Listen to Marilyn Nelson read poem 10 from the “The Fish in the Sea Is Not Thirsty” section of The Kabir Book, translated by Robert Bly. Her commentary on why she read the poem, and her reading of her own poem, “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” from her collection How I Discovered Poetry, provide an intense and personal recounting of how she committed herself to a life in poetry.
Discussing a difficult period in her life as she approached thirty, after not writing poetry for nearly a decade, she says she experienced a frightening feeling: “Rilke describes it as an animal padding around inside his body, and I didn’t know what it was, and it turned out to be poetry. There was poetry in me that wanted to be written and I had to learn how to write it. And this poem somehow is connected with my discovery of what that was.”
That a poem by a 15th century mystic was so important to her in this transition says something essential about Nelson’s personality and aesthetic. Her sense of poetry is not bounded by time, place, race or gender. History, including personal, contemporary and ancient, is all inextricably interwoven in human experience, and any and all of it is a rich resource. History itself is larger than what can be delineated by chronological time. It includes the myths and mysteries that shaped human imagination, and how that imagination shaped our sense of our place in the world. In her poems, twenty-first century feminism is informed by the long history of myths of the divine mother, and a child’s first attempts at asserting independence are linked to the flight of Icarus.
However, “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” makes it clear Nelson is not one of those poets who uses myth or history to distance herself from personal revelation and maintain a comfortably detached stance from the reader. Her commitment to her art is intense and intensely personal: “I say to the dark: Give me a message I can give the world./ Afraid there’s a poet behind my face,/ I beg until I’ve cried myself to sleep.”
Former poet laureate of Connecticut, Marilyn Nelson’s many collections include How I Discovered Poetry (2014); Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (2012) The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (2005); The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997), and others. She has also published several collections of poems written for children.
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