her attention to the history of her own family, telling its story from the time of her great-great-grandmother to the present via a series of interconnected poems ranging in style from traditional forms to colloquial free verse. Some critics praised the variety of poetic expression Nelson displays. "The sheer range of [Nelson's] voice," Christian Wiman wrote in Shenandoah, "is one of the book's greatest strengths, varying not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well." Suzanne Gardinier, reviewing the book for Parnassus, found that through her poems Nelson "reaches back through generations hemmed in on all sides by slavery and its antecedents; all along the way she finds sweetness, and humor, and more complicated truth than its disguises have revealed."
In her poetry for children, Nelson also writes of family situations, although in a more humorous manner. Her collection The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, written with Pamela Espeland, contains poems about domestic problems and pleasures. The title poem, for example, tells of the family dog and cat and the trouble they cause throughout the neighborhood. Such poems as "Grampa's Whiskers" and "When I Grow Up" also focus on family life in a light-hearted manner.
Although biblical allusions appear in even her earliest poems, only with the collection Magnificat does Nelson write directly of spiritual subjects. Inspired by her friendship with a Benedictine monk, Nelson tells of her religious awakening to a more profound sense of Christian devotion. Writing in Multicultural Review, Mary Walsh Meany found Nelson's voice—"humorous, earthy, tender, joyous, sorrowful, contemplative, speculative, attached, detached, sometimes silent"—to be what "makes the poems wonderful." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Nelson's "passion, sincerity and self-deprecating humor will engage even the most skeptical reader."
In The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems Nelson's poems embrace numerous themes, including the changing nature of love, racism, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the collection "stirring," noting that the verses in Section III, "grappling with evil and filled with biblical and philosophical references, demonstrate a luminous power." Writing in America, Edward J. Ingebretsen commented that he was drawn to Nelson's humorous poems. "Nelson is at her best when she is wry and comic," Ingebretsen wrote. "Many of her narrative scenes are Swiftian indignities observed with compassion." Miller Williams, writing in the African American Review, called Nelson's voice "quietly lyrical" and her poems ones "of simple wisdom and straightforward, indelible stories."
The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems is a more recent collection of poems by Nelson that explores travel from an African-American historical and social point of view. Nelson writes about an encounter with a cab driver, a trip to a Creole village, and a strange journey to Brazil's Bahia. A Black Issues Book Review contributor asserted that "Nelson's gift as a poet is her simple, fluid mastery of poetic forms."
In 2001 Carver: A Life in Poems was published to critical acclaim, notable nominations, and awards. In this volume Nelson provides a lyrical rendering through forty-four poems of the life of George Washington Carver, a renowned and revered African-American botanist and inventor who was widely respected for his scholarly mind, hard work, and humility. As head of the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver specialized in crop research and was especially noted for his work with peanuts, including developing peanut butter. Nelson's poems tell Carver's story within the political and cultural milieu of his time, and the book includes prose summaries of the events in Carver's life and numerous photographs. Ray Olson, reviewing Carver in Booklist, noted that "Nelson beautifully and movingly revives his reputation." As Cathryn M. Mercier commented in Horn Book, "each poem stands as a finely wrought whole of such high caliber that one can hardly name a favorite," and School Library Journal critic Herman Sutter remarked that Nelson's verses "are simple, sincere, and sometimes so beautiful that they seem not works of artifice, but honest statements of pure, natural truths."
In Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem Nelson writes about the real-life Fortune, a slave whose master preserved his bones for anatomical research after Fortune died. The poems are based on information gathered by the Mattatuck Museum, which stored the bones. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the verse collection a "slim funeral mass, moving from grief to joy," adding that the author likens the slave's "death as his deliverance from slavery to the ultimate freedom." "Moved by the poetry and the history," Hazel Rochman wrote in Booklist, "readers will want to join the debate." School Library Journal critic Nancy Palmer concluded of Fortune's Bones that "this volume sets history and poetry side by side and, combined with the author's personal note on inspirations, creates a unique amalgam."
Nelson writes about another notorious incident in her book A Wreath for Emmett Till. Till was a young African American from Chicago who was brutally beaten and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after whistling at a white woman. A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised the author's ability to "take one of the most hideous events of the 20th century and make of it something glorious," while School Library Journal critic Cris Riedel referred to the book as being "in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian." As a Publishers Weekly contributor further remarked, "for those readers who are ready to confront the evil and goodness of which human beings are capable, this wise book is both haunting and memorable."
Halfdan Rasmussen, a Danish poet who died in 2002, is among the writers whose works have been translated by Nelson for English-speaking audiences. His works Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children and The Ladder feature rhyming couplets, the latter telling the story of an independent-minded ladder that travels the countryside. "Not every translated rhyme is felicitous, but most are jaunty and light," wrote Abby Nolan of Nelson's translations in her Booklist review. Nelson has also cowritten several books of poetry, including collaborating with Elizabeth Alexander on Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.
Nelson served as poet laureate of the State of Connecticut from 2001 through 2006. Also in 2006, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Connecticut Book Awards. In her speech accepting the honor, she said she felt strange for receiving an award for something that came so naturally. "Poets are dreamers and live in the imagination," Nelson said, as quoted by Carol Goldberg for the Hartford Courant. "My achievements are really blessings for being in the right place at the right time. It's odd to be honored for being blessed." Along with continuing to write poetry, Nelson continues to teach her craft at the University of Connecticut and at Soul Mountain, a poet's retreat she helped establish. She also contributes as a writer and performer to the Poetry Foundation's podcasts, which introduce poetry as an oral tradition to students.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
African American Review, spring, 1999, Miller Williams, review of The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, p. 179.
America, April 25, 1998, Edward J. Ingebretsen, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 27.
Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2006, review of The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems, p. 18.
Booklinks, January-February, 2006, Chris Liska Carger and Mayra Carillo-Daniel, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 49.
Booklist, May 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Carver: A Life in Poems, p. 1658; November 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, p. 573; February 1, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 970; January 1, 2006, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 12; June 1, 2006, Abby Nolan, review of The Ladder, p. 88.
Christian Century, December 14, 2004, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 24.
Christianity and Literature, summer, 1998, Anne West Ramirez, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 510.
Georgia Review, winter, 1997, Judith Kitchen, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 756.
Hartford Courant, December 4, 2006, Carole Goldberg, "Poet's ‘Blessed’ Life Honored at Connecticut Book Awards."
Horn Book, September, 2001, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 606; January-February, 2002, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 41; January-February 2005, Sue Houchins, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 105; May-June, 2005, Betsy Hearne, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 339; May-June, 2006, "Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award," p. 365.
Hudson Review, spring, 1998, R.S. Gwynn, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 257; summer, 2005, David Mason, "The Passionate Pursuit of the Real," pp. 319-328.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2004, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 1011; March 1, 2005, review of A Wreath for Emmitt Till, p. 292.
Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2001, Carol Muske Dukes, review of Carver, p. R10.
Multicultural Review, March, 1995, Mary Walsh Meany, review of Magnificat.
Newsweek, April 17, 2006, Raina Kelley, "Poetry in Motion," p. 66.
New York Times Book Review, July 15, 2001, review of Carver, p. 24.
Parnassus, Volume 17, number 1, 1992, Suzanne Gardinier, review of The Homeplace, pp. 65-78.
Poetry, May, 2006, D.H. Tracy, review of The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems, p. 159.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1990, review of The Homeplace, p. 52; August 29, 1994, review of Magnificat, p. 67; May 26, 1997, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 82; April 11, 2005, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 54.
Reading Today, December, 2005, David L. Richardson, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 34.
School Library Journal, July, 2001, Herman Sutter, review of Carver, p. 129; December, 2004, Nancy Palmer, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 166; April, 2005, Nina Lindsay, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 57; May, 2005, Cris Riedel, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 156.
Shenandoah, winter, 1992, Christian Wiman, review of The Homeplace.
Women's Review of Books, May, 1998, Marilyn Hacker, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 17.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (March 16, 2007), "Marilyn Nelson."
African American Literature Book Club Online,http://aalbc.com/ (March 16, 2007), "Marilyn Nelson."
Connecticut State Poet Laureate Web site,http://vvv.state.ct.us/emblems/poet.htm (March 16, 2007), "Marilyn Nelson."
Marilyn Nelson Home Page,http://web.uconn.edu/mnelson/ (March 16, 2007).
Poetry Foundation Web site,http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ (March 16, 2007), "Marilyn Nelson."
University of Connecticut Web site,http://uconn.edu/ (March 16, 2007), "Marilyn Nelson."
Marilyn Nelson contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
In the Southern and black tradition, I like to start telling of myself by telling who my people are. My mother's mother was an Atwood, the eldest of a family of seven children, some of whose names are remembered in the little town of Hickman, Kentucky, even now, long after their deaths. Their parents were mulattos born into slavery; later their father, Pomp Atwood, co-owned a little
grocery store in Hickman, had a coal and oil business, and sold real estate. There's an Atwood Street in a black neighborhood of Hickman. I met a woman from Hickman in California once, who told me that if anyone ever stood in my way, I should "tell them you're an Atwood woman, and go right on to the top." My grandmother's sisters and brother were teachers and preachers and darers. In the nineteen-teens, Aunt Blanche won an essay contest whose prize was a full-tuition scholarship to a major Southern university. When she showed up to claim her prize and it was discovered that she was "colored," the committee decided not to award the scholarship that year. The Atwoods fought the decision. The committee finally compromised and gave her a full scholarship to a Negro college. She taught for a while at Fisk University. For some thirty years Uncle Rufus was president of Kentucky State College. I found his name in a Negro history textbook when I was in college: he won the Bronze Star for bravery in World War I. Aunt Rose once stuck a hat pin—she always kept one in the lapel of her coat, to be used in such circumstances—into a haughty white woman who snorted something insulting when Aunt Rose sat down next to her on a city bus. The Hickman woman I met in California told me her high school graduation ceremony was interrupted when my grandmother entered the auditorium with her walker, after decades of living elsewhere teaching school. The high school principal said, "Wait; is that Miss Ray? Miss Ray, would you like to say something to our graduates?" Meema, who must have been in her late seventies then, followed her clunking walker down the middle aisle, and at the stage turned to face the audience and recited a soliloquy from a Shakespeare play. She played the piano by ear—but only on the black keys—and was so proud, the story goes, that "she was the only woman in the county who bought shoes without looking at them: she refused to lower her head in front of a white shoe salesman."
The other half of Mama's side of our family was her father, John Mitchell, who was born into slavery. His father ran away to fight for the Union. After the war he rejoined his family in Tennessee, and with his severance pay bought a piece of land to farm. Night riders attacked the farm when my grandfather was a little boy and set the cabin on fire. His mother told him to run north, and he ran away with his younger brother, Will. He lost Will; I've never heard the story of that loss. My grandfather was found by a white family, the Bryants, in Dorena, Missouri. They took him in and raised him with their own son, Cu1len. They were never able to find his birth family. As a young man, he farmed with the Bryants and ran their Mississippi River ferry. One day a bunch of rednecks from out of town insulted him on the ferry, and he threw them overboard. He left town that night, on a train with a ticket paid for by the Bryants, and with farm animals they had given him as a premature inheritance. He went west, to the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma, and farmed there for the rest of his life. Mama said he talked so often about "ol' Cull," his boyhood friend and surrogate brother, that at last her exasperated mother said he should write Cullen a letter. He did. A few weeks later they received a reply: Cullen was dead. His wife said Cullen had spoken of my grandfather often and with love, even on his deathbed. A few years ago my uncle was in Hickman, which is near Dorena, so he drove into Dorena for the first time in his life and stopped at a little department store called Bryant's. He asked to speak with the owner, and when he did, told Mr. Bryant that he thought perhaps Mr. Bryant's parents might have raised his father. Mr. Bryant remembered hearing of John Mitchell when he was a boy; he invited my uncle home with him to meet his family, and he accompanied my uncle to our family reunion the following day. My uncle says that when I was an infant he and my mother, having received the news that their father was dying, drove with me all night from Cleveland to Boley. They got there in the morning, went into their father's room, and Mama held me up: "Here's your first grandbaby, Papa." He opened his eyes and said, "My grandbaby." He died later that day.
My father never talked much about his family. His people came from Tennessee, but Daddy was born and raised in St. Louis. His father was a cook on a paddlewheel steamboat. Somewhere there's a photograph of the steamboat crew, in which my grandfather is wearing a long white apron and a white chef's hat. My grandmother's German shepherd once grabbed the shirt of a child who was teetering on the edge of their upper-story tenement balcony and held the child in the air until she could haul the child up. When she died, the dog lay down and refused to move or eat until it died. When my eleventh-grade history teacher told us to ask our parents about the Great Depression, Daddy's eyes filled with tears. All he said was that he used to walk along the railroad tracks, looking for pieces of coal. His parents died when he was a young man, and he attended Wilburforce College on scholarship. He had wanted to be a doctor, but wasn't able to afford medical school. He went to law school for a while, but made his career in the air force. He was in the last class to graduate from the experimental military Negro cadet school which produced the Tuskegee Airmen. His class graduated too late to fly in World War II, but they were of that first generation of Negro military aviators.
Daddy was a navigator, and my childhood was splendid with pride in the fact that he flew, and that because he was an officer, men in uniform saluted him right and left. Our car was saluted whenever we passed the checkpoint leaving or entering an air force base, and Daddy's magisterial military bearing commanded respect wherever he went. One foggy New Year's Eve, on our way to Mexico from our home in northern California, we were stopped by a white highway patrolman. The policeman walked up to our car, shined his flashlight on us, and asked Daddy, "What do you think you're flying, boy?" Daddy, who was wearing his uniform, said with great dignity, "B-52's." The policeman looked shocked, then laughed and said, "Well, I guess you know what you're doing, then. But please be careful." They exchanged New Year's wishes and waved as we drove away.
This background provided me with the security and courage implied by the proverb which advises us to give two things to our children: roots and wings. Mama,
with her proud stories of her family, gave us roots; Daddy, who used to drive us out into the country at night, park the car and point out constellations and name stars, gave us wings. They encouraged us to dream big, and they had confidence in our ability to be what we dreamed. My sister, Jennifer, is an actor/director; our brother, Mel, is a musician/composer. These are my people, and this is where I start.
Mama and Daddy met in Cleveland; I was born there in 1946. Daddy was driving a taxi and going to law school; Mama had graduated from Kentucky State and was working on a master's degree in music theory at Case Western Reserve. I foiled her plans: she didn't get her master's for another twenty years. Jennifer was born two years after I was. We lived in an apartment on, I think, Euclid Avenue. The one surviving photograph of the neighborhood shows me on a tricycle, in outsized, shabby overalls (Mama said I used to embarrass her by announcing, when someone admired my clothes, that we had bought them "to the Goodwill"). Behind me are the wooden fire escapes of a ghetto tenement. And with me are a few other children; we look like the Dead End Kids. One of Mama's cousins, George Freeman, lived in Cleveland. We called him Uncle George; his wife, Aunt Carma, was my godmother. Their daughter, Oneida, died of childhood leukemia. Uncle George's mother, Aunt Rose (Mama's aunt, my great-aunt), lived in Cleveland, too, and was for years the housekeeper of the Jeloff family. One day Aunt Rose was talking to her minister on the telephone when the elastic in her "bloomers" broke and they fell off. She did a little dance for me, laughing with her eyes, the "bloomers" around her ankles, as she continued her serious conversation. She was my favorite aunt.
Jennifer and I shared a double bed and told each other stories or played a game we called "footsies" until Daddy banged on the door and old us to "pipe down in there!" I started kindergarten in Cleveland, but all I remember of school there is a plague of head lice (I didn't get them) and snacks of graham crackers and milk. Mama was teaching school and Daddy was working and taking law school courses, and acting and taking photography classes at the Karamu settlement house, when he was recalled into the service for the Korean conflict.
He stayed in the air force for sixteen years. We lived in Waco, Texas; Salina, Kansas; Denver, Colorado; Sacramento, California; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Kittery Point, Maine; Sacramento again; Fort Worth, Texas; Burns Flat, Oklahoma; and Sacramento again, permanently. We usually lived in base housing, which meant we lived in the "better" neighborhoods of a society which segregated officers and enlisted men. Daddy was often the only Negro officer on a base, and even when he wasn't, we were often the only Negro officer's children, and more often the only Negro children in our classes. Jennifer and I were studious to the point of bookishness, though I was more of a "tomboy" than she. We rode bicycles, roller-skated, caught frogs and lizards, and climbed trees. My knees and elbows are permanently scarred from being skinned so often. In second or third grade at an air force base near Salina, Kansas, I read all the books in the school library, and Mrs. Leibel brought in books from the high school to keep me occupied. My best friend was Tommy Avery. Tommy's mother was British; they had a little Winston Churchill statue next to their radio, and a box of teensy cigars it could actually smoke when Tommy's mother lit them. Tommy got sprayed by a skunk one day when we were out playing in a dry drainage ditch. His mother made him take off all his clothes outside and washed him with a hose. I couldn't look into his eyes for a long time after that.
In fourth grade at Mather Field, near Sacramento, California, the boy I liked best was Sammy Hartley. He had red hair and freckles, and looked like he could have been invented by Mark Twain. My best friend that year was Helene Straker, whose father had known mine when they were Tuskegee cadets. Helene and Jennifer and I had lots of slumber parties during which we pretended we were orphans lost in the woods, or made up stories about our futures. One of the few racial incidents I remember from childhood happened with Helene: we were walking in another neighborhood of base housing when a little white girl called us the N-word. Helene said, "What did you say?" The girl repeated the word. Helene hauled off and hit her with her fist, right in the middle of her forehead. A big lump formed. Then Helene and I walked on home. I guess the girl's father was an enlisted man; we never heard anything more about the incident.
My brother, Mel Junior, was born in 1956. He was just a few weeks old when Daddy was transferred to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A few weeks later Daddy was sent to England on temporary duty, and Mama, who wasn't happy in the apartment we had found, moved us across the river to Kittery Point, Maine. There we rented a big old colonial house a block from the ocean, between Miss Lydia Pinkham, a sweet old spinster-lady, and Ed and Flossie Bayliss, an old childless couple who soon became our surrogate grandparents. There were fruit trees in their overgrown yard, and in the barn a Model-T Ford which hadn't been driven in years. Daddy convinced Uncle Ed that it should be driven, so we took them for rides in it, Aunt Flossie pointing out medicinal herbs by the roadside. A poultice of Queen Anne's lace flowers is good against psoriasis. They had a dark parlor they never used, with photographs of dead relatives, in their coffins, on the tables and mantel. Uncle Ed used to sit in their bay window with binoculars and watch the town. Once or twice he said, with his broad Maine accent, "I saw you had steak last night." We were the first Negroes ever to live in Kittery Point. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Gray, had never had a Negro student before. Some of the other children—temporary immigrants from the South whose fathers worked at the Kittery Naval Yard—snubbed me, but I had many more friends than enemies.
My best friend that year, Ellie Mitchell, has been my friend for almost forty years.
That year was a turning point for me: our house was only a few doors from the library, and I read almost every book in it. I loved A.J. Cronin's The Green Years, which I read over and over. And I discovered poetry, reading anthologies of old nineteenth-century chestnuts. I decided I wanted to be a poet, and I wrote my first poem about my baby brother. "Little Sir Melvin, in knighthood is he, / Rides on a brown charger (it's really my knee)," and so on. Mama kept a copy of it, and Mrs. Gray predicted that I'd grow up to be a famous writer. I was heartbroken when we had to leave Kittery Point; I'd planned to become a Mariner Scout the next year and learn to sail.
We were transferred three times the following year, back to Sacramento, then to Fort Worth, Texas, then to Burns Flat, Oklahoma. In Fort Worth we lived in a black neighborhood called "Stop Six" and went to segregated schools. The teachers I liked best there were Miss Lee and Mr. Lee. Miss Lee taught English and read poems to us by Paul Laurence Dunbar (the school was named for him). Mr. Lee taught string quartet. Since we were only to be in Fort Worth for a short time, Mama had put the piano into storage. She told me to continue to practice, however, by fingering on my school desk the pieces.
I'd been learning. My homeroom teacher noticed this, thought I must be "musical," and had me put into Mr. Lee's class. He gave me the viola. Daddy made me go out on the balcony to practice: he couldn't stand the screeching. How humiliating it was to stand in the open air, scratching out scales, while the cutest boys in the school, I was sure, were watching and hearing me. But I loved the class: Mr. Lee would start the three of us girls sawing notes that must have made several great composers groan in their graves, then he'd crack us up by plucking out jazz accompaniments on his bass. I was famous in the school because I had "a California accent." Kids stopped me in the hall, asking me to talk for them. Before I could capitalize on my fame by exchanging words with the boy I'd noticed, whose first name was Major, we were transferred again, this time to Oklahoma. By now I had known and forgotten so many people that I was half convinced that they permanently disappeared after we left them. I'd learned not to look back.
On one of those cross-country trips, which we made driving all night, stopping at dusk-to-dawn drive-in theatres where Mama and Daddy snored while we children watched movies until we couldn't help giving up, Daddy drove as we slept and parked the car on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We awoke to that grandeur at dawn. Daddy was like that. He loved the sound of rain on the car's roof at night, and once or twice he invited me to sleep in the car so I could hear it. I slept in the backseat, he in the front. Rain sounds like wren's wings beating against a parked car's roof at night. Or like a cascade of coins made of moonlight. Or like a raging stampede of chipmunks. Daddy could pull coins out of our ears. I remember thinking as a young child that as long as he could do that, we would never be poor. He could also execute a standing back-flip, which for years endeared him to my friends. When I was little, children used to knock on our door after school and ask whether Mr. Nelson could come out and play. Once or twice he drove into a midwestern farmyard because the mailbox said "Nelson." He introduced us as "Nelsons, too," and asked if we could look around. The Nelsons never turned us away. Mama was a trained and intuitive pianist with perfect pitch. She could identify all of the notes in a chord heard once, and often called from the kitchen when we were practicing the piano, to say, "Not B-flat; B-natural!" Severe storms were always a treat because when the electricity went out our neighbors came to our house, and Mama played and everyone sang along by candlelight. When the civil rights movement started in earnest, Mama made up a joke: "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Eyes." "Eyes, who?" "Eyes yo' new neighbor." We sang and laughed and played games, driving across the country eating fried chicken and sandwiches of raisin bread and bologna.
I finished seventh and eighth grade and part of ninth at Burns Flat High School. There were three Negro students, all from air force families, in the school. Though we lived on base, the school was in town, and the high school townies made life miserable for us. The boys teased each other at lunch by calling me across the caf-
eteria, then pointing at each other and saying, "He says he likes you." Two of the teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Purdy, resented my presence in their classrooms. Though my grades were excellent, Mr. Purdy gave me a D in math. I went home in tears. Daddy said, "He's a redneck cracker, Marilyn; he knows you're better than he is. Just do the work and be proud. We'll be out of here soon." Mrs. Purdy once made me read a racist black dialect poem aloud in English class. She had the smile of a viper. But the other teachers encouraged me and treated me with respect and affection. I had three best friends: Kim McCauley, Cheryl Wesson, and John Henry Brand III. Kim and I wrote a novel, "The Case of the Fabulous Belt Buckle Monster," passing a notebook back and forth in Mr. Purdy's class. Kim told me only years later that her mother had disapproved of our friendship. The civil rights movement was in the daily news, with lunch counter sit-ins and police dogs and fire hoses. Kids whose fathers had been transferred to Burns Flat from Little Rock had terrible stories to tell. Even in Oklahoma, Negroes couldn't try on clothes in the local department stores, or eat in ice cream parlors (you had to buy your soda and drink it outside). My class voted not to take a field trip to a local movie theatre because I wouldn't have been able to sit with the class: Negroes had to sit in the balcony.
One day I was roller-skating near our house when I ran into Sammy Hartley, who had been in my fourth grade class. I'd never met a classmate from my past before, and I was stunned. Sammy's life had gone on, as mine had, and our paths had crossed twice! This changed some heavy thinking I was doing at the time, about being and—shall we say—nothingness. I was trying to decide whether I was Catholic or Mohammedan. Though my parents had been raised in black AME and CME churches, we usually attended nondenominational Protestant services in the base chapel. But after seeing The Nun's Story and reading a book about Albert Schweitzer, I imagined that I might someday be called, so I was reading everything I could find about saints. And, after reading an article about him in Life magazine, I'd developed a crush on Karim, the Aga Khan (at that time a dashing Harvard undergraduate), so I was also reading everything I could find about Islam. I spent one whole summer believing I was born to unite Christianity and Islam.
In 1958 Mama had another baby, a boy we named Peter Michael, but called Michael. When he was a few months old, the doctors informed us that he had Down's Syndrome. Daddy, who chain-smoked Salems, was flying twenty-four-hour missions for the Strategic Air Command then, and under a great deal of cold war, civil rights, and family stress. One night while flying a mission he had a heart attack. After leaving the hospital, he was grounded, with a large reduction in pay, and transferred to California for retraining.
In the middle of my ninth-grade year we moved back to Sacramento, to Glen Elder, the black neighborhood of tract houses in which we had lived for a short time three years earlier. After several years of financial difficulties caused by his loss of flight pay, Daddy took a medical discharge from the air force and entered civilian life. The family stayed in Sacramento, while he moved from a position as technical writer for a large corporation, then to one as technical editor, then finally to a job teaching English in a junior high school. I went to high school in Sacramento. Having lived for so long in a predominantly white world, I was a social dud in the neighborhood and with the black kids at school. I couldn't dance, I "talked white," I read books for pleasure and enjoyed studying: I was as square as they come.
But my best friend, Marjorie Gibson, was as awkward a black girl as I. Hiram Johnson High had a substantial black student population, though the student body was predominantly white, with a lot of Chicanos and a sprinkling of Asians. We were "tracked" in three levels: most of the white and Asian students took accelerated college-prep classes; some of the whites, some of the Asians, and one or two Chicanos and blacks took the "normal" curriculum; and most of the blacks and Chicanos and a few whites took vocational classes. When I told my high-school counselor that my junior-high-school counselor had told me that I would be put into accelerated classes, he said I must have been mistaken. I was finally accelerated in my senior year, after my father demanded to know why, since I was almost a straight-A student, I hadn't been given more challenging courses.
In my junior year I fell in love. He was a sophomore, an athlete; his name was Walt Slider. During our two years as a couple, Walt excelled in everything he did: he was the star of our varsity basketball team; he played third base on the varsity baseball team; he lettered in football and track, winning several second or third place medals in long jump in state-wide competitions. And he got good grades, he was funny and sweet and more than six feet tall and brown-skinned, with sleepy-looking eyes and a faint, downy moustache. Walt and I became one of the "campus couples," his popularity winning me a place in the coveted inner circle of high school society. We had friends in all of the racial groups at school. I was elected homeroom representative to the student council and selected for rally committee. I was yearbook editor, sang in the choir, and marched in the drill team at football and basketball games. I was in several clubs, and was our school's representative to California Girls' State. But Walt was my focus in those years. He taught me a great deal about tenderness. I wore his medal-festooned letter-sweater. We held hands in the hall. Because of him, my high school years were virtually painless. In his senior year Walt was student body president, the first black student the history of the school to be elected to that office. He maintained a B average throughout high school, yet when he graduated in 1965 his counselor suggested he apply only to the local junior college.
Our youngest brother began to have spells during which he stopped breathing and turned blue. My years as a Girl Scout had included a first aid badge, and several times I resuscitated Michael mouth-to-mouth. When he was three years old he contracted pneumonia, was hospitalized, died. People outside the family said it was for the best. Maybe it was. But his presence among us was one of total trust and love.
I was in civics class when we got the news about President Kennedy's assassination. In gym one rainy winter afternoon playing "floor volleyball," I suddenly realized that I was me, here, alive; that the other girls were themselves, alive and here, too; and that the meaning of life is love. It came to me suddenly and powerfully, in midst of the noise. I graduated in 1964 and gave a commencement speech about "Today's Woman." And behind my father's back (he wanted me to go to Sacramento State College and live at home) and with Mama's blessing, I applied to University of California at Davis. To my delight, I was accepted.
At our Lutheran church the summer after graduation, I met Drew Blackwell, a Harvard student, a white Canadian boy in Sacramento on a summer youth project. We began to correspond. During that year I outgrew Walt and dumped him as gently as I could, though we remained close. The following summer, at a national Lutheran youth conference, Drew and I became "engaged to be engaged." Our romance lasted for four years, fed by long letters and expensive phone calls and half-fare standby airline tickets. Drew was the son of a Lutheran pastor and at Harvard on scholarship. He had been a Fabian Socialist since the age of fourteen and planned to go into politics in the Canadian New Democratic Party after finishing his studies. His studies enhanced my own, in which I was flourishing with wide-eyed wonder.
There were only five of us black American students at Davis, in a student body of approximately twelve
thousand. We joked that I was "the English department nigger," while others were the "niggers" of their major departments. But I was in my element at Davis, with a social life in some ways more rewarding (and interesting) than I'd had in high school.
Though I loved Drew, I liked lots of other boys: I dated boys from Nigeria, Guinea, India, Australia, and Guatemala, a couple of black American students from Stanford and California Polytechnical Institute, and several white Americans, one an Orthodox Jew. I worked in the library, paying my way through college. Drew and I saw each other at holidays, sometimes in Sacramento and Davis, sometimes in Cambridge or Drew's hometown in Ontario.
We spent the summer of 1965 in Chicago, Drew at the Urban Training Center in an experiential course on poverty (in its "plunge," students were given five dollars and sent out to live for a weekend in Chicago), and I on a YMCA/ YWCA summer project which placed college students with community-development projects. At the orientation for the YMCA/YWCA project, we students were asked to introduce ourselves and our interests. I told my name, and that I liked to read and write poems. The director of the program said sternly, "Baby, you gone have a hard time." Drew and I lived on the west side. Not together. He shared an apartment with a bunch of seminary students; I lived with six students from various colleges and countries in the large home of a black family. The Southern Christian Leader- ship Conference (SCLC) brought the movement to Chicago that summer in a struggle for equal housing. We did volunteer office work, "tested" real estate agencies, handed out leaflets, and marched. We celebrated the day one of my roommates was asked to clean Dr. King's house. The city erupted with riots that summer, and with the nastiest, most virulent racism I've personally experienced. But, in a bubble of love, I wasn't afraid. Attacks and insults came from all sides. Police cars slowed, sometimes even stopped, when Drew and I walked together. When we marched with SCLC in white neighborhoods, we were spat at and called vile names. I was passing out leaflets on a corner one day, when a group of young black men circled me, jeering and hooting obscenities. Suddenly, a black man in a suit and tie said in a firm voice, "That's my daughter. Now, you leave her alone!" When I turned to thank him, he was gone.
I went back to Davis. Drew spent the year as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee volunteer doing voter registration in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I marched for equal rights and farm workers and peace, helped to organize the new Black Students' Union (the number of black students at Davis increased with affirmative action), was a fellow-traveler of Students for a Democratic Society, participated in activities sponsored by our activist campus ministry, learned to dance High Life at parties hosted by West African graduate students, and represented Davis as a poet at an all-University of California student artist conference. My sister had joined me at UC-Davis, and in the apartment we shared, with another black girl and one white girl, we held a little ongoing "salon." I'd started writing more seriously, encouraged by a new graduate student, Jack Vernon, who offered a poetry workshop through our student-initiated "experimental college." Jack, who is now a novelist (Peter Doyle, All for Love), was my first and best poetry-writing teacher.
My father had another heart attack the day after Christmas. He had taken up acting again and had played Othello at UC-Davis and many roles in the Sacramento State College theatre and various community theatres. His death came the day he returned from a whirlwind drive to Los Angeles, where he had been invited to audition for the National Repertory Theatre. He died after the celebratory party. We never knew whether he would have been invited to join the company, but he thought the audition had gone well. I felt the bottom had fallen out of my world.
I met a boy that year who made me question my commitment to Drew, but nothing happened except with our eyes, so I flew off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, that summer, to work as a secretary at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, live with Drew, who taught that summer in Upward Bound program. Our Harvard/Radcliffe friends were all English majors; most of us dreamed of being writers. We had lobster feasts in our apartment on Pearl Street and roasted legs of lamb in the fireplace of a friend's room in Adams House, drinking Greek wine, reciting poetry, and talking politics. We went to Red Sox games and to the beach, we took long walks along the Charles. It was a wonderful idyll; every girl should have a summer like that. Drew and I planned live in Vancouver on the Commonwealth fellowship he had won (which would pay for his Ph.D. studies in any country in the British Commonwealth), while we worked toward graduate degrees at the University of British Columbia. He planned after completing his Ph.D. to run for office with the NDP. We also planned names for our children and our Irish setter. But I was somehow numb at the center, and that numbness lasted through the following year.
We graduated in 1968. Drew decided that summer that we should go to Venezuela for two years, with a sort of Lutheran Peace Corps called Prince of Peace Volunteers. He signed us up, then called to tell me. Suddenly a loud voice in my mind said, "Whoa!" I had turned down a graduate fellowship at Davis, planning to take courses at UBC. I turned to my advisor for help and wound up with a tuition fellowship at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Drew and I drove from California to Pennsylvania, then he left. I called him once from a pay phone in Philadelphia with about twenty-five pounds of quarters. But it was over between us.
In Philadelphia I lived in a one-room apartment in a running-down building in Rittenhouse Square. It was a neighborhood of expensive boutiques and fancy little dogs, and I believe I was the only black person living there. On several occasions, in the real estate office paying my rent, I overheard conversations between an agent and a black person looking for an apartment: the agent always said the only apartments available were in the ghetto. I knew there were vacancies in my building, and I wondered how I had slipped through the net. My apartment was a short walk across the Schuylkill River to the Penn campus. I mourned my father, missed the rest of my family and Drew, and floundered in required courses which seemed absolutely irrelevant to what was going on in the world. John Lyly, for heaven's sake! The only professor I got to know slightly was the poet Daniel Hoffman, with whom I studied modern American poetry. The only student who was in all of my classes was a handsome young German, Erdmann Waniek, who seemed brilliant. We met when we literally bumped into each other on the street, both of us reading and walking at the same time. Thus thrown together we rapidly became friends, then, much more slowly and with trepidation, lovers. He passed his M.A. exam; I failed mine. At the end of the year we decided to let our brief romance become a beautiful memory. He left to work toward a Ph.D. in German at the University of Oregon. I accepted a position as lay associate in campus ministry with the Lutheran church at Cornell University. He telephoned a few weeks later, having decided to risk losing his family and his ability to feel comfortable living in Germany to ask me to marry him.
I spent the summer of 1969 teaching in an Upward Bound program at Franklin and Marshall College, with wonderful black high-school kids. I've often wondered what happened to one of them, Lance Edward Jones. He told me once that he knew he wouldn't be dead when he died, if I remembered him. Then I spent a year in campus ministry at Cornell, as a gadfly in the congregation and an off-campus housemother for the Lutheran student community. I worked with the Reverend Lee Snook, a fine, funny, and wonderfully intelligent man. I had an office on campus, in a big building which housed Cornell United Religious Work (CURW). Father Daniel Berrigan was one of our colleagues there. I counseled would-be drop-outs and pregnant undergraduates, played matchmaker, argued with born-again students, and worked for peace, racial equality, and the environment. I marched on Washington. I drove down to Penn and passed the M.A. exam. I counseled draft-dodgers. One day someone called from New York City, asking how he could avoid the draft. After a long conversation, I suggested he might talk to others in CURW. Two days later he arrived on a bus, a tall, cadaverous young man with a duffle bag, wearing a black, ankle-length coat. He looked exactly like Bartleby, the Scrivener. He wanted me to help him find a job as a librarian in Canada. He was clearly out of his mind. I turned to Lee for help. He said, "You got him here; he's yours." The other ministers and priests at CURW said he was my cross to bear. So I was stuck with him. I persuaded a Lutheran fraternity boy to let him sleep in the frat house, and he arrived at my apartment promptly at 6:00 every morning: he had to eat at 6:00, and he had to eat oatmeal. He had to have a tuna sandwich for lunch, and a large glass of grapefruit juice. I no longer remember what he had to have for dinner. He spent days in my office laboriously hand-writing job application letters to Canadian libraries, offering as professional experience the fact that he had read many library books. He never took off his coat. He never said thank you. I finally bought him a one-way ticket to Toronto and put him on a bus. I figured somebody else could carry that cross for a while.
That year, in a letter responding to a sheaf of poems I had sent him, my great-uncle Rufus asked, "Why is it that young poets nowadays don't write poems people like me can understand?" His question shook me then and has stayed with me. Uncle Rufus wasn't exactly a literary man, but he did earn a master's degree in the twenties from Iowa State, and he was, after all, a college president. Why, indeed?
Walt was killed in an automobile accident that year, shortly after his college graduation. A drunk driver hit his car from behind, and he was thrown through the windshield. He left a twenty-two-year-old widow pregnant with their first child.
After another summer at Franklin and Marshall's Upward Bound program, I joined Erdmann in Eugene, Oregon. We married that fall, in the backyard of the beautiful little house we had rented for its view of the Cascade Mountains. Erdmann took graduate courses
and was a teaching assistant; I taught English at Lane Community College (LCC). We hiked, skied, walked on the beach, and went camping. We had two Irish setters, a fireplace, and homemade plywood furniture. I was appointed to a committee which was preparing a new Lutheran hymnal; periodically over the next few years I was flown to other cities to pore over mountains of hymn texts, looking for racism, sexism, and militarism. The committee edited, retranslated, or rewrote many hymns. There's a small chance that any Lutheran in America may one Sunday sing one of my words. In our second year in Eugene I taught full-time at LCC (four courses each semester) and half-time (two courses) at Reed College, in Portland. Then Erdmann finished his degree and, because he had come to the U.S. on a Fulbright fellowship, had to leave the country. He thought life would be difficult for us in Germany. My dean at LCC wrote to some of his friends at a college in Denmark, and we were hired.
We spent a year teaching German and English at Norre Nissum Seminarium in Jutland. During visits to his home in Germany, I got to know and love Erdmann's family. Our Danish friends were Inge and Bent Pedersen, both of them now writers, and my special friends were Niels Jacob Nielsen and Jan Holtegaard. Niels Jacob and Jan and I took a camping tour of Denmark that summer. We must have been a sight for villagers: Niels Jacob with dark-tinted glasses and a goatee; Jan with a bright red beard; and me. The owner of one campground asked us to play one night; when we asked what she meant, she asked whether we weren't a rock and roll band. Og jeg kan taler Dansk. On a driving hiking vacation in Norway with Erdmann's sister and brother-in-law at the end of the year, we walked through a grocery store in a tiny, remote mountain village, discussing in English and German which meats we wanted to buy. When we had decided, I told the butcher in Danish (which is Norwegian with a mouthful of mashed potatoes) what we wanted. He wrapped our packages, gave them to us, and followed us to the cashier. The cashier asked him in Norwegian how he had known what we wanted. The butcher, pointing at me with an expression of absolute wonder, said in Norwegian: "SHE speaks Norwegian!"
One of my colleagues on the Lutheran Hymn Text Committee was the head of the English department at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He wrote that there was an opening and suggested I apply. We said we could only come if there were two positions. There was an opening in German, too. We were interviewed in Copenhagen by Howard and Edna Hong, the translators Kierkegaard. They liked us. We liked them. And who'd be crazy enough to turn down jobs? Vowing to return, we left Denmark in fall of 1972, though the whole country felt like home.
St. Olaf (not St. Olaf's) is a small Lutheran college in the town of Northfield, Minnesota. On its beautiful hilltop stone campus all of the students, except for a handful of black students recruited from northern cities and small towns down south, were blond midwestern Norwegian Americans. I liked my colleagues and my students, and was delighted to have a black friend and colleague in the English department, John Edgar Tidwell. I taught composition, American literature, and black literature, and invented courses in minority literature and Native American literature. My friends, the theologian/philosophers Mary and David Pellauer, lived across the street. I nursed a sourdough starter, made all of our bread and granola, and cooked dinners for my minority literature classes, with smoked salmon and homemade bagels, corn bread and fried chicken, or roast rabbit and succotash. I had given up writing and politics and the church, and led a rather hedonistic life with Erdmann, going to parties, making fancy dinners, camping and hiking and cross-country skiing, attending the theatre, discussing books. I enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Minnesota, eventually taking a leave from St. Olaf to finish course work toward a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on American minority literature.
I took courses in the English department and in the Afro-American and Latin American studies programs, and studied Native American culture with an anthropologist. One day, arriving at the anthropologist's office for my weekly tutorial, I was told our meeting had to be cancelled: a Sioux singer had stopped by to say hello. My professor introduced me to a tall, white-haired Indian who looked into my eyes for a long moment, then told me to wait: he wanted to sing for me. My professor whispered that this singer was famous nation-wide; that it was a very great personal honor to be invited to be his private audience. I hung around in the hall until they had finished their conversation in Sioux, then the old singer ushered me into the office and closed the door. What followed was strange, magical, and transporting. For the next hour or so, I sat and listened as he introduced each song by its tribal origin, explained what it signified, closed his eyes and sang, shaking a feathered gourd rattle and slowly dancing from one foot to the other. Natachee Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist, often writes of times when his grandmother, by telling him ancient stories, opened him the door to the timelessness of the oral tradition. Momaday calls it being "invited into her presence." I know exactly what he means.
Erdmann and I traveled a lot, usually to spend holidays with our families in California and Germany. One summer, having heard from friends who had camped out there, we visited Churchill, a town on the southern shore of Hudson's Bay. The trip required a day of driving to the end of the highway, then a long train ride across the flat summer tundra. We arrived in Churchill in the afternoon, got off the train with our camping gear, and walked into town. Several townspeople asked whether we seriously intended to camp out now. It was polar bear migration season; one person after another told us polar bear stories; the size of a paw print; the time a bear ripped out the side of a panel truck to get at the dressed goose inside. We walked around for a couple of hours in a constant swarm of biting gnats. We visited a museum of Inuit art. Then we got on the train again and went home. But we did see a distant pod of Beluga whales and a sky ablaze with the northern lights.
One year we flew to Venezuela to visit my former fiancé, Drew, and his wife and child. Drew was teaching in Caracas, at an experimental national university based on the teachings of Paulo Freire. His family and friends called him Andres. We spent several days in Caracas, then flew off to explore the rest of the country. Luckily, I'd studied Spanish in high school and college. Everywhere we went, brown and black men surrounded me to ask where I was from, or called "Ay, negrita!" admiringly from busses and cars. And they called Erdmann gringo, and threw bottles and stones at his side of our little rented car. I've often thought since that visit that I'd like someday to teach in Venezuela, at the University of the Andes in Merida. We drove there, passing almost vertical fields divided by stone walls, here and there a farmer leading a laden ox. At every place we stopped, children with runny noses and cheeks red with cold, barefoot and wearing rough woven ponchos, ran up to the car, crying, "Señor Nosotros somos pobres! Danos algo!"—"We are poor! Give us something." White children. Blond, with blue eyes. In Merida we happened, completely by chance, into an international festival of New Song, where for the first time I heard Inti-Illimani sing the rousing and tender melody of Latin American liberation: "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!"—"The people united will never be conquered!" It is as memorable and heartwarming an anthem as "We Shall Overcome." We visited a village settled more than one hundred years ago by German immigrants, where an archaic Black Forest dialect is still spoken. We flew with "Jungle Rudy" (whose age and German accent—not to mention the dueling scar on his cheek—made us wonder whether someone in Israel might be looking for him) over Angel Falls. We spent a week on the island of Margarita, watching pelicans snatch fish from the fishermen's nets, eating fish fried so fresh they retained their tropical colors, and lying in hammocks and waving the oysterman over to pull an oyster out of his bucket, open it with his knife, take a lemon from his pocket, slice it, squeeze the juice over the oyster, and sell it to us for a coin. I spent the first part of the week lying in a hammock and drinking down tart, sweet oysters. I spent the last part of the week in the necessary room.
In my last year of course work at the University of Minnesota, I gave myself a gift: though I hadn"t tried to write a poem in several years, I enrolled in a graduate poetry workshop taught by Michael Dennis Browne. David Wojahn, who was also in the workshop, became a good friend; as a lark we invented a Danish poet and his biography, and David wrote fake "translations" of several of his poems, which I translated into clumsy Danish. We planned to send them to a major poetry journal, but as I remember we chickened out. Later we enrolled in a workshop offered privately by Etheridge Knight, which promised occasional visits by Etheridge's friend, Robert Bly. Under Etheridge's tutelage we sweated over drafts of our poems and regularly presented unannounced group readings at sites he picked: restaurants, bars. Bly came to a few of our readings; an approving grunt from him was a special sign of honor. One evening we were reading in a bar when a drunk held out a piece of paper and asked the poet at the microphone to read it aloud. It was a letter from his wife on the reservation, asking him to come home, saying the children missed him, promising they could make their marriage work. Our poems seemed suddenly very trivial.
Erdmann and I taught one semester in Germany at the University of Hamburg. We became friends with two other couples mixed racially and nationally like ourselves, who seemed to be perfectly content living in Germany. But when I walked alone in the city, North African "guest-workers" ran up to me to tell me that they knew, after living for some time in Germany, what it was like to be an American Negro. Germans look you up and down, and then stare right into your eyes. I know it's a cultural, rather than a personal characteristic, but it made me feel as I'd felt marching through pristine white neighborhoods in Chicago. I was several times discussing a product with a shop clerk who addressed me politely as "Sie," when a Turkish guest-worker entered the shop and she turned and addressed him contemptuously as "du." All of the university students in Germany went on a long strike a couple of weeks into the semester, so I spent much of that period working on my dissertation and writing poems. I read Leaves of Grass that spring and walked in the park along the Alster River charged with Whitman's magnificence. We went to the opera. I love Mozart's operas. I became friends with Ralf Thenior, a young German poet. I saw a rainbow which straddled the Alster one foot on each bank.
We went to Innsbruck, Austria, during that spring, to visit my friend, Michael Ihlenfeldt, whom I had met at Cornell. Michael loaned us his Volkwagon for a trip through Umbria, the northe part of Italy. We picked up a young American hitchhiker on the way, near Garmisch Partenkirchen, high in the Alps. When he was settled in the backseat, we asked him where he was headed. He said he thought he'd go to a city Erdmann knew to be far distant. Erdmann him he'd have to get out of the Alps first. My countryman responded flatly, "Oh. Are these Alps?' In Italy—Ah, Italy!—we visited cathedrals and museums and castles and art and art and art (My now-husband, Roger, calls such trips "the grim march through culture"). But on the other hand, Italian men called "Ciao, bella!" when passed and threw me kisses. In the first part of the trip we ate pasta in workers' restaurants we'd found in Europe on Ten Dollars a Day. We ran out of money early in the trip, so for the rest of the time we traveled high on the hog, eating truffle-laced sauces in fancy restaurants that took American credit cards. I can close my eyes and see the morning landscapes dotted with sunlit hilltop villages sticking up over thickly misted vineyards. The Umbrian light seemed, somehow, different from any other light I've ever seen. I walked in that light in Assisi, it seemed no wonder, I thought, there are so many Italian saints.
My commitment to writing grew steadily; poems came to me with a frequency that frightened me. I saw that the muse can be a terrible task-master. When we returned to Minnesota, I lived part-time in Minneapolis with my friend, Pamela Espeland, with whom I later translated several poems for children written by the Danish poet, Halfdan Rasmussen (published as a chapbook called Hundreds of Hens, and Other Poems for Children), and still later wrote a book of verse called The Cat Walked through the Casserole, and Other Poems for Children. My time was given to writing my dissertation, going to readings, and finding my voice. I gave my first big reading in Minneapolis with Mary Karr, to a surprisingly large and appreciative audience. I sent some of my poems to Daniel Hoffman, who had been my professor at Penn, and Dan suggested I send him a manuscript, which he would submit to a publisher.
When Erdmann came up for tenure at St. Olaf, it was denied—more, we believed, because of the years-long feud he'd had with the head his department (who once told me at a dinner at our house that it was too bad it had been made illegal to ask a candidate's race, but that he'd compensated by deciding that if a candidate's letter was ungrammatical, the candidate must black) than because of his work. We decided to seek other positions. I felt freed. I was struggling accept the new identity which had come with a serious commitment to poetry, and our marriage was too small to hold my emerging wings. Erdmann went one direction; I went another. Though we've both looked back, that decision was for the best.
I've been at the University of Connecticut since 1978. By the end of my first year here, I had finished my dissertation, gotten my Ph.D., had a book published, and decided to marry one of my colleagues. Milton scholars know my husband, Roger Wilkenfeld, for some essays he published when he was in his twenties. He can recite much of "Paradise Lost" by heart, and does so at most opportunities. He's a sports fan, an old-movie buff, a collector of beautiful objects, a voracious reader, and an excellent poetry critic. He has an aggravatingly intractable opinion about any topic you name. Like most men, he's impossible. He may, as a matter of fact, be more impossible than most. Our son Jacob was born in 1980; our daughter Dora in 1986. Lest this essay dissolve into a bath of motherly anecdotes, I'll change its direction now and talk about my work.
For the Body was published in 1978. Daniel Hoffman, who submitted its manuscript for me to LSU Press, was its godfather. The first poem after its "Dedication" was the last one I worked on as a grad student at Penn; Dan had seen the earlier draft and written to me with suggestions. I finished it five years later and felt it might be good enough to send to him. I was, frankly, surprised that he remembered me. I'd been as colossally undistinguished a student in his class as in my other classes at Penn: I'd spent much of my time wondering where my next meal would be coming from (my fellowship paid only for tuition), and then falling in love. My book is clearly autobiographical, and anyone long-suffering enough to have read thus far will recognize people and places if she or he has read that book. My former father-in-law, who served briefly in the German cavalry toward the end of World War II, is the old soldier in "War-horses." "April Rape" started not with a rape, but with the whistles and catcalls I provoked when I walked across the bridge to Penn. At that point they raised my feminist hackles; later I came to accept them with pleasure. I think now I'd be flattered to death. The "Mary" of several poems is Mary Pellauer, my theologian friend in Northfield. I wrote "Emily Dickinson's Defunct" after she told me she'd like to make theology out of women's poetry and asked me where I thought she should start. When I suggested Emily Dickinson, Mary said she'd always been intimidated by Emily Dickinson. I found very funny the idea that the reclusive maid of Amherst could intimidate anyone, and wrote a poem about her in which all of her intimidating features are true. "Wanda S." was my roommate, Wanda Smith, at UC-Davis in 1965. We shared an apartment in a trailer park and mailed each other long letters, although we saw each other every day. She recently moved back to the U.S. after living for a while in Chile. The young women in "Silver Earrings" and "For Karen" were St. Olaf students. I wrote "The Life of a Saint" after seeing Giotto's frescoes of the life of St. Francis in the cathedral of Assisi. "The Perfect Couple" is one of several poems I wrote during the time I first began to wrestle with the muse; it's about finally accepting that sense of being possessed. Several of the poems started with reading I was doing for my courses in Native American culture, immigration history, and speech-act theory. I wrote "Fish Poem" after a friend asked me whether I'd noticed that several of my poems contained fish and told me fish are a phallic symbol. My friend Pamela gave me a jade fish on a gold chain to remind
me that my fish was a muse. "Dedication" and "The Source of the Singing" are intended to mirror each other, and to claim the body (not just the mind) as the source of consciousness and creativity.
Like most first-book poets, I fully expected my first book to catapult me to the stars. What it did instead was make me want to be a better writer.
I hoped Mama's Promises would be read as a book of black feminist theology. I wanted to proclaim a "Mama" God, a black working-mother God, whose stress might be greater than my own (I came up for tenure when Jacob was a nine-month-old toddler), and who might be too wrung-out (as I was every night) to answer our prayers. I had originally wanted to call Her "Mammy," remembering an offensive joke I heard a comedian tell years ago on the Johnny Carson show: an astronaut came back from orbit with good news and bad news—the good news was that he'd seen God; the bad news was that "She's black!" Unfortunately, my own life dominates the book. Our house had a very strange layout; my desk was right beside Jacob's crib. Though my self-correcting electric typewriter (God, I loved that machine!) was quiet, Jacob was a very light sleeper. We experimented, and found that just our talking about him in low voices two or three rooms or even a floor away woke him from his version of a sound sleep. Until we partitioned the space and enclosed my desk in a tiny, cork-lined cubicle study, I could only write when he was in day-care or with a babysitter, and even with the study I had to spend most of my not-mommying time preparing classes and grading papers. I wrote most of the poems in this book by getting up before dawn and writing for the hour or two before Jacob woke. It's good to hear the birds begin their day's business, and to watch the sun rise.
The titles of the first few poems in this book were written by Amanda Jordan, who was eight years old when we met in the public library, reaching for the same book. We discovered we were both writers; I wrote poems, and Mandy wrote titles of poems she planned to write someday. She had several notebooks full of titles; she agreed to give me some of them, and I agreed to write poems for them. For several months we had regular "writers' lunches." I have a book of poems she wrote and stapled together in a little illustrated book to give me for Christmas. The porcelain fawn in the title poem was a birthday present my friend Kim bought for me in seventh grade: just as she handed it to me, it fell and shattered; Kim was mortified. There are several dragons in this book, in my mind modeled after the dragons of Anne McCaffrey's "Pern" science fiction novels. Between 1978 and 1980 I had worked unsuccessfully on a blank-verse adaptation of Rilke's first and second "Duino Elegies," turning them into dialogues between myself and a dragon-muse. My "Dragon Dialogues" never got off the ground, but McCaffrey's fierce and benevolent flying dragons stayed with me. Roger and Pamela and Jennifer gave me dragons to wear while I was working on the book. The dragon-muse in "Levitation with Baby" flies off with my next-door neighbor, Bob Burkinshaw, who's always out working in his yard. Bob likes this poem a lot.
"It's All in Your Head" is dedicated to Deborah Muirhead, who teaches art here at the University of Connecticut. Deborah's abstract paintings explore her roots in the black South; her genealogical research inspired my own. Readers of this essay will recognize most of the names poem. Zilphia was the daughter of one of my grandmother's sisters; I love her name. Jamie Crowl who is mentioned in "Mama's Murders," was from one of the southern families stationed at Kittery Yard when I was in sixth grade. At recess one day we were throwing her end of the seesaw so that it banged against the blacktop; she realized we were trying to hurt her and tried to get off. Her arm was caught under the seat. It was an accident, but accidentally on purpose.
"I Dream the Book of Jonah" antedates the other poems in the book. I began working on it in 1977 when Pamela, who works as a freelance editor, edited a book about the Bible, and called me in Northfield to say she found Jonah very funny. She suggested I tell his story. The poem grew very slowly, as I discovered a voice for Jonah, moving from a Standard English voice through several levels of folksy colloquial ones before finally arriving at a Jonah I could see clearly. He looks like the great blues artist, Mississippi John Hurt. At that point I thought the poem was finished. But Mary Pellauer said it couldn't be finished unless I included a Blues. I wrote the last draft of the poem while visiting Pamela in Minneapolis. I was looking for a way to end the poem. Pamela and I discussed at length what I had in mind and mused over it together for several days. One morning she came out of the bathroom, her toothbrush out of her mouth, and said the last seven lines of my poem. Our poem. Pamela's son, by the way, is named Jonah.
I dreamed a phrase early in the writing this book: "Rhymed free-verse" (I also dreamed the phrase "Iago powder"), so I worked very hard making several poems rhyme. I hid the rhymes by making them slant-rhymes; they are so slant that even I can only find two or three of them now. There's not much else to say about the book except that the cover is a portrait of me, drawn by Jacob. Note the big earrings.
Like many second-book poets, I began to realize that maybe it was time for me to learn something about poetry. I began to study traditional prosody. I had long admired the work of Marilyn Hacker, and I followed with mild interest passionate debates in literary journals about the so-called "new formalism." I began to include Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form as a text my graduate workshops, and to experiment with fixed forms in my own work. For about a year I was busy writing a sequence of fifty therapeutic sonnets about my first marriage, modeled after George Meredith's Mod-ern Love, and not intended for publication. A couple of years after they were finished, I showed some of them to my friend Margaret Gibson, who asked me if she could include them in an issue of the New Virginia Review, which she was guest-editing. I hesitated, but finally agreed to publish them under a pseudonym. To my astonishment and chagrin, they won a Pushcart prize and were reprinted, still under a pseudonym, in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. In 1992 Emily Strayer of the Kutenai Press offered to publish a chapbook for me. I had no work at the time to give her, except the sonnets. She published fourteen of them, with two illustrations by Eric Spencer. The book, Partial Truth, is designed by Emily and printed with handset Californian type on Japanese Wahon paper and sewn with linen into covers of Duchene Mouchette from the Moulin du Pombie in France and endsheets of banana paper, handmade in the Philippines. The edition is limited to two hundred numbered copies signed by Eric and myself. It's a beautiful book; it even smells good. The rest of my sonnets are gathering dust.
There's not much to say about The Homeplace that hasn't been said earlier in this essay. The book is a family history. For several years my mother had been slowly disappearing into the fog of Alzheimer's disease; the last time I came home from visiting her in California, my husband said he thought I should go to my grandmother's hometown. I don't know what made him suggest that: I don't think I'd talked of Hickman often. But I made airplane reservations the day after I got back to Connecticut, and wound up flying to Kentucky on that reservation only a few days after coming home from my mother's funeral in Sacramento. (Entering the cemetery, the cortege passed four young white men in an open convertible. Jennifer, Mel, and I rode in the funeral parlor limousine. My eyes met those of the driver of the convertible as we passed it, and he yelled, "Good! Another dead nigger!") I spent several days in Hickman with my second cousin, Annisue Briggs, sleeping in "the homeplace" that's been in the family since 1862, and prowling through records in the county courthouse. I planned to write a book in Mama's memory, just for the family, but gradually, as far-flung relatives and local historians, black and white, eagerly gave me anecdotes and information, the book "jest growed." The first part of the book, poems about my mother's family, was much influenced by my earlier work with fixed forms.
Since I know so little about my father's family, I decided to include a section about his second family, the Tuskegee Airmen. Some of the stories I tell about them were given to me by my uncle, Rufus Mitchell, who was a member of the ground crew of the Tuskegee Airmen, or by Edward Woodward, an old family Air Force friend. Ed Woodward and my father were among the men who were almost court-martialed after the incident at Freeman Field, when black officers refused the order to use the NCO Club instead of the Officers' Club. Most of the stories came from my fortuitously meeting Bert Wilson, a black retired lieutenant colonel, formerly a pilot in the famed ninety-ninth Squadron, who lives not far from me in Connecticut. Over lunch one day Bert told me his World War II experiences; the best line in the book ("I was sleeping on his breath") quotes him directly. I did not tape record these men's stories, but I did try in the poems to capture their voices as authentically as I could.
The photograph of Tuskegee cadets, which introduces the last section of the book, came to me in such an odd way that I wrote a poem about it ("The True Magic" in Magnificat). But I'll tell the story again here. I had given up on finding a photograph of my father as a cadet, and settled for a photograph of three cadets I did not recognize. A few days before the manuscript was due to arrive at the press, one of my cousins, Roy Mitchell, telephoned from Ohio. He had recently joined the fraternal organization known as "The Tuskegee Airmen" and attended his first meeting. Since in order to become a member one must be related to one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the man sitting next to Roy asked what his relationship was to the original group, and Roy told him my father's name. The man, Bob Hunter, had brought to the meeting a large black-and-white photograph of a group of cadets; he said, "Well, I guess this is for you." The photograph shows Bob Hunter second in line in a group of cadets getting ready to climb into a plane. My father is first in line, in the center of the picture, looking directly into the camera. On the phone Roy said, "Marilyn, there's no question about it: there's something divine in this."
The Homeplace was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award, and it won the Annisfield-Wolf Award in 1992. I've been amazed by the warmth with which readers of all racial grounds have received the stories of my family, which I'd thought of as private and personal, as if my family were theirs.
Like The Homeplace, Magnificat is a narrative made up of individual poems. When I confessed, before sending it in to the press, that I was uncomfortable about the possibility that it might inadvertently reveal the identity and location of the monk/priest it presents, my friend, the poet Theodore Deppe, assured me there was nothing to worry about: nobody would believe the story anyway. And it is, I think, an extraordinary story. At the end of fall semester in 1989, as I commented on a story written by a student in my undergraduate creative course, I suddenly remembered the boy for whom I would have broken off my engagement when we were undergraduates. I couldn't get of my mind. At last I told my husband about him. I'd never told anyone the entire story, or confronted it inwardly for more than a minute or two. When we were introduced at a party, I had offered my hand for him to shake, and he had lifted it and kissed it, looking into my eyes and saying, again and again, that he would never cease loving me. I remember thinking, "Is he the one?" I looked around us, asking if someone could tell me his name. He never took his eyes off of me, never stopped murmuring his promise. At last I took a long look into his brown eyes, and, wishing it possible to see in someone's eyes whether was serious or not, I promised to love him forever. He smiled at that and turned away. Then friends surrounded him and took him home. I looked back once, and we exchanged a shy, wondering smile. Though we later became friends, we never mentioned that momentous meeting. He told me at another party that he had a strong feeling that we would someday write some books of poems together. My flirting, flippant response was to laugh and say maybe they would be pornagraphic. I don't think we ever had another serious conversation, though we did have one disastrous date. I've told the story in the first poem in Magnificat of how and why he ran away. When I told Roger about him, I hadn't seen him in twenty years, though I had heard that he had entered a Benedictine monastery some ten years later.
Roger said we had to find him. Our search lasted for almost a year, during which I pored over books about the monastic life and contemplative prayer and Catholic theology and spiritual poverty and desert spirituality and Divine Union. Roger trusted my memory of this man to be accurate enough to ensure that our finding him would bring joy to all of us. When we found him, he wrote to us that he had finished a doctorate at Cambridge University, worked for seven years, then felt the call. After seven years in a monastery he had left, with the blessings his Father Abbot, to live as a hermit and build a new monastery.
My list of acknowledgments for the book includes medievalists, Catholic and Episcopal priests, Protestant ministers, monks, and nuns. The monks are the brothers of the Weston Priory, a small Benedictine community in Vermont. When I went to priory to find out something about contemporary Benedictinism, the brothers welcomed me like a long-lost sister. The nuns I thank are the Guadalupans, a Mexican Benedictine community, the "sister community" of the Weston Priory, with whom I participated in a two-week long "hospitality experience" in which gringos are invited to receive the hospitality of the poor, and which deepened my understanding of poverty and of the radical interior changes demanded by Christ's proclamantion of liberation. The Weston monks (R.R. 50, Weston, Vermont, 05161) organize several such "experiences" each year, for groups of ten or fifteen people. The several priests to whom I turned for advice assured me that I was not doing wrong in trying to find my friend again. One told me that "You're probably perfectly matched: a mystic and a poet. To the rest of the world, you're both nuts!" These new connections have very much altered my life: I once overheard Dora telling a playmate that "my mom is a monk."
I meant Magnificat to reflect spiritual struggle and growth. The longest poem in the book, "Letter to a Benedictine Monk," tells of the beginning of humility and renunciation. I wanted to write an ode, but couldn't find a clear enough definition, so I "deconstructed" Wordsworth's "Immortality" ode, patterning my lines and rhyme scheme after his. The sequence of prayers which follows is intended to demonstrate a development from humor to seriousness, from selfish requests and gratitude for personal blessings to awe at the mysteries of time and death, and finally to compassion. The title of "The Dream's Wisdom" was left over from Mandy Jordan's notebooks. And, after, in "Gloria," I receive the first answering letter from my friend (in real life, he sent a telegram), my prayers open to profound and thankful silence.
Most of the anecdotes of the book's second section, "A Desert Father," are things that happened, more or less, the first time I visited my friend's hermitage. "A Canticle for Abba Jacob" is modeled on "The Canticle of the Soul" by St. John of the Cross. I don't think there's much else to say here about this section of the book, except that when I showed one priest a photograph of my friend, he said, "Oh! He's not a nerd-monk; he's a matinee-idol monk!" And that I hope it's read, if it's read at all, less as an impossible love story than as an invitation to understand those who choose solitude and renunciation in order to be witnesses to love, and to offer unceasing prayer.
My poem, "Payday Evening at My Desk," in the book's third section, remembers Mariano Serano Cirilo, an eight-year-old boy I met with the Guadalupan sisters in a Cuernavaca slum. I had asked Jacob, who was then also eight years old, whether he wanted me to bring him something special from Mexico; he had written his name on a slip of paper, asked me to give it to a Mexican kid, and said he'd like me to bring him back the Mexican kid's name. I gave it to Mariano, who took it solemnly, then wrote his own name for Jacob. His grandmother was so pleased by our visit that she insisted we accept the rolls a baker had given her when the market closed earlier that day. They were the only food in her bare, clean, one-room house. This is the hospitality of the poor.
"The Sacrament of Poverty" and "Valentine for a Bride Bereaved" were written for Judy Maines-LaMarre, who is one of the "Ladymonks," my friends who committed several years ago to work together toward self-understanding and spiritual growth. Judy, a widow, had been married to her second husband for only one month when he died suddenly, while away at a-conference, of a heart attack. Judy is a nurse and has given herself to working with families of critically ill babies; every year since I've known her, she has spent her vacations holding Haitian babies who are dying of AIDS, or assisting in portable eye-clinics in Honduras, or inoculating children in remote villages in Papua New Guinea.
For three years I offered a poem-to-order at the annual fund-raising auction of the Congregational church. One year bidding for my poem was fast and furious; it was finally sold for, I think, 73 dollars. A few months after the auction I asked one of the women who had bought it whether they didn't want me to write their poem. They told me they were lesbians; they had found a minister willing to marry them in the church; they wanted me to write a poem to be used in their wedding. When I told Roger of their request, he said, "Boy, this one has to be good!" Linda and Debbie and the minister (also a woman) and I met one evening to discuss the service, which they were writing themselves. They wanted the poem to include the idea that lovers are loaned to each other by God, and that, in love, one solitude embraces another. Judy told me over lunch one day, as I was struggling with the poem, that we take such a risk in loving that it's like walking out on a tightrope into the unknown. Another of my "Lady-monks" friends, Kathy Jambeck, who is a medievalist, told me that St. Bernard once wrote something about religious people and lovers being "holy fools." The fools' song in the poem is an echo of an ecstatic poem by Rumi, whom I was reading avidly at the time. Linda and Debbie have a houseful of cats and dogs—Linda works as a dog-catcher—so I put cats and dogs into their poem. I read it—"Epithalamium and Shivaree"—at their wedding, which was very beautiful. Linda's father, who had for years refused to acknowledge their love, and who had told Linda that he would not attend her so-called wedding, gave her away with tears in his eyes.
I must confess here that I did not read Plotinus. But Roger did and copied on slips of paper passages he thought to be crucial or beautiful. Each of the poems of "The Plotinus Suite" started with the italicized passage from Plotinus; the poems grew around the quotes.
My life has been full of blessings. As Mama would have said, "Knock on wood." I don't think I'm a good teacher, but I have tenure. I've spent semesters teaching in M.F.A. programs at the Vermont College, the University of Cincinnati, and NYU. I've studied briefly with Seamus Heaney. I've had writing time purchased for me by the National Endowment for the Arts. Since finishing Magnificat I've spent another two weeks in Mexico with the Guadalupan sisters and Mexican poor, traveled in Zimbabwe (where I spent several days in Harare with an independent community of African nuns and visited the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls), and lived with my family in the south of France, on a Fulbright teaching fellowship. I am nourished by family and friends, both old and new. Last week I legally changed my name back to Marilyn Nelson and spent 176 dollars on three little jars of creams which promise to make my face twenty younger. I'm sitting in front of my computer right now, at five minutes to midnight, on Sunday 10, 1995. Roger and Jacob and Dora (and Sydney, our dog) are asleep upstairs. I'll spend tomorrow running errands and preparing for Tuesday's classes. Our lakeside house is small, but there's only one small leak in the roof, and it hasn't rained here for thirty-seven days. This afternoon Dora and our neighbors' boys put on a show for us—"The Harley Davison Show," their placard read—of look, Mom, no-hands bicycle riding (one of the showpeople had training wheels). Our dogs tussled and growled ar our legs; the sky was a deep and cloudless blue.
Meanwhile, people are dying of age and illness, and killing each other and themselves, starving, and devising new ways to humiliate and degrade each other, and making love and giving birth and being lonely and closing their eyes and wishing, all over the planet. The first time I sat in the little oratory of Abba Jacob's hermitage on my low stool to the left of the door, while he sat on his on the right side, his head bowed, his eyes closed, his hands still and relaxed in lap, I listened to the wind in the cane and knew that we are the only way God's light can enter this darkness. I hope my poems are windows. So many people have been windows for me.
Marilyn Nelson contributed the following update to SATA in 2007:
So much has changed between the point at which my original essay stopped—September 10, 1995—and the present, that I might as well be living a different life. In April, 1996, I was fifty years old. That year I gave myself myself as a birthday present. I dropped the last name I had been carrying since my first marriage, though my first husband and I had been divorced for years, and took my birth name again. My impossible second husband and I agreed to an amicable divorce.
David Slavitt, the general editor of the Penn Greek Drama series, for which several American poets were commissioned to retranslate the great classics, asked me to translate Euripides' "Hecuba." David's request came late in the summer of 1996, just before I was to teach a graduate seminar on African-American women's slave narratives, and there was a tight deadline. Having never studied Greek or read "Hecuba," I went to the library and checked out every English translation of the play. And during the course of the fall semester I worked through the play speech by speech, with the six or seven translations before me, careful not to use any phrasing that had been used by any of the earlier translators, trying to figure out from differing translations what Euripides was saying. At the same time, I was reading slave narratives with my graduate students. I spent the entire semester weeping, reading of Hecuba's descent from the throne of Troy into slavery, and of African-American women in the throes of slavery. I made this translation as homage to Euripides, filled with deepening respect for his genius. The first production of the play, performed in 1998 by the African Continuum Theatre Company of Washington, DC, was directed by my sister, Jennifer Nelson, who was for many years the artistic director of that company. I happened to see the play on an evening when the actors were terrified because the toughest theatre critic for one of the city's newspapers had arrived unannounced. He was pointed out to me just before the play began. It was a theatre in the round, and by pure chance, I was seated directly across the stage from the critic, so I was able to watch him wiping his eyes throughout the play. He gave it a rave review, and selected it at the end of the year as one of the best productions of the year in the city. Another newspaper, however, sent a third-string reviewer who, under the
impression that he was seeing a different Euripides play ("The Trojan Women") slammed the translator, director, and actors for changing the plot! The only review I've seen of the Euripides I volume in which the play appears was published in the New York Times Book Review. The reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics professor at Princeton, dismissed the play in three sentences, referring to—and misunderstanding—something I had said in the translator's introduction to the play. His review gave no indication that he had bothered to read the play itself.
It seemed time to publish a "new and selected." My friend Pamela Espeland sorted through every poem I had ever written and put together a volume for me. The Fields of Praise was published in 1997. The new poems in this collection are "Thus Far by Faith," a crown of sonnets written during a visit to the hermitage of my dear friend Abba Jacob; several new Abba Jacob poems based on conversations I had with my friend during my visits in 1990 and 1993; and a sequence of poems about radical evil. Writing the Abba Jacob poems gave me the courage to write the others. Since I included notes to the poems in that book, I shall not discuss the poems here.
As it happened, Fields was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award. At the gala I ran into Stephen Roxburgh, whom I had known years earlier as the children's book editor at a large publishing firm. I had tried then to write something he would publish, but he hadn't liked anything I wrote. Now, in our brief conversation at the National Book Award gala, he told me that he had started his own publishing house, Front Street Books, that one of the books he had published was a finalist for Young People's Literature, and that we should make a book together. In the next several months I sent him everything I had written for children those years ago. He still didn't like any of it.
Having learned from my struggle with those poems about evil in Fields, that there is apparently no limit to our human capacity for evil, I decided to explore the opposite question: whether there is a limit to our capacity for good. I thought I'd try to write a saint's life. For some reason I no longer remember, I decided to write about Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). I got a research grant, went to Germany, visited every site related to that remarkable woman. I was back home, sitting at my desk in the house I had rented, preparing to sort through my notes and books and CDs, when the telephone rang. It was Al Price, Jr., a pilot friend of my late father, whom I had not heard from or of since I was twelve. He said he was in the area, had heard I was there, and would like to stop by to say hello. He came, drank a glass of lemonade, then said he had to go. I walked him to his car. He opened his trunk, gave me a copy of Emerson's essay "On Self-Reliance," which he carried around in case he wanted to give it to someone, and then he gave me a brochure. "I visited this George Washington Carver museum a few days ago," he said, handing me the brochure. "You should go there. I think you should write a book about George Washington Carver."
I took the brochure inside, looked through it, remembered how much I had loved Carver when I was a child. For many years I had wanted to be a scientist because of Carver. And, no question: Carver was a saint. The Real Thing. I set Hildegard aside and started reading about Carver. That decision was something of a turning point. I spent the next few years doing serious research and slowly writing a book about Carver.
In 1997, with the help of several friends, I was able to buy a house. I learned a great deal from the process. In Connecticut, where I live, it is not possible to use money loaned by friends as a down payment: one can only use financial gifts, which must come from relatives. And apparently the state looks into one's bank accounts, and those of one's closest relatives, for several months before the house buying, to make sure no large amounts have been deposited. I argued with my mortgage broker that this is a racist policy: though it is quite likely in some families that relatives might be able to give one a largish amount of money, in most African American families that I know, including my own (and my family is quite well-off, considering; my siblings are starving artists, and my first cousins are upstanding citizens), rarely is there a relative well-off enough to give one thousands of dollars. We went back and forth, around and around; finally the broker suggested a way we might launder my friends' gifts so they could come to me as gifts via several members of my family … I suppose he broke the law. And it was a great kindness. By taking on some extra readings I was able to repay my friends within a year. The house was on Candide Lane. Shortly after we moved in, I found, while walking the dog (still Sydney, our Dalmatian; neurotic as all get-out) I discovered a flourishing clover plant on which about one-fifth of all the leaves had four lobes. There were worries, financial and familial, but gradually life stopped wobbling, and it really did feel like Jacob, Dora, and I were living in "the best of all possible worlds."
I should mention here the writing programs in which I worked for several years: at the William Joiner Center at UMass Boston, at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and at the Vermont Studio Center. Each of these played its part in my growth as a poet: the Joiner Center by demonstrating an unwavering commitment to a literature of peace and social justice; West Chester by encouraging my slow move toward coming out of the closet as a formalist; and VSC for giving me writing time in a beautiful space, and modeling for me what an intentional community of artists might look like.
I loved the house on Candide Lane. It was almost perfect for us. And I enjoyed modifying it to our needs over the next few years. In my study, which looked out over the woods of the backyard, I enjoyed a thriving virtual social life, getting to know a fascinating, pleasant, and humorous community of friends who subscribed to an online discussion of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, called Emweb. Somebody ought to print excerpts of our discussions; it would make a wonderful Dickinson book, and I'll bet it would make some significant contributions to Dickinson scholarship. Several members of the community are highly respected scholars in the field. It's archived online. Man, I miss Emweb. I learned so much from those folks. It lasted for several years, and finally fell apart when it was invaded by a nasty s.o.b. who flamed everything everybody wrote. Grrrr! Emweb's online archives are full of information, insight, and good humor.
In 1999 I was invited to be the writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University just as my son Jake graduated from high school. For teaching one workshop for one semester, the position paid something like fifteen thousand dollars more than I was currently paid for a semester of two courses. It looked like first-year tuition at Jake's first choice, an expensive private university, was in the bag. The dean at Vanderbilt explained that Vanderbilt would pay my salary and the cost of my benefits to my home institution, and I could retain all of my benefits as usual and receive one semester of increased pay. Wonderful! So I said yes, thinking I could fly to Nashville for a couple of days a week without changing joint custody of my daughter. However, just before the semester began, my home institution refused to allow me to receive the increased salary. I could accept the job and keep my benefits, but my home institution would absorb the extra fifteen thousand dollars as a sort of payment for allowing Vanderbilt to use my services. I could receive only my regular salary, and not a penny more. By the time it was clear there would be absolutely no way around this deadlock, I was already well into the semester of commuting to teach a really wonderful group of young poets. It was too late for me to back out. The very nice dean at Vanderbilt told me, after weeks of wrangling, that my home institution was the most difficult institution he had ever dealt with in his twenty-odd years of administering this honorary poet-in-residence position. Because of the weekly commute by air, the honorary semester of being poet-inresidence at Vanderbilt cost me several thousand dollars instead of helping me financially. By the time my home institution had figured out a way for me to do summer busywork to earn the Vanderbilt money, Jake had fallen ill and moved back home. Ironically, his ill health was a godsend: I wouldn't have been able to pay his second-semester tuition. I determined then that I would retire from my home institution—the University of Connecticut—as soon as I could.
I got a lot of research done on Carver that semester. Meanwhile, Stephen Roxburgh, my children's book publisher acquaintance, was reading my kiddy manuscripts, one or two at a time, and sending them back with NO stamped on their poor little pale foreheads. Finally, I told him that all I had left was the Carver book I was working on, but that it wasn't for children. He asked to see it; I sent what I had at the time and he said, "This is it." For the first time, I was given the opportunity to have a beautifully illustrated book of poems. And to receive a book advance (something I knew only from novels about novelists) as well! Despite my fear that publishing my book as one for young adults might mean it would be lost in the world of children's books, I accepted Stephen's offer to publish it. That was another turning point, for which I am unendingly grateful.
Until now, everything I'd written had been written on its own schedule, and I hadn't sent a manuscript to my home-publisher, Louisiana State University Press, until I was sure it was finished. But Stephen's advance came with a kicker: I received half of it upon signing the contract, and the second half when the completed manuscript was accepted. My manuscript was about half finished when I left for a visit at Abba Jacob's hermitage. Several talks with him were crucial in the development of several poems.
My visit with Abba Jacob gave me another project: a chapbook called Triolets for Triolet. It's a long story, involving his taking me to a Creole village called Triolet (Abba J. lives in a distant island nation) which was just starting to rebuild the school and several homes damaged by fires set in an outbreak of racist violence. I said I'd try to do something to help the village. When I got home, I discovered, quite by accident, the poetic form called the triolet. It seemed obvious. I wrote some, and paid Curbstone Press to print them for me as a chapbook, the proceeds from which I donated to a literacy program there.
One day I received a telephone call from the head of the English department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Colonel Stromberg, whom I had met when I read at the academy shortly before. He asked me whether I would like to teach there. Completely taken aback, I told him I'd have to think about it. The following day I received notification that I had won a fellowship I had applied for, a contemplative practices fellowship, that would pay me to develop a course which incorporated some teaching about contemplation/meditation. I called Colonel Stromberg back and told him I'd received the fellowship, and I really wanted to develop the course, so I couldn't accept his invitation. He said, "Bring the course here!" So in spring, 2000 I taught two sections of a course called "Poetry and Meditation" at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. My essay about that experience, "Aborigine in the Citadel," was first published in the Hudson Review and has been reprinted several times. I love my cadets. Several of them are still in my life now, seven years later.
But what a pain that semester was! I had convinced Dora she'd enjoy the experience of going to school with military kids. Hey, I was a military kid! But we both suffered serious culture shock, getting through five days, then driving home to live for a couple of days before returning to the long gray straitjacket. I loved so much of it, the lives so different from mine, the camaraderie, the respect, the humor. Late that spring I got permission to have a labyrinth-maker chalk the design of the Chartres labyrinth on one of the football fields. Rain quickly obliterated it, but I have pictures.
Carver: A Life in Poems was published by Front Street Books in 2001 and almost immediately began to win prizes, most of which I had never heard of before, but which Stephen assured me meant something. It was a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, was named one of the 2002 Best Book for Young Adults by the Young Adult Library Services Association/American Library Association … I'm still pinching myself.
At the National Book Award gala a young African American woman introduced herself to me as a literary agent, and asked whether she could represent me. I laughed: an agent? Goodness, I'm a poet! Poets don't have agents! But she—Regina Brooks, Serendipity Literary Agency—insisted. So I told her I'd let her try.
September 11, 2001 was my first ever day of jury duty. Several days later, as we were all still reeling, I received a call from the director of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. It seemed the museum owned a skeleton and had recently done research which proved without question that it was the skeleton of an
eighteenth-century slave named Fortune, who lived and died in Waterbury and whose owner, a Doctor Preserved Porter, dissected Fortune's body at his death (apparently as the result of a fall), removing the flesh from the bones, boiling them, and reassembling the skeleton to hang in his office to be used as a teaching tool. The city would like to honor Fortune by commissioning a piece of music to be premiered by the Waterbury Symphony. Would I be willing to write a text for the piece? They would give me all of their research findings. I accepted the commission, patterning my "Manumission Requiem" after the many orchestral and choral requiems which were being played every day in churches, schools, and on the radio. The poem came rather quickly, after the research; I wrote most of it in friends' cottage on Cape Cod. At one point I attended a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen master, at the end of which someone in the audience asked what Thich Nhat Hanh suggested we say to comfort the dying and the bereaved. He said, "We have found the most comforting thing we can say is ‘you are not this body which is dying here now.’" I used his suggestion in my poem, hoping my words might offer some comfort to our bereaved nation.
True to my earlier promise to myself, I retired from the University of Connecticut at the earliest opportunity, as soon as I turned fifty-five, and took what I thought would be a permanent position at the University of Delaware, at a larger salary than I had ever dreamed of. But before I could go, I received a Guggenheim fellowship. The wonderful people at the University of Delaware (no kidding: I have only positive things to say about all of my dealings with faculty and administration there) agreed to let me take off what would have been my first year there. So I had a year of freedom, a large salary, and a pension. I paid off my debts and started saving.
Jake, who had decided to stay at the University of Connecticut, studied abroad in programs at McGill University in Montreal, then at a university in Salvador do Bahia in Brazil. Dora's friend Dan moved out of his father's home and spent his senior year of high school living with us.
I was named poet laureate of the State of Connecticut in 2001. Many people were under the impression that this meant the state was paying me to give readings. Some people were downright rude when I suggested they pay me to drive across the state to read in their public libraries or schools. One literary club wrote to inform me that it planned to hold a large formal dinner in my honor, after which I would be allowed to read a few poems. Finally I told the Connecticut Commission on the Arts that the intended honor was threatening to turn into an unpaid part-time job. They sent me a check for one thousand dollars. I used the money to hold a "Poet's Lounge," featuring readings by several very different Connecticut poets. Several friends helped with the arrangements, and our evening was held in a Latino restaurant in Hartford, standing room only, a wonderful occasion. The mayor of Hartford was there. I was given one thousand dollars again the following year and used it to have bookplates printed ("Waiting Room Poems, brought to you by the CT Commission for the Arts and CT's Poet Laureate, Marilyn Nelson"), and to pay for postage and packaging for poetry books which I donated to waiting rooms and hospitals around the state. I started by downsizing my own poetry library, and the response was so positive that I solicited donations from publishers (several donated books; Copper Canyon was especially generous). For several months Dora, Dan, and I had a little business on the ping-pong table in the basement, distributing, packing, and addressing books. (I don't know why, but I did not receive another check from the commission until the end of my five-year term, when I received a check for three thousand dollars.)
I was given a three-week residency at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island, Ireland, a barren and beautiful place. I had not expected to be so deeply touched by the still-visible history of Ireland, or to feel so deeply our commonality. I was joined on Achill by my German "sister," Sabine Waniek Jentsch, and by my Danish poet friend, Inge Pedersen. Inge and I spent some time every morning translating each other's poems, just for fun. When I returned to the United States I sent my translations to journals, one of which was Oberlin College's Field. Some time later the directors of the Oberlin College Press asked whether I had a complete manuscript of these translations, as they would be interested in publishing them as a book.
Another visit with Abba Jacob. He and I spent time inventing a story about a little dog marooned on an uninhabited island. Abba Jacob has spent a great deal of time in solitude on an uninhabited island, and he made a map of the island and described what the dog would see and experience. I wrote the story when I got home. It's an allegory for contemplation/meditation. It will soon be published as a children's picture book called Snook Alone.
I decided to use part of my Guggenheim grant to go to Brazil. I went twice: once alone to visit Jake and get an idea of what it was like, and later with my sister, Jennifer, my brother, Mel, and friends Mercedes Arnold and Albert Price, Jr. The second trip was undertaken as part of my Guggenheim project, to write a book about a group of African-American "pilgrims" who tell stories as they travel on their pilgrimage. This book became The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems.
For five thousand dollars my carpenter-friend, Rich Rustmann, built a tower—something I had always wanted—for me in the woods behind the house. I had originally envisioned a little tree house, but the town didn't see things my way. Instead, Rich built me a little square room on stilts, with two windows and a lovely stairway with a landing. With siding on the stilts, it really was a tower, a sweet little building. Dora teased that it looked like a sniper's tower. But with a buried extension cord for light and an electric oil heater, a table, a chair, a pen, a bottle of ink, and some legal pads, my tower was perfect. No telephone, no Internet. And, until he understood that I was out there and could be disturbed by constant barking, Sydney the Dalmatian, who had been ruining my work in my wonderful study in the house with his neurotic noises, left me alone, and I could sit out there and write. Sometimes, in the winter, I wrote with mittens on.
In June, 2002 I joined the Cave Canem family by leading a week-long workshop at its summer workshop retreat designed to counter the under-representation and isolation of black poets. Founded by African-American poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996, Cave Canem has become a powerful movement, influencing American literature's present and future: graduates from Cave Canem's arduous summer poetry boot camp are publishing books, winning prizes, and teaching in M.F.A. programs all over the country. Like every Cave Canem student and faculty member, I was, from the first evening's confessional community circle, in which each of us told why we were there, touched to my very core. This was the first time I had ever been in a community of African-American artists. Though our life experiences were very diverse, there was that something which each of us could recognize in each of the others. I had never had that experience before. I imagine a gathering of one hundred young American women, each of whom had been adopted as an infant from China, might have similar feelings. No matter what their adoptive families were like, or where they grew up in this country, they would inevitably share some deep things. At the end of the second or third day of my first summer workshop (Cave Canem faculty and fellows commit to three years of summer workshops), I told the directors that I was going to try to buy a house which could be a retreat for Cave Canem graduates; a place where they could replicate, on a much smaller scale, that intense, trust-based workshop community. In my mind, I was already calling the place "Soul Mountain."
Then Scholastic bought reprint rights to Carver, and published a book-fair edition, sold at middle-and high-school book fairs all over the country. And I got a nice chunk of change from that. I don't think I'd ever made more than a couple of hundred dollars on a book before, so this was something of a shock.
Regina sold two manuscripts of verse by the very great children's poet Halfdan Rasmussen, which I had translated from the Danish. Each of these contracts came with an advance. Then Regina called to tell me that a publisher had an idea for me and wanted me to come to her office to discuss it. We made an appointment, which, as it turned out, was the day of a bad ice storm. I managed to get into New York city, and to Regina as planned in the outer office of Andrea Pinkney, senior editor and publisher of children's books at Houghton Mifflin. We sat, exchanged niceties, and then Andrea said she thought I was the writer who might be able to fulfill her childhood dream of publishing a book for children about lynching. I almost fell off my chair. But I went home and thought about it, while Regina and Andrea discussed a contract, and when Regina told me about the advance, I decided it might be possible to write a book for children about lynching.
So here I was, with money in the bank. I became obsessed with real estate, looking for the right house in which to plant Soul Mountain. I looked in Delaware, in Pennsylvania, in West Virginia. I found the house in Connecticut: nine bedrooms, three living rooms, three kitchens, and a large deck, on six acres of lawn, meadow, and woods, with a large pond. Only fifteen minutes from a train station. I bought the house in 2003. Stephen Roxburgh's advance for my "Manumission Requiem" was the last piece of the down payment.
I couldn't move for a year, until Dora finished her last year of high school. For one year I paid two large mortgages and commuted by train to my new position at the University of Delaware. Because I wasn't entirely sure I'd be able to manage two mortgages and the expense of maintaining two houses, in addition to the cost of the wearying commute, I also accepted an invitation to teach in the New England College low-residency M.F.A. program. Just to be on the safe side.
On the days when I wasn't in Delaware, I sat in my tower working on my Guggenheim project, The Cachoeira Tales. I interrupted that project to write the book Andrea Pinkney had commissioned: a heroic crown of sonnets called A Wreath for Emmett Till. Meanwhile, the Bush administration was pushing the country toward war. While I was working on the sonnets I received an invitation from First Lady Laura Bush to a literary luncheon at the White House. I pondered, asked my friends, asked my Abba. Some friends said don't go. Some said go. Abba Jacob said I should go. So I asked a local fabric artist to make a peace scarf for me, something I could wear as a gesture against the movement toward war. As my sonnet sequence began to be a not-too-thinly veiled cry against the war in Iraq, the pace of my writing shifted into fifth gear.
Sometimes I wrote all night, slept a few hours, and went back to my desk to write again. I planned to present the finished poem to Mrs. Bush, hoping she might be moved to stop her husband's misguided vengeance. The event was cancelled because several poets publicly proclaimed their refusal to enter the Bush White House; one of the invited poets made public his plan go there to protest. A movement called Poets against the War sprang into being. Because I had decided to accept the invitation, and because of my peace scarf, I received an inordinate amount of publicity, both positive and negative, for the non-event. The most interesting publicity was a taped interview for a German television news magazine. They photographed me standing on the top landing of my little tower.
Jake came home from Brazil with Rita, who is sweet and funny and brilliant and beautiful. They lived with Dora and me while Jake finished his senior year of college.
The commute between Connecticut and Delaware required me to drive one hour to the train, then sit for four and a half hours in a sort of zombie state (I had rationalized the commute by telling myself I'd get a lot of work done on the train, but it turned out to be impossible) until Wilmington, where I rented a car to drive to Newark, parked the car on campus, went to my late afternoon office hours, grabbed something to eat in the student union, and taught a three-hour workshop. For the first weeks I slept in motels, or on the couch at the home of two of my former students. Then Lois Potter, the kind and charming Shakespearean scholar in the department, invited me to use her guest room every week. So I arrived at her home after class, sat with her over a glass of sherry, and fell, exhausted, into bed. Got up early to teach another three-hour workshop, then raced to return the car and get the train back to Connecticut. Have I mentioned menopause? Readers who are women of a certain age will understand my saying I don't know how I survived that year.
When the new head of the English department at the University of Connecticut asked whether there was anything the university could do to convince me to come back, I said hmmm, maybe. He and the dean of the College of Arts and Science suggested I come back as a "special payroll lecturer," teaching one semester a year, two courses. I would be paid one-half of the salary I had received before I left UConn, but UConn would make a fifty-thousand-dollar donation to my artists' colony, if it became a nonprofit entity. Months of negotiations followed. I created a nonprofit entity. The administration had to be convinced that it would not be helping me much if the university's donation could be used to pay to publish my guests' books and send them to literary conferences but not to feed them and heat the house. Finally, as we neared our final agreement, an anti-affirmative action decision at the University of Michigan made the administrators at the University of Connecticut decide that UConn could not support any program intended exclusively for African Americans. So my dream of providing a haven for Cave Canem graduates shriveled, like a raisin in the sun, so to speak. It was too late by then to back out of the UConn agreement: I had already submitted my letter of resignation to the University of Delaware. There was nothing I could do, except to retain the house for one month only for African-American poets, and to pay for that month—utilities, telephone, Internet, food, stipends—out of my own pocket.
I sold the Candide Lane house and moved to Soul Mountain in the summer of 2004. Dora had graduated from high school and was about to leave for college. But instead of having an empty nest, I now had a huge nest waiting to be filled. Tonya Hegamin, a young woman I had met at a Cave Canem workshop, joined me soon afterward, to be the first program director of Soul Mountain. Even though we knew there could be no salary involved, we made a pact to dream this dream together for a while, and to help it come true. We invited our first guests, two Cave Canem poets. And Soul Mountain was off and running.
Jake and Rita were married that summer, first in Brazil, then in the United States. My dear Abba came for a brief visit in the early fall. One of the first things our first Soul Mountain community did together was to share in a wedding-blessing celebration for Jake and Rita held under a big tent in the yard and conducted by Abba Jacob.
He and I collaborated on a little book while he was here: The Baobab Room, a picture book. My Danish friend Inge Pedersen and her husband, Bent, also a writer, arrived soon after Abba Jacob left. She and I completed the translation of a book of her poems, which has been published as The Thirteenth Month. I invited Elizabeth Alexander to collaborate with me on a book of sonnets about the girls who were students in Prudence Crandall's short-lived school for "young ladies and little misses of color" in a Connecticut town in 1833. We visited the Crandall Museum and came back to Soul Mountain to begin writing. That book, Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, was published in 2007 as a young-adult book. And our guests were working on their own writing.
Seasons changed, new guests arrived. I wrote The Freedom Business, a sequence of poems based on the life of Venture Smith, an eighteenth-century Connecticut slave/freeman whose grave is in the same small town as Soul Mountain.
In 2003, at the first conference of state poets laureate, I spoke with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and an old friend, about my experience teaching at West Point, and about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chairman Gioia has generously credited that conversation as being the seed of what was to become the NEA's "Operation Homecoming" initiative. It invited military personnel and their families to write about their wartime experiences, and offered writing workshops on military bases, led by visiting writers. The first workshops were so well received that the NEA was forced to expand its program, and in 2006 Random House published an anthology called Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll, containing eyewitness accounts, excerpts from private journals, short stories, and other writing by soldiers and those who love them. I am very proud to have played a part in this important contribution.
Seasons changed, new guests arrived. I began to realize how ill-equipped I am to direct a nonprofit business, and how much I enjoy hosting the poets who have been our guests.
In September of 2005, with an advance from Stephen Roxburgh for "an unspecified book of poems," Abba Jacob and I traveled into the Kalahari in Botswana, in search of Bushmen, hoping to be able to write a book which might sensitize readers to their tragic plight. I fell in love with a little girl named N!hunka!, whom we met in a village near the sacred Tsolido Hills.
We plan to go back to Botswana soon, because the book we had planned has not yet materialized. But I did write a little picture-book text to be the vehicle for illustrations made by Bushmen artists we encountered elsewhere, so the artists will earn some money from their art. That book will be called Ostrich and Lark.
Seasons changed, I taught in the spring semester, guests came and went. The year 2006 saw the publication of The Cachoeira Tales, The Thirteenth Month, A Wreath for Emmett Till, and The Ladder, the last my translation of a verse narrative for children by Halfdan Rasmussen. To my profound astonishment, Professor David Wallace, president of the New Chaucer Society, took it upon himself to champion The Cachoeira Tales as one of a handful of "neo-Chaucerian topographies."
Seasons changed, I taught again, guests came and went. In the summer of 2006 I taught a five-week workshop in Florence for UConn's Study-Abroad program. That was fun. Dora and Tonya joined me for part of the time. Dora and I made a side trip to Berlin to visit our German "family." Later that summer Tonya and I collaborated on a ghost story in poems, a young-adult book with the working title Pemba: Song of Present Existence.
And now it's January of 2007. I've been looking toward the future by writing a strategic plan for Soul Mountain, trying to figure out how to raise enough money so that it can be self-sufficient (its operating budget still depends upon my teaching at UConn, and I would like to retire) and hire a director to take from me the burden of trying to turn my brain into one that can do feasibility studies and budgets. If that happens, I will move into a smaller home (if I can cajole some bank into giving me a mortgage) and let Soul Mountain expand. Abba Jacob and I plan to go back to Botswana again next summer, still hoping to write "our Bushman book." I have a couple more writing projects simmering on back burners. I understand that quantum physics indicates that we can move backward in time as well as forward. I hope someone will figure out how to do that during my lifetime. I'd like to go back and tell my past self to live in the moment, that everything is going to be all right. I wonder how far back I'd have to go to be able to do something to make the current chaos in the Middle East and North Africa not come to pass.
"Nelson, Marilyn 1946- (Marilyn Nelson Waniek)." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/nelson-marilyn-1946-marilyn-nelson-waniek-0
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Nelson, Marilyn 1946- (Marilyn Nelson Waniek)
NELSON, Marilyn 1946-
(Marilyn Nelson Waniek)
Born April 26, 1946, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Melvin M. (in U.S. Air Force) and Johnnie (a teacher; maiden name, Mitchell) Nelson; married Erdmann F. Waniek, September, 1970 (divorced); married Roger R. Wilkenfeld (a university professor), November 22, 1979; children: (second marriage) Jacob, Dora. Education: University of California—Davis, B.A., 1968; University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1970; University of Minnesota, Ph.D., 1979. Politics: "Yes." Religion: "Yes." Hobbies and other interests: Quilting, traveling.
Office— University of Connecticut, Department of English, Box U-4025, 215 Glenbrook Rd., Storrs, CT 06269-1025. E-mail— [email protected].
National Lutheran Campus Ministry, lay associate, 1969-70; Lane Community College, Eugene, OR, assistant professor of English, 1970-72; Norre Nissum Seminariam, Norre Nissum, Denmark, teacher of English, 1972-73; Saint Olaf College, Northfield, MN, instructor in English, 1973-78; University of Connecticut, Storrs, assistant professor, 1978-82, associate professor, 1982-88, professor of English, 1988-2002; University of Delaware, professor of English, 2002-2004. Visiting assistant professor, Reed College, 1971-72, and Trinity College, 1982; visiting professor, New York University, 1988, 1994, Vermont College, 1991, and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, spring, 2001; Elliston Professor, University of Cincinnati, 1994. Connecticut Commission on the Arts, visiting artist.
Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Society for Values in Higher Education, Associated Writing Programs, Phi Kappa Phi.
Kent fellow, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1981 and 1990; Connecticut Arts Award, 1990; National Book Award finalist in poetry, 1991 and 1997; Annisfield-Wolf Award, 1992; Fulbright teaching fellow (France), 1995; Poet's Prize, 1998; National Book Award finalist (young people's literature category), and Boston Globe/Horn Book Award (fiction and poetry category), both 2001, Newbery Honor Book citation, American Library Association (ALA), and Coretta Scott King Honor Book citation, ALA, both 2002, all for Carver: A Life in Poems; named poet laureate for the state of Connecticut, 2001; Guggenheim fellow, 2002.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) For the Body, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1978.
(As Marilyn Waniek, with Pamela Espeland) The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, Carolrhoda Books (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Mama's Promises, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1985.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) The Homeplace, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1990.
(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Magnificat, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1994.
The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.
Carver: A Life in Poems, Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2001.
Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2004.
The Cachioera Tales, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), in press.
A Wreath for Emmett Till, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), in press.
Snook Alone, Candlewick Books (Cambridge, MA), in press.
Pil Dahlerup, Literary Sex Roles, Minnesota Women in Higher Education (Minneapolis, MN), 1975.
(With Pamela Espeland) Halfdan Rasmussen, Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children, Black Willow Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.
Halfdan Rasmussen, The Ladder, Candlewick Books (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
Halfdan Rasmussen, Selected Verse of Halfdan Rasmussen, Candlewick Books (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
Inge Pedersen, The Thirteenth Month, Oberlin College Press (Oberlin, OH), in press.
Also translator of "Hecuba," in Euripides ("Penn Greek Drama" series), University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1997.
Partial Truth, Kutenai Press (Missoula, MT), 1992.
She-Devil Circus, Aralia Press (West Chester, PA), 2001.
Contributor to Gettysburg Review, Obsidian II, and the literary journal Gulf Coast.
"Aframerican" poet Marilyn Nelson, who dropped the "Waniek" from her name in 1995, writes in a variety of styles about many subjects. She has also written verse for children and translated poetry from Danish and German. Kirkland C. Jones, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, called Nelson "one of the major voices of a younger generation of black poets."
Nelson's first collection, For the Body, focuses on the relationships between individuals and the larger social groupings of family, extended family, and society. Using domestic settings and memories of her own childhood, Nelson fashions poetry which "sometimes sings, sometimes narrates," as Jones described it. In Mama's Promises, Nelson continues experimentation with poetic forms in poems about her childhood, her relationship with her mother and daughter, and a woman's role in marriage and society, but she uses stanzaic division more than in her previous work. The poems in Mama's Promises also seem to bear a cumulative theological weight, as the "Mama" named in each poem is revealed in the last poem to be God.
In The Homeplace, Nelson turns her attention to the history of her own family, telling their story from the time of her great-great-grandmother to the present. She uses a series of interconnected poems, ranging in style from traditional forms to colloquial free-verse, to relate her family's background. Some critics praised the variety of poetic expression which Nelson displays. "The sheer range of Waniek's voice," Christian Wiman wrote in Shenandoah, "is one of the book's greatest strengths, varying not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well." Suzanne Gardinier, reviewing the book for Parnassus, found that through her poems Nelson "reaches back through generations hemmed in on all sides by slavery and its antecedents; all along the way she finds sweetness, and humor, and more complicated truth than its disguises have revealed."
In her poetry for children Nelson also writes of family situations, although in a humorous manner. Her collection The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, written with Pamela Espeland, contains poems about domestic problems and pleasures. The title poem, for example, tells of the family dog and cat and the trouble they cause throughout the neighborhood, leading the mother to decide that they must go. Such poems as "Grampa's Whiskers," "When I Grow Up," and "Queen of the Rainbow" also focus on family life in a lighthearted manner.
Although biblical allusions appear in even her earliest poems, only with the collection Magnificat does Nelson write directly of spiritual subjects. Inspired by her friendship with a Benedictine monk, she tells of her religious awakening to a more profound sense of Christian devotion. Writing in Multicultural Review, Mary Walsh Meany found Nelson's voice—"humorous, earthy, tender, joyous, sorrowful, contemplative, speculative, attached, detached, sometimes silent"—to be what "makes the poems wonderful." A critic for Publishers Weekly believed that Nelson's "passion, sincerity, and self-deprecating humor will engage even the most skeptical reader."
Nelson's book for children Carver: A Life in Poems won several major national awards. The book describes the life George Washington Carver, an African-American pioneer in science and the arts who was raised by whites and who taught at the Tuskegee Institute for many years. The story of Carver's life, from the time he was kidnapped by slavers as an infant through his adulthood, unfolds through fifty-nine "simple, sincere … and beautiful" poems, Herman Sutter wrote in a review for School Library Journal. Different poems are written in different voices: Mrs. Carver speaks of noticing Carver's extraordinary talents; a farmer writes to thank Carver for teaching him more efficient farming techniques. "Yes, it is nonfiction, and it is biography, and it is history, and it is drama. But above all it is poetry," Cathryn M. Mercier wrote in Horn Book.
Nelson was named poet laureate of the state of Connecticut in June, 2001. "Marilyn's body of work and her warm demeanor are among the great treasures of Connecticut," said Anthony Thibault, a member of the board which chose the poet laureate, in a Connecticut Commission on the Arts press release. Another board member, Susan Holmes, said in the same press release that "Nelson's presence in Connecticut has greatly enriched the state.… She is a vital American voice speaking of our past and present from her multiple perspectives of daughter, mother, wife, artist, teacher, friend, and African American."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, editors, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
African American Review, spring, 1999, Miller Williams, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 179-181; summer, 2002, Herbert Woodward Martin, review of Carver: A Life in Poems, pp. 345-349.
America, January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of Magnificat, pp. 17-18; April 25, 1998, Edward J. Ingebretsen, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 27-28.
Booklist, September 1, 1994, Pat Monaghan, review of Magnificat, p. 20; May 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Carver, p. 1658.
Callaloo, spring, 2003, Forest Hamer, review of Carver, pp. 538-540.
Christianity and Literature, spring-summer, 1995, Steven Lautermilch, review of Magnificat, pp. 405-408; summer, 1998, Anne West, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 510-513.
Georgia Review, winter, 1997, Judith Kitchen, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 756-776.
Horn Book, September, 2001, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 606; January-February, 2002, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 41, and transcript of Nelson's Boston Globe/Horn Book Award acceptance speech, pp. 41-45.
Hudson Review, summer, 1991, James Finn Cotter, "The Truth of Poetry," pp. 343-350; spring, 1998, R. S. Gwynn, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 257-264.
Kenyon Review, spring, 1991, Leslie Ullman, review of The Homeplace, p. 179.
Language Arts, November, 2002, Junko Yokota and Mingshui Cai, review of Carver, p. 149.
Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2001, Carol Muske-Dukes, review of Carver, p. R-10.
Multicultural Review, March, 1995, Mary Walsh Meany, review of Magnificat.
New York Times Book Review, July 15, 2001, review of Carver, p. 24.
Parnassus, spring, 1991, Suzanne Gardinier, review of The Homeplace, pp. 65-78; Volume 17, number 1, 1992, pp. 65-78.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1990, p. 52; August 29, 1994, review of Magnificat, p. 67; May 26, 1997, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 82.
School Library Journal, June, 1991, Jackie Gropman, review of The Homeplace, p. 137; July, 2001, Herman Sutter, review of Carver, p. 129; May, 2003, John Peters, review of Carver, p. 103.
Shenandoah, winter, 1992, Christian Wiman, review of The Homeplace.
Women's Review of Books, May, 1998, Marilyn Hacker, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 17-18.
Academy of American Poets Web Site, http://www.poets.org/ (February 15, 2001), "Marilyn Nelson."
Connecticut Commission on the Arts Web Site, http://www.ctarts.org/ (June 28, 2001), "Press Release: Marilyn Nelson Named State Poet Laureate."
Marilyn Nelson Home Page, http://www.ucc.uconn.edu/~waniek/ (April 25, 2004).
"Nelson, Marilyn 1946- (Marilyn Nelson Waniek)." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/nelson-marilyn-1946-marilyn-nelson-waniek
"Nelson, Marilyn 1946- (Marilyn Nelson Waniek)." Something About the Author. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/nelson-marilyn-1946-marilyn-nelson-waniek