Conjuring voices and characters across oceans and centuries, Faster Than Light explores widely disparate experiences through the lens of traditional poetic forms. This volume contains a selection of Marilyn Nelson’s new and uncollected poems as well as work from each of her lyric histories of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century African American individuals and communities.
Poems include the stories of historical figures like Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy lynched in 1955, and the inhabitants of Seneca Village, an African American community razed in 1857 for the creation of Central Park. “Bivouac in a Storm” tells the story of a group of young soldiers, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, as they trained near Biloxi, Mississippi, “marching in summer heat / thick as blackstrap molasses, under trees / haunted by whippings.” Later pieces range from the poet’s travels in Africa, Europe, and Polynesia, to poems written in collaboration with Father Jacques de Foiard Brown, a former Benedictine monk and the subject of Nelson’s playful fictional fantasy sequence, “Adventure-Monk!” Both personal and historical, these poems remain grounded in everyday details but reach toward spiritual and moral truths.
from Fortune’s Bones:The Manumission Requiem
In 1798, a slave named Fortune died at about the age of sixty. His owner, Dr. Preserved Porter, rendered the bones of his former slave so he could use the skeleton as a teaching tool. Fortune’s bones now reside in the Mattituck Museum in Waterbury CT.
On Abrigador Hill
(Dr. Preserved Porter)
For fifty years my feeling hands
have practiced the bone-setter’s healing touch,
a gift inherited by Porter men.
I have manipulated joints,
cracked necks, and set my neighbors back to work.
I’ve bled and purged fever and flux,
inoculated for smallpox,
prescribed fresh air and vegetables,
cod liver oil and laudanum,
and closed the lightless eyes of the new dead.
And I’ve been humbled by ignorance,
humbled by ignorance.
Herewith begins my dissection of
the former body of my former slave,
which served him who served me throughout his life,
and now serves the advance of science.
Note how well death softens the human skin,
making it almost transparent,
so that under my reverent knife—
the first cut takes my breath away,
it feels like cutting the whole world—
it falls open like bridal gossamer.
And I’ve been humbled by ignorance,
humbled by ignorance.
Standing on a new continent
beyond the boundaries of nakedness,
I am forever changed by what I see:
the complex delicate organs
fitted perfectly in their shelter of bones,
the striated and smooth muscles,
the beautiful integuments,
the genius-strokes of thumb and knee.
In profound and awful intimacy,
I enter Fortune, and he enters me.
And I’ve been humbled by ignorance,
humbled by ignorance.
from Carver: A Life in Poems
A portrait in poems of the life of George Washington Carver, botanist, inventor, painter, musician, and teacher.
Watkins Laundry and Apothecary
Imagine a child at your door,
offering to do your wash,
clean your house, cook,
to weed your kitchen garden
or paint you a bunch of flowers
in exchange for a meal.
A spindly ten-year-old, alone
and a stranger in town, here to go
to our school for colored children.
His high peep brought tears:
sleeping in a barn and all that,
nary mama nor kin,
but only white folks
he left with their blessing,
his earthly belongings
in a handkerchief tied to a stick.
I’ve brought a houseful of children
into this world, concentrating on
that needle’s eye into eternity.
But ain’t none of them children mine.
Well, of course I moved him on in.
He helped me with the washings,
brought me roots from the woods
that bleached them white folks’ sheets
brighter than sunshine. He could fill
a canning jar with leaves and petals
so when you lifted the lid,
a fine perfume flooded your senses.
White bodices and pantalettes danced
around George on my line.
He was sweet with the neighbor children.
Taught the girls to crochet.
Showed the boys
a seed he said held a worm
cupped hands warmed so it wriggled and set
the seed to twitching.
Gave them skills and wonders.
Knelt with me at bedtime.
He was the child the good Lord gave
and took away before I got more
than the twinkle of a glimpse
at the man he was going to be.
It happened one Saturday afternoon.
George was holding a black-eyed Susan,
talking about how the seed
that this flower grew from
carried a message from a flower
that bloomed a million years ago,
and how this flower
would send the message on
to a flower that was going to bloom
in a million more years.
Praise Jesus, I’ll never forget it.
He left to find a teacher that knew
more than he knew.
I give him my Bible.
I keep his letters
in the bureau, tied with a bow.
He always sends a dried flower.
With the blessing of his foster parents, Moses and Susan Carver, George moves to Neosho, MO, about eight miles from his home in Diamond Grove, to attend the closest school for Negro children. This begins his long search for an education. Later, he becomes a teacher of everyone – children, Alabama farmers, university students, other scientists.
Looking out of the picture, a wild-haired,
gentle-eyed young German man stands
before a blackboard of incomprehensible equations.
Meanwhile, back in the quotidian,
Carver takes the school to the poor.
He outfits an open truck
with shelves for his jars
of canned fruit and compost,
bins for his crocker sacks of seeds.
He travels roads barely discernible
on the county map,
teaching former field-slaves
how to weave ditch weeds
into pretty place mats,
how to keep their sweet potatoes from rotting
before winter hunger sets in,
how to make preacher-pleasing
mock fried chicken
without slaughtering a laying hen.
He notes patches of wild chicory
the farmers could collect
to free themselves from their taste
for high-priced imported caffeine.
He and his student assistants bump along
shoulder to shoulder in the high cab,
a braided scale of laughter
trailing about their raised dust.
Today, Carver is explaining,
as far as he understands it,
that fellow Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity.”
He’s hardly gotten to Newtonian Space
when a platoon of skinny dogs
announces the next farm.
As they pull up,
a black man and his boy straighten,
two rows of shin-high cotton apart.
With identical gestures they remove
straw hats, wipe their foreheads with their sleeves.
Their welcoming glance meets Carver’s eyes
at the velocity of light.
1905 – Carver initiates the Jesup wagon, outfitting a horse-drawn wagon to take his agricultural teaching to the rural poor.
God’s Little Workshop
A hand-lettered sign above
the room number on the closed door.
“Do Not Disturb”
written in the air.
The Professor had had another vision
of an experiment he should try,
a question he should ask.
The Creator’s small, still voice
asked What would happen
if you made a resin of peanut oil,
and added a little bit
of this nitric acid here,
some of that sulphuric acid there,
some alcohol, some camphor,
a little of this, a little of that?
Would the molecules form clusters
tightly bonded into one plastic
which could be shaped and molded?
A thin, white silence issued
from the door seams,
settled on all who knew
the door was closed again,
made them walk softly,
modulate their laughter,
take themselves seriously.
The Creator asked,
What about elasticity?
Is Ficus elastic the only plant on earth
whose sap is a latex?
What about asclepias syriaca?
What about Ipomeoea batatas?
Coagulated and stabilized, vulcanized
and compounded with an inert filler,
would their sap become a half-solid, half-liquid
which deforms under applied stress
yet after stretching recovers completely?
The Professor took his Eurekas on grueling
medicine-show lecture tours.
He spoke softly, holding up
his peanut axle grease,
his peanut diesel fuel,
his peanut gasoline,
his peanut insecticide,
his sleeping compound,
his iron tonic,
his goiter treatment,
his faith, his science,
From the airfield a few miles down the road
a new droning crowds out laughter from the lawn,
talk in the corridor, automobiles,
and the occasional crow.
There goes one—no, two, three, four:
Like lost geese they circle in practice runs
from sunup to dusk.
The Professor’s palsied right hand
stutters answers to letters heaped beside his bed.
Behind them the amaryllis on the sill surrenders
to the cold sky its slow-motion skyrocket.
Beyond the clasped flame of its bud
a P-40 zooms in at five o’clock,
high as a Negro has ever been.
Such a shame, thinks the Professor.
Might have been ploughshares, hammered
into swords. Sighing, he signs his shaky name
as Nelson tilts the stick to his left, pulls it
slightly toward him, pushes his left rudder pedal,
thumbs up at the flight-instructor, grins,
and makes a sky-roaring victory-roll.
1941: The first “Tuskegee Airmen” recruited for an experimental U.S. Army program arrive at Tuskegee.
1942, On December 9, the fighter pilots of the 99th Air Pursuit Squadron, the first graduating class of the Tuskegee Airmen, receive their orders to join U.S. combat forces in Europe. Marilyn Nelson’s father, Melvin Nelson, was in the class of 1943.
1943, On January 5, George Washington Carver dies in his sleep in his room in Dorothy Hall.
born in Cleveland, Ohio, is the daughter of a member of the last graduating class of Tuskegee Airmen. Her mother was a teacher. She is the author or translator of over twenty-four books. Nelson’s latest collection of poems is Faster Than Light (2012), winner of the 2013 Milton Kessler Poetry Award. The Homeplace (1990) was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997) won the 1998 Poets’ Prize and was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award, the PEN Winship Award, and the Lenore Marshall Prize. The Cachoiera Tales and Other Poems (2005) won the L.E. Phillabaum Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
Her numerous young adult books include Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), which received the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, was a National Book Award finalist, and was designated both a Newbery Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Another of her young adult books, A Wreath for Emmett Till, also won the 2005 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and was designated a 2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.
Nelson’s honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, an A.C.L.S. Contemplative Practices Fellowship, the Department of the Army’s Commander’s Award for Public Service, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and a fellowship from the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
She is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut, was founder/director and host of Soul Mountain Retreat, and held the office of Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut from 2001 to 2006.
Nelson was awarded the 2012 Frost Medal, the Poetry Society of America’s most prestigious award, for “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.” In January 2013 she was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. Her latest collection for young adults is How I Discovered Poetry (Dial, 2014), a memoir in verse with illustrations by Hadley Hooper.
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