new haven, ct

31 MARCH 2009


Wild Night
Hand-me-down Petticoat  
The Yellow Girl
Unlacing the Corset
Fire, Ice, Kiss

About Marilyn Nelson



wild night

N.Y. Anti-Abolition Riots, 1834-1835
Rev. Christopher Rush

The white folks were restless again last night.
All we could do was keep the faith, and wait.
My first parishioners started arriving at sunset,
having heard rumors, and reluctant to stay at home.
Our shadows danced in the sanctuary’s candle-flames
as audible whiffs of pandemonium
drifted to us like smoke from distant fires.
With most of the village in, I locked the doors.

I asked everyone to bow their heads and pray.
Pray for this nation’s struggle to be free
for ALL Americans. Equality
must be bitter, if you’ve always been on top,
and you’re slapped awake out of a lifelong sleep.
Pray we’ll pull together toward a common hope.

…Thousands of voices raised…That sounds like drums!
That sounds like a firehouse bell… That sounds like screams!

Near dawn. The children and some mothers sleep;
roosters crow morning, a couple of yard-dogs yap,
the songbirds choir. The violence has stopped.
I step out into every day new light.
My little flock has weathered a wild night.
But someone somewhere is less fortunate.
Tim Seaman comes out, nods, and finds a tree.
Would every now held such tranquility.



hand-me-down petticoat

Ada Thompson, ca. 1835

Traveling with large parcels on the stage
invites insult. And there’s always the risk –
given my long walk home through the woods past dusk –
that some man may see me as his privilege.

But one weekend a month, I take that chance.
After a month spent virtually alone –
silent, invisible – in Babylon,
I’m home. And you give me this arrogance?

I brought home half a loaf of store-bought bread,
a slice of ham, some cheese… And you still pout,
as if second-hand honey isn’t sweet.
Who put such prideful thoughts into your head?

Now, listen, Girl: this hand-me-down petticoat
is beautiful! It just needs to be cleaned.
Miss Astor’s so generous! Yes, it is stained,
but poor people give thanks for what we get!

It’s a little too long, but it only needs a hem.
I’ll take the waist in; it will be just fine.
You’re lucky to have a petticoat at fourteen.
Pride goeth before a fall. And so doth shame.

You say you’d rather wear tow-cloth? That slaves
labored over this cotton? Well, my girl,
so did your mama. Wake up to the world:
a colored girl can’t be so sensitive!

One girl refusing a cast-off petticoat
won’t part the bloody sea of history.
Refusing it won’t make nobody free!
Now, wash your face. Sit down, sweet darling. Eat.



the yellow girl

Matilda Polk

In me, peoples who hate each other meet.
The lion and lamb lay down side by side,
exchanging her powerlessness, his might
just long enough to become mate and mate
and make me ivory-skinned and ebony-eyed.



unlacing the corset

Ada Thompson

The corset must have been invented for Miss Lady,
who loafs all day weeping over a book
and ordering around her cleaning-woman.
It sure wasn’t invented for the working mother
who feeds her children by doing Miss Lady’s work.



fire, ice, kiss

Susan and Pleasant Smith, Dec. 16, 1835
[ca. 700 buildings in the business district of
Manhattan burned to the ground on this frigid night.]

Stomping our ice feet, we shivered in layered shawls,
kerchiefs and coats, shoulders hunched to our ears.
The night sky glowed red with reflected fire.
Wind-whirls brought snatches of faraway clangs and calls.

Some people prayed, or blew into mittened fists;
some said it served them fat cats right, and laughed.
They danced with bitter joy on the snowdrifts,
spectators of distant apocalypse.

Drawing me into a puffy embrace,
Plez said, Hell’s furnace for men who catch fugitive slaves.
Are there twenty righteous people down there to save?
He pulled me close. Come here, sweet pillar of ice!



Among's books areCarver: A Life In Poems; Fortune's Bones; Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses Of Color (With Elizabeth Alexander); The Freedom Business; and A Wreath For Emmett Till. Her honors include two creative writing fellowships from the N.E.A., a Guggenheim fellowship, three National Book Award Finalist medals, the Poets' Prize, the Boston Globe/Hornbook Award, a Newbery Honor medal, two Coretta Scott King Honor medals, the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, the Lion and Unicorn Award for Excellence in Poetry for Young Adults, the American Scandinavian Foundation Translation Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Nelson is an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut, the former Poet Laureate of Connecticut, and founder/director of Soul Mountain Retreat.