2001

Carver: A Life in Poems

By Marilyn Nelson

Current & Digital Publisher: Front Street Books (Boyds Mills Press)

Reading Level: Ages 11 & Up

Leslie Reese/Literacy Chicago writes:

Nothing much happens in science class in 1972, some 108 years since the passing of the thirteenth amendment. Restless great-great-grandchildren of the slave-girl Mary’s peers bang desks and get in trouble for chewing bubble gum in a Detroit public school named for a French chemist. During Negro History Week a girl named Joy who wears curly bangs, long braids, and glasses gets up in class and says that her Dad is one of the Tuskegee Airmen. I want to chime in that my Daddy completed twelfth grade in Tuskegee and my great Aunt Lillie C. lives there right now! Joy shows off a picture of the airmen, and points to her Dad who practically looks like a teenager in his uniform. Then our teacher shows us photographs of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, and that old peanut scientist, George Washington Carver. What interests us the most is how ancient they seem—back there when all the photographs were the same two colors: brown and cream. Well, we sigh, at least they invented peanut butter!

When our families drive to Alabama in three-car caravans to visit our cousins, we can’t ignore the smell of nature’s sap and doo-doo: wildflowers, honeysuckle; ripe fruit making tree limbs hang low or mashed underfoot by live chickens, cows, pigs, and children. We munch down on the pecans that fall from the tree in Gramma Essie’s yard. For days on end our eyes feast on a plethora of magnolia trees and azalea bushes, “monkey grass” and “elephant ears.” We marvel at how the night sky gets so dark that—unless there is a bright moon beaming over the yard—our eyes never get accustomed to the velvet-like blackness inside Gramma’s shotgun house.

We don’t care nothing about agriculture and country things like that! On our gravel playgrounds in Detroit we like to play tag, sing rhymes, and jump rope, and pretend that we are Diana Ross & the Supremes. We don’t fall in love with nature while sitting in our science classroom where the fish aquarium is empty and the appearance of live flowers and plants is random and occasional.  Dusty glass plates of pressed flowers and butterflies are stacked against the window with a few spider webs, but the teacher never touches them so why should we?

Nearly four decades later I will read words like Arachis hypogaea (peanut) and Boletus edulus (an edible mushroom) and Ruellia noctiflora (night-blooming petunia) in Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems and be transported to a wonderful place of knowledge and gratitude.  Leaning back on pillows with my toes flexed like star points, I read the poems aloud—repeating delectable, historical, sacred, and preciously imagined passages to myself in happy whispers. It is my first time meeting George Washington Carver (aka GWC) this way. 

In fifty-nine intensely researched poems Marilyn Nelson projects the life of this youngest son of the slave-girl Mary—through voices of living creatures, actual and imagined, who were a part of his life. For instance, the narrator of “The Perceiving Self” is the wildlife in the woods—telling the story of the day in 1879 when fifteen-year-old George Carver witnesses a lynching.

Shattering my image of “Doc” Carver as an old-timey peanut harvester I learn that not only was he a scientist, an inventor, and an educator but also an accomplished painter who was adept in the arts of needlecraft as well. Say what? These and other unique aspects of Carver’s being are handled with textural loving care in Nelson’s poem-craft. She makes you feel kindred to him.

What I find so moving in both George Washington Carver and Carver: A Life in Poems is realizing how much boldness and power resides in packages of humility. As Nelson writes in “The Wild Garden”:

The homeliest, lowest,
torn out by the roots, poisoned;
the “inferior,” the “weeds”—
They grow despite our will to kill them,
despite our ignorance
of what their use might be.
We refuse to thank them,
but they keep on coming back
with the Creator’s handwritten invitation.

Now you’re ready for a cup of Potentilla tea!

Leslie Reese enjoys writing family stories, poetry, and book reviews. She is on the staff at Literacy Chicago where she also facilitates Reading Against the Odds, a book discussion group for adult learners. Literacy Chicago received an Innovations in Reading prize from the National Book Foundation in 2012 for Reading Against the Odds.

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YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Kate DiCamillo for The Tiger Rising
  • Phillip Hoose for We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History
  • An Na for A Step from Heaven
  • Marilyn Nelson for Carver: A Life in Poems

YPL Winner That Year: Virginia Euwer Wolff for True Believer

Judges That Year: Kay Cassell, Ellen Howard, Beth Kephart, Lisa Clayton Robinson, Jane Resh Thomas

The Year in Literature: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck won the Newbery Medal.  Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond won the Printz Award.

More Information:  Marilyn Nelson was the poet laureate of Connecticut from 2001 through 2006.

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