How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson

Earlier this week I was immersed in sharing poetry, movement, and collaborative creative expression with second graders at Carstens Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. As I began to write about it on the train ride home, I was reminded of Marilyn Nelson’s book, How I Discovered Poetry.

While her volumes of poetry are usually found in the children’s and young adult (YA) sections of libraries and bookstores, I came to Marilyn Nelson’s poetry as an adult and have counted her amongst my favorite poets since my encounter with her book, CARVER A Life in Poems.

my personal copy (photo by Leslie Reese)
my personal copy (photo by Leslie Reese)

Here I post a revised (and illustrated) review of How I Discovered Poetry that I wrote back in 2014 and posted to goodreads.com:

When I read that Marilyn Nelson had a new book coming out called How I Discovered Poetry, I said to myself: hurray!

I was thinking she might deliver a prose narrative that uncovered the background magic of why her poems touch me so much. I had high expectations but when I saw the little volume with its sparse, undramatic illustrations (by Hadley Hooper) and realized the book consisted of 50 unrhymed sonnets, the sides of my mouth did sag a little bit. Marilyn! That’s not what I wanted from you! (I may as well have whined). Just for that I’m putting your book to the side while I read something else! (What a brat, right?) Well, by the time I finished sulking it was nearly time for me to return the book to the public library—there would be no renewing it since another patron was awaiting this copy. I sat on the side of the bed and began to thumb through.

Underneath the title of each poem was a location and a year, such as “Mather AFB, California, 1957” or “Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas, 1954.” The first poem was situated in “Cleveland, Ohio 1950” and the final poem in “Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959.” I counted at least nine different locations. There were also three photographs from the family album which had been shrunk in size for the book, so I had to squint extra hard to guess at what people’s—especially young Marilyn’s, and her sister, Jennifer’s—eyes and facial expressions might tell. At the back of the book was the ‘author’s note’ in which Marilyn Nelson explained that her father was one of the first African American career officers in the United States Air Force. I realized her family had spent the 1950s moving around the country, picking up their life and laying it down over and over again. When I laughed aloud while reading the following poem, I decided to return to the first page and re-open my heart to reading:

“Church”
(Cleveland, Ohio, 1950)

Why did Lot have to take his wife and flea
from the bad city, like that angel said?
Poor Lot: imagine having a pet flea.
I’d keep mine on a dog. But maybe fleas
were bigger in the olden Bible days.
Maybe a flea was bigger than a dog,
more like sheep or a goat. Maybe they had
flea farms back then, with herds of giant fleas.
Jennifer squirms beside me on the pew,
sucking her thumb, nestled against Mama.
Maybe Lot and his wife rode saddled fleas!
Or drove a coach pulled by a team of fleas!
I giggle soundlessly, but Mama swats
my leg, holding a finger to her lips.

Ever so gently, reading poem after poem, I remember what its like being a kid; what language sounded like and where I heard it and what I thought it meant. It seems that as we become avid, mature readers and start to have more experience in the world we forget the mystery of first encounters with expressions like, “fingers crossed”, “knock on wood”, or, “walking on eggshells.” A laugh like a snort came out of my nose when I realized Marilyn thought she was hearing the words Kemo “Sape” for Kemo Sabe while watching episodes of “The Lone Ranger.” And like Marilyn and her sister, I, too, wanted to cry on the front lawn when their parents broke their word: saying they would only be gone “for five minutes.”

But this book is about so much more than endearing malapropisms and taking the world literally. It’s about fighting-words, and having one’s hair grow wild during two weeks at summer camp. Its about tip-toeing to the mirror at night, testing your grin because “Some TV Negroes have shine-in-the-dark/white eyes and teeth and are afraid of ghosts.” It’s about a world of firsts and only’s; about Creek-Seminole Native Americans, whites, and blacks all living in the United States of America during the Cold War years. It’s about being a sensitive and bookish Negro girl whose family traverses the impressive landscape by car, saying hello and waving goodbye to friends in people and pets and toys and regional folkways. “The sky seems to be bigger in the West. I’m growing bigger inside to take it in.” It is about the powerful imprints made by our every-day-use of language, as well as witnessing the visual poetry of a dawn and realizing “There’s more beauty on Earth than I can bear.”


The book takes it’s title from the poem that follows. I found it to be so layered with appearing-then-disappearing, wavering mirage-like meanings that I’m still thinking about it.

“How I Discovered Poetry”
(Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959)

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all-except-for-me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished,
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

****
Marilyn Nelson has authored more than 20 books, including her most recent publications, My Seneca Village (2015) and American Ace (2016).

Read and listen to an interview with Marilyn Nelson regarding How I Discovered Poetry at NPR Books.

Read this “Publisher’s Weekly” Q & A with Marilyn Nelson about her “verse novel,” American Ace (2016).

3 Comments

  1. Lawd! I love the way you write Leslie! And I really enjoyed reading this in particular because it shows how we literally “judge a book by its cover,” based on expectations. On a separate note, are you from Detroit?

    1. Hello K E: I so appreciate your response to this post. To your point about judging things according to expectations, I nearly missed out on the gem of this book, right?! Yes I am from Detroit – get thee to my “about Leslie Reese” page! Now, before I ask where you hail from, I’m going to visit your blog and do some more reading.
      Thank you!

  2. Leslie, thank you for helping me rediscover poetry. The value of written words needs defending like this — and the ease of misunderstanding should put fleas in some ears, pun intended.

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