(Cleveland, Ohio, 1951)
Folding the letter and laying it down,
Daddy says, "Well, Baby, I've been called back up."
Mama pauses, then puts my bowl of beans
in front of me. Jennifer eats and hums
across from me on two telephone books.
Mama says, "Pray God you won't see combat."
Jennifer, stop singing at the table,
I hiss. Her humming's driving me crazy.
She looks up from her bowl with dreaming eyes:
Huh? Mama says, "My darling, we're going, too."
Stop singing! "I'll take a leave from law school,"
he says, "and you'll take a leave from your job."
We've been called up. Our leaves become feathers.
With wings we wave good-bye to our cousins.
(Lackland AFB, Texas, 1952)
Nothing belongs to us in our new house
except Mama's piano and our clothes.
I'm the new girl in Dick and Jane country,
the other children faceless as grown-ups.
I read through recess and take some books home.
I read to Jennifer while Mama plays.
I read while the television talker
talks about career and the hide drajen bomb.
Mama says she's going to vote for Ike.
Daddy says, "Woman, you just think he's cute!"
We ducked and covered underneath our desks,
hiding from drajen bombs in school today.
Maybe drajens would turn into butter
if they ran really fast around a tree.
(Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas, 1955)
Somebody took a picture of a class
standing in line to get polio shots
and published it in the Weekly Reader.
We stood like that today. And it did hurt.
Mrs. Liebel said we were Making History,
but all I did was sqwunch up my eyes and wince.
Making History takes more than standing in line
believing little white lies about pain.
Mama says First Negroes are History:
First Negro Telephone Operator,
First Negro Opera Singer at the Met,
First Negro Pilots, First Supreme Court Judge.
That lady in Montgomery just became a First
by sqwunching up her eyes and sitting there.
A DRIFT OF GIRLFRIENDS
(Sacramento, California, 1959)
We've moved to a neighborhood of new homes
being built to be sold to Negro families.
Mama said she's proud we're landowners now,
like her papa was in Oklahoma,
his red dirt farm stretching fertile acres.
Daddy plowed our bare yard in the Lincoln,
breaking up the clods with its white-walled tires.
I walk to and from school, books to my chest,
with a drift of girlfriends, none of them mine.
I'm learning that Negro is a language
I don't speak. And I don't know how to dance.
At home, we listen to Miles and Coltrane,
Tchaikovsky and Chopin. I get good grades
because I'm curious and I like to read,
and NOT because I'm "trying to be white."
HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY
(Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959)
It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she'd chosen especially for me
to read to the all-except-for-me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished,
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.
Selections from How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. Published by Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright 2014 by Marilyn Nelson.