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About this poet

On April 26, 1946, Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force, and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, a teacher. Brought up first on one military base and then another, Nelson started writing while still in elementary school.

She earned her BA from the University of California, Davis, and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MA, 1970) and the University of Minnesota (PhD, 1979).

Her books include How I Discovered Poetry (Dial, 2014); Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012); The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2005); The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), which was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the 1997 National Book Award, and the PEN Winship Award; Magnificat (Louisiana State University Press, 1994); The Homeplace (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), which won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award; Mama's Promises (Louisiana State University Press, 1985); and For the Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

She has also published collections of verse for children, including Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (Dial Books, 2009); The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (Front Street, 2008); The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland (Carolrhoda Books, 1984) and Halfdan Rasmussen's Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children (Black Willow Press, 1982), which she translated from Danish with Pamela Espeland.

Her honors include the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2001–2006, she served as the Poet Laureate of Connecticut.

In 2013, Nelson was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Fellow Chancellor Arthur Sze praised her selection, saying: "Marilyn Nelson's poetry is remarkable for its sheer range of voice and style, for its historical roots, and for its lyrical narratives that, replete with luminous details, unfold with an emotional force that, ultimately, becomes praise. ...She is a vital ambassador of poetry."

Since 1978 she has taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she is a professor emerita of English.


Selected Bibliography

Poems

How I Discovered Poetry (Dial Books, 2014)
Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012)
The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2005)
The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997)
Magnificat (Louisiana State University Press, 1994)
The Homeplace (Louisiana State University Press, 1990)
Mama's Promises (Louisiana State University Press, 1985)
For the Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1978)

Children’s Literature

Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (Dial Books, 2009)
The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (Front Street, 2008)
The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland (Carolrhoda Books, 1984)
Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland (Black Willow Press, 1982)

Cachoeira

Marilyn Nelson, 1946
We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man
we’d hired as a tour guide, with a van
and driver, for the day. We were to drive
to Cachoeira, where the sisters live:
the famous Sisterhood of the Good Death,
founded by former slaves in the nineteenth
century. "Negroes of the Higher Ground," 
they called themselves, the governesses who found-
ed the Sisterhood as a way to serve the poor.
Their motto, "Aiye Orun," names the door
between this world and the other, kept ajar.
They teach that death is relative: We rise
to dance again. Locally canonized,
they lead quiet, celibate, nunnish lives,
joining after they’ve been mothers and wives,
at between fifty and seventy years of age:
a sisterhood of sages in matronage.

We drove on Salvador’s four-lane boulevards,
past unpainted cement houses, and billboards,
and pedestrians wearing plastic shoes,
and little shops, and streets, and avenues,
a park, a mall . . . Our guide was excellent:
fluent in English, and intelligent,
willing to answer questions patiently
and to wait out our jokes. The history
of Salvador flew past. At Tororo
we slowed as much as the traffic would allow,
to see the Orixas dancing on the lake
in their bright skirts. The road we took
sped past high-rise apartment neighborhoods,
then scattered shacks, then nothing but deep woods
of trees I didn’t recognize and lands
that seemed to be untouched by human hands.
We stopped in a village, where it was market day.
We walked among the crowds, taller than they
and kilos heavier, tasting jackfruit
and boiled peanuts, embraced by absolute,
respectful welcome, like visiting gods
whose very presence is good news. Our guide
suggested a rest stop. We were sipping Coke
when a man came into the shop and quietly spoke
to our guide, who translated his request:
Would we come to his nightclub, be his guests?
We didn’t understand, but shrugged and went
a few doors down the street. "What does he want?"
we asked. The club hadn’t been opened yet;
by inviting us in, the owner hoped to get
our blessings for it. Which we humbly gave:
visiting rich American descendants of slaves.

For hours we drove through a deep wilderness,
laughing like children on a field-trip bus.
We made a side trip to the family home
of Bahia’s favorite daughter and son,
the Velosos, Bethania and Caetano,
in the small town of Santo Amaro.
The greenery flew by until the descent
into a river valley. There we went
to a nice little restaurant to dine
on octopus stew, rice, manioc, and wine.
Then we crossed a rickety bridge behind a dray
drawn by a donkey, and wended our way,
at last, to Cachoeira, an old town
of colonial buildings, universally tan
and shuttered, darkly lining narrow streets.
A tethered rooster pecked around our feet
in the souvenir shop. At the convent
I wondered what the statues really meant:
Was it Mary, or was it Yemanja
in the chapel, blue-robed, over the altar?
Was it Mary on the glass-enclosed bier,
her blue robe gold-embroidered, pearls in her hair,
or was it the Orixa of the sea?
There were no Sisters around for us to see;
they were in solitude, preparing for the Feast
of the Assumption, when the Virgin passed
painlessly from this world into the next,
Aiye to Orun. Posters showed them decked
out for their big Assumption Day parade,
big, handsome mamas wearing Orixa beads,
white turbans and blouses, red shawls, black skirts.
The man in their gift shop was an expert
on the Sisters’ long struggle to find a way
to serve the Christian Church and Candombl .
The eldest Sister is called "the Perpetual Judge";
every seventh year, she becomes the bridge
on which the Virgin Mary crosses back,
sorrowing love incarnate in a black
ninety-odd-year-old woman facing death
and saying Magnificat with every breath.

We drove out of the valley looking back
on lightbulbs which intensified the thick,
incomprehensible, mysterious
darkness of the unknown. Grown serious
and silent in our air-conditioned van,
we rode back into the quotidian. 

Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright © 2005 by Marilyn Nelson.

Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright © 2005 by Marilyn Nelson.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson

Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of many books of verse and translations, and in 2013 was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

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poem
The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows;
only their children feel the holy ghost
that makes them jerk and bobble and almost
destroys the pious atmosphere for those
whose reverence bows their backs as if in work.
The congregation sits, or stands to sing,
or chants the dusty creeds automaton.
Their voices drone like
poem
I have no answer to the blank inequity
of a four-year-old dying of cancer.
I saw her on TV and wept
with my mouth full of meatloaf.

I constantly flash on disasters now;
red lights shout Warning. Danger.
everywhere I look.
I buckle him in, but what if a car
with a grille like a sharkbite
roared up out of