CCT: CT Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson's poems

CT Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson's poems

Mama's Promise

I have no answer to the blank inequity
of a four-year-old dying of cancer.
I saw her on TV and wept
with my mouth full of meatloaf.

I constantly flash on disasters now;
red lights shout Warning. Danger.
everywhere I look.
I buckle him in, but what if a car
with a grille like a sharkbite
roared up out of the road?
I feed him square meals,
but what if the fist of his heart
should simply fall open?
I carried him safely
as long as I could,
but now he's a runaway
on the dangerous highway.
Warning. Danger.
I've started to pray.

But the dangerous highway
curves through blue evenings
when I hold his yielding hand
and snip his minuscule nails
with my vicious-looking scissors.
I carry him around
like an egg in a spoon,
and I remember a porcelain fawn,
a best friend's trust,
my broken faith in myself.
It's not my grace that keeps me erect
as the sidewalk clatters downhill
under my rollerskate wheels.

Sometimes I lie awake
troubled by this thought:
It's not so simple to give a child birth;
you also have to give it death,
the jealous fairy's christening gift.

I've always pictured my own death
as a closed door,
a black room,
a breathless leap from the mountaintop
with time to throw out my arms, lift my head,
and see, in the instant my heart stops,
a whole galaxy of blue.
I imagined I'd forget,
in the cessation of feeling,
while the guilt of my lifetime floated away
like a nylon nightgown,
and that I'd fall into clean, fresh forgiveness.

Ah, but the death I've given away
is more mine than the one I've kept:
from my hands the poisoned apple,
from my bow the mistletoe dart.

Then I think of Mama,
her bountiful breasts.
When I was a child, I really swear,
Mama's kisses could heal.
I remember her promise,
and whisper it over my sweet son's sleep:

When you float to the bottom, child,
like a mote down a sunbeam,
you'll see me from a trillion miles away:
my eyes looking up to you,
my arms outstretched for you like night.

From Mama's Promises, published by Louisiana State University Press.


Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses,
winged protozoans:
for the infinite,
intricate shapes
of submicroscopic
living things.

For algae spores
and fungus spores,
bonded by vital
mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their
inseparable lives
from equator to pole.

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.

From Magnificat, published by Louisiana State University Press.

Four a.m. in the Woods

Darkness softens, a thin
tissue of mist between trees.
One by one the day's
uncountable voices come out
like twilight fireflies, like stars.
The perceiving self sits
with his back against rough bark,
casting ten thousand questions into the future.
As shadows take shape, the curtains part
for the length of time it takes to gasp,
and behold, the purpose of his
life dawns on him.

From Carver: A Life in Poems, published by Front Street


The Lace-Maker

Late Sunday morning gilds the pins and needles,
strokes the wall ochre, blanches the white collar.
He bends, intent on detail, his fingers red
in sunlight, brown in shade. Light calls
through the open to April window directly
into his illumined invisible ear,
like, elsewhere, the trumpet
whisper of an angel.

From Carver: A Life in Poems, published by Front Street

Ruellia Noctiflora

A colored man come running at me out of the woods
last Sunday morning.
The junior choir was going to be singing
at Primitive Baptist over in Notasulga,
and we were meeting early to practice.
I remember wishing I was barefoot
in the heavy, cool-looking dew.
And suddenly this tall, rawbone wild man
come puffing out of the woods, shouting
Come see! Come see!
Seemed like my mary janes just stuck
to the gravel. Girl, my heart
like to abandon ship!

Then I saw by the long tin cylinder
slung over his shoulder on a leather strap
and his hoboish tweed jacket
and the flower in his lapel
that it was the Professor.
He said, gesturing,
his tan eyes a blazing,
that last night,
walking in the full moon light,
he'd stumbled on
a very rare specimen:
Ruellia noctiflora,
the night-blooming wild petunia.
Said he suddenly sensed a fragrance
and a small white glistening.

It was clearly a petunia:
The yellow future beckoned
from the lip of each tubular flower,
a blaring star of frilly, tongue-like petals.
He'd never seen this species before.
As he tried to place it,
its flowers gaped wider,
catching the moonlight,
suffusing the night with its scent.
All night he watched it
promise silent ecstasy to moths.

If we hurried, I could see it
before it closed to contemplate
becoming seed.
Hand in hand, we entered
the light-spattered morning-dark woods.
Where he pointed was only a white flower
until I saw him seeing it.

From Carver: A Life in Poems, published by Front Street

Hecuba Mourns

From Euripides' Hecuba, ca. 585

Ah, my daughter:
which of this throng of griefs
demands most? I yield to one,
and they clamor around me,
each with its own heartbreak. Grief
after grief, a relentless tide of sorrows.
And with this last wave
I find myself drowning
in a sea of mother's tears.

Even so, a cold comfort comes
from knowing how free you were
as you died.

Isn't it strange, how thistle ground
cultivated by the gods overflows
the granary, while the good soil the gods forget
grows a dry, uncombed tangle?
Human nature never changes:
the bad stay bad to the end;
the good, even touched by disaster,
are as changeless as stars.
Are we born to our nature,
or is it something learned? Surely goodness
is a wise teacher. And a person well taught
comes to understand evil
by seeing the true beauty of the good.

Ah, but these are the aimless arrows
of despair.

[to Talthybius]
Go to the Greeks. Tell them that no one
is to touch my daughter. Have them hold
the crowds at bay.

For without tight-ship discipline,
armed men quickly kindle to violence,
And the one who is self-restrained
is called a yellow-bellied coward.

[to a young slave-woman]
Bring me a pitcher of seawater.
I must bathe my child for the last time,
for her burial wedding. For she is
death's loveliest bride.
What mother's keepsake of my own
can I give her? There is nothing left.
Nothing precious. Nothing loved.
I'll ask the other slaves
whether something in their tents
has escaped the pilfering eye.
Some doodad someone has smuggled here,
some bright, contraband hope.

Where has greatness gone?
Where has it gone, that airy palace
in which I was happy? My Lord Priam,
we once were blessed
with children and other wealth.
I was mother once,
now I am nothing.
All gone, my babies.

And yet
we brag and strut like barnyard roosters;
the rich man so proud and contemptuous,
the politician gobbling great chunks
of the imaginary food of flattery.
We are so vain. Our lives are vain.
Happy are they who live between yesterday
and tomorrow. Happy are they
who ask for nothing: Their prayers
are the first to be answered.
Happy they whose luck lasts
for one single, blessed, eternal moment.