Here are poems by Marilyn Nelson celebrating rebirth and freedom in the spirit of spring. They bear the former Connecticut poet laureate's distinctive combination of passion and play: a passion for justice and freedom presented with wit and the terrible clarity born of bearing witness to a country's racial blindness. In the order they appear, the poems are taken from Nelson's soon-to-be-published "The Meeting-House," as well as from "The Freedom Business" and "The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children." These are but three of the 15 books that have earned their author many of the nation's most important awards and her recent election as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Marilyn Nelson is a professor emerita at the University of Connecticut. Poet Arthur Sze has noted that her work unfolds "with an emotional force that, ultimately, becomes praise."
— Rennie McQuilkin, CT poet laureate
Oxford negro man & Temperance molata girl married by
Rev. Moses Noyes, January 26, 1726 (Lyme, CT Land Records)
I do not take this woman to be my wife,
to have and to hold. But I do accept
with gratitude this gift of a help-meet,
bed-mate, and sharer of secret despair.
How should I call an owned woman my wife,
knowing my children born to her are his?
In sickness and health, richer or poorer,
when he whistles she must run like a dog.
But I will take her to the airless room
in the attic where I sleep, and our breath
will whiten the air over my pallet
until we jump to work in the pre-dawn.
I will hold her warm sobbing in my arms,
touch her with tenderness work makes wooden.
I will hear Africa's drums in her heart,
and with her build an African future.
Loneliness is an anvil in the chest,
adding to the tonnage of helplessness.
But the lone cat in a family household
discovers it is a cat when a new cat comes.
So I say yes, let him make you my wife.
No longer alone, I shall be a we.
Shoulder to shoulder, we shall face down fate,
blessed and cursed by the trickster Ancestors.
from the life of Venture Smith, 1773
As soon as the peepers start their nightly song,
I set my nets across the swollen creek,
ready for the alewives' headlong run upstream.
For two weeks I'll sell herring by the wagonload,
and I'll salt a barrel away for future need.
If the run is good this year, I'll buy my wife
before she shows, and get a bonus child.
Hauling nets in, I notice again how birds
conduct conversations with others of their kind.
That grand old man in his black-and-white-checked coat
and jolly red cap must be making a speech
in woodpeckerish. Just listen to him tap!
What are they saying, Brother Woodpecker's drums?
Tenderest tidings, potential future mate:
I lack! Seek poke, titillation. Trust luck.)
(Triplequick chick will trade tricky tickles!)
Hmmm. Must be a she-pecker tapping her answer back.
Some hollow tree trunk is about to become a home.
Another good haul, and this child will be born free.
What kind of flower will I become
After I die someday?
Grandmother turned into daffodils
Last year when she went away.
I was awfully sad when she left us.
I miss all the stories she told.
Her lap was as soft as a pillow.
I wonder why people get old.
Mom says that Gram went to live with God
Up where the sky is blue.
Dad says she's sleeping inside the earth,
But I know that this isn't true.
Grandmother turned into daffodils.
They're blooming all over her grave.
Whenever we visit on Saturdays,
As soon as they see me, they wave.
All poems copyright © 2016 by Marilyn Nelson
CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poet's Corner by invitation.