The Operating System

POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 16:: Karen Clark on Marilyn Nelson

I want to talk about the work of Marilyn Nelson, whose poems fill me with the same mixture of awe, reverence and exultation that I experienced last month standing in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in front of the Van Gogh exhibition. It is the sense of privilege at having witnessed this miracle: that it is possible to take suffering, pain, and man’s brutal inhumanity to man and transform them, through the alchemy of art and genius, into works of sheer glory that become a lifelong blessing to the beholder, comforting us with the knowledge that the pain and the suffering were not wasted, not meaningless, for this beautiful work of art came out of it all, to spread its balm upon the human spirit and remind us that the artist’s sacred mission is to heal the world. Only recently I was overjoyed to see that Nelson (who has been honored many times for her work) was the 2011 recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s highest honor, the Frost Medal. I first read A Wreath for Emmett Till in Pamela Laskin’s classroom; a double joy, for Pam is a marvelous poet in her own right, and is also one of this month’s “Poets on Poets.” We were all moved to tears, and blown away by the fact that Marilyn Nelson had managed to take this incredibly strict, difficult form – a heroic crown of sonnets! – and create something so intricately structured that we, a classroom full of graduate English students, were able to discuss it in terms of its allusions and its symbolism for over an hour, and yet, at the same time, to write so simply and so beautifully that A Wreath for Emmett Till was published as a children’s illustrated picture book, and is completely absorbing and accessible to young readers.
I love form poetry, and I am always thrilled to find contemporary writers who reinforce my conviction that form poetry is not irrelevant and passé; it merely requires great skill to pull it off and to make it resonate with today’s readers. I especially love Marilyn Nelson’s playful and inventive approach to form. Nelson takes the strictures of form poetry and puts them to work for her, making the words leap through hoops with a flick of her pen, as though she were the world’s most elegant lion-tamer. A good example of this is a poem from The Freedom Business, an epic book-length series of poems based on the writings of Venture Smith, an African prince who was captured and sold into slavery, but who managed to buy his own freedom and that of many other slaves. In this poem, Marilyn Nelson inverts the sonnet form; she stands it on its head, to indicate that the young prince’s world was turned topsy-turvy by his kidnapping, and by the murder of his father at the hands of the slavers. It is one of my favorite examples of Marilyn Nelson’s using form to emphasis poetic meaning.
Marilyn Nelson _ A Treasure Buried
[Editor’s note: please click on the link above to see Nelson’s poem in PDF form; the unusual formatting was impossible to stay true to within this blog’s code structure.] 
Last month, when my dear friend Paul Gooden’s father died, I wrote this poem to celebrate his life and that of his beloved wife, a woman I have only met through family legend. Like so many who came to this country, Lascelles and Norma Gooden left their homeland, Jamaica, to create a new life and greater opportunities for their children. I could tell, as I listened to Paul and his family spinning family lore for me, that Norma and Lascelles had one of those hierogamous marriages in which the couple’s union is not merely a blessing to themselves, but simulates the union of Earth and Sky in that they share their gifts with the entire community around them, creating harmony and fruitfulness for all. The night Lascelles died, I was awakened by a driving rain at round the time he passed away. The stormy night was bookended by a beautiful day on either side. As I wrote, the rhymes of the first stanza trickled away to nothing, in the stanzas mourning the loss of his life’s partner, Norma – then reassert themselves fully in the final stanza, where the lovers reunite after death. They are together eternally, and the order of the universe has come full circle.
Arise, My Love, My Fair One – Come Away
(For Lascelles & Norma Gooden)

SHE first deceased; he for a little tried
To live without her, liked it not, and died.”(Sir Henry Wotton, 1568-1639)
She left us on a chilly winter’s day, but knew that she could trust
In him to finish out their work on Earth. It would be hard
To wait upon the man to whom she gave her life, but love
Had grown, as she had grown; their children, family, and home
She left to him in trust.
He, for his part, was a man
Who held his feelings close within his heart; his words
Were few, and only those who knew
Him best could sometimes see him gazing inward, toward
The day that he would be with her again.
And was the wait as long to her
As it appeared to him?
For what we count as years
On Earth
Are reckoned but a moment in God’s time.
The night he was released to her, she wept
As mothers and as lovers do, and always have,
And will until the rains have ceased to fall
Upon the Earth. The gentle rains, her tears of joy
To welcome him at last unto herself again were mingled
With the sorrow for her children’s tears;
For never on this Earth was woman born,
Who would not weep to see her children mourn.
At last her teardrops ceased, and night was washed away.
He hastened to her, as a bridegroom to his bride;
The sun burst forth in glory and the flowers bloomed
In Heaven and on Earth for both of them that day.
March 23, 2012
Karen Clark is an alumna of Barnard College and the CCNY MFA Program. She has published a number of poems, and os presently at work on: a screenplay comedy, a novel that employs nineteenth century technique in a twenty-first century setting, and a memoir of a mutually beneficial friendship, entitled The Other Mother.


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