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Thursday, July 31, 2014

How I Discovered Poetry, written by Marilyn Nelson. Dial, Penguin. 2014. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"This book is a late-career retrospective, a personal memoir, a "portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl." The poems cover the decade of the fifties, from 1950, when I was four years old, to 1960, when I was fourteen." I prefer to call the girl in the poems "the Speaker," not "me." Although the poems describe a girl whose life is very much like mine..."

This is the summer of reading to add to my ever growing knowledge of the many events of the civil rights movement, and of Freedom Summer. I was not ignorant of the struggles, the setbacks, the people who worked so hard to bring change. This summer I have read a number of worthy and memorable books written to act as a reminder and to honor those who worked so hard and dedicated their lives to bringing attention and understanding to the struggle for equality. The work continues...

When I first read Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till  (HMH, 2009), I was heartbroken, and aghast. Although it is very difficult every single time I do, I read it almost every year as a reminder of injustice and a need for change. It also emphasizes the power of poetry to tell stories worth telling, in amazing ways.

In this memoir of her life in the 1950s, Ms. Nelson tells her audience about military life: all of the moves throughout her childhood, from one base to another. There are 50 poems and they provide a retrospective of the many events and memories that influenced her development as the writer she is today. It was a time of tremendous change, both socially and politically.

"Over the river and through the woods, for miles
of four-lane highways, slowed by blowing snow,
through towns named for long-vanquished Indians,
to Aunt Charlie's house in Omaha we go.
Hypnotized by the rhythm of tired chains,
I eat a sandwich passed from the front seat,
where Mama and Daddy are talking about a boy
named Emmett. Jennifer, whispering to her doll,
crossed the line between her side and mine,
and when I poke her just a little bit,
she howls as if it hurts, out of sheer spite.
Lost again in the inwardness of thought
and my five senses, I add to my list:
Thank you for not stationing us in Mississippi."

Her poems reflect her thoughts at the time. She talks about bomb drills and shelters, pets, the Red Menace, Rosa Parks and Emmett Till, food, television, the houses they lived evoked many memories of those years for me as I read it. I, too, am a child of the 50s. The poetry is both intimate and telling, showing a growing awareness of the fight for civil rights and how that will impact her life.  They also show her growing love of words, and writing.

"...I could spend hours searching the mirror
for clues to my truer identity,
if someone didn't pound the bathroom door.
You can't see what the mirror doesn't show:
for instance, after I close my book
and turn off my lamp, I say to the dark:
Give me a message I can give to the world.
Afraid there's a poet behind my face,
I beg until I've cried myself to sleep."

Message gloriously received, Ms. Nelson. Thank you!

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