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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)

Mama's Promise

Marilyn Nelson, 1946
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 the road?
I feed him square meals,
but what if the fist of his heart 
should simply fall open?
I carried him safely
as long as I could,
but now he's a runaway
on the dangerous highway.
Warning. Danger.
I've started to pray.

But the dangerous highway
curves through blue evenings
when I hold his yielding hand
and snip his minuscule nails
with my vicious-looking scissors.
I carry him around
like an egg in a spoon,
and I remember a porcelain fawn,
a best friend's trust,
my broken faith in myself.
It's not my grace that keeps me erect
as the sidewalk clatters downhill
under my rollerskate wheels.

Sometimes I lie awake
troubled by this thought:
It's not so simple to give a child birth;
you also have to give it death,
the jealous fairy's christening gift.

I've always pictured my own death
as a closed door,
a black room,
a breathless leap from the mountaintop
with time to throw out my arms, lift my head,
and see, in the instant my heart stops,
a whole galaxy of blue.
I imagined I'd forget,
in the cessation of feeling,
while the guilt of my lifetime floated away
like a nylon nightgown,
and that I'd fall into clean, fresh forgiveness.

Ah, but the death I've given away
is more mine than the one I've kept:
from my hands the poisoned apple,
from my bow the mistletoe dart.

Then I think of Mama,
her bountiful breasts.
When I was a child, I really swear,
Mama's kisses could heal.
I remember her promise,
and whisper it over my sweet son's sleep:

         When you float to the bottom, child,
         like a mote down a sunbeam,
         you'll see me from a trillion miles away:
         my eyes looking up to you,
         my arms outstretched for you like night.

From Mama's Promises, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1985 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

From Mama's Promises, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1985 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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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               Eaton, NH, 1879
 

Us Free Will Baptists walked a thin tightwire,
a springing path out over the abyss.
We knew how a sudden April desire to dance
can topple you head over heels into the fire.

We knew how warmth exuded by a youth
singing at prayer

poem
Which reminds me of another knock-on-wood
memory. I was cycling with a male friend,
through a small midwestern town. We came to a 4-way
stop and stopped, chatting. As we started again,
a rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign, 
hurricaned past scant inches from our front wheels.
My partner called, "Hey