restricted access How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (review)
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Nelson, Marilyn. How I Discovered Poetry; illus. by Hadley Hooper. Dial, 2014. [112p]. ISBN 978-0-8037-3304-6 $16.99 Reviewed from galleys R* Gr. 7-12.

This slender verse memoir draws on both previously published and new work to paint “a portrait of the artist as a young American Negro girl,” following young Marilyn from 1950 to 1959, age four to thirteen. The nearly fifty poems (each subtitled with location and date) offer snapshots of her life with her family as they followed a peripatetic Army existence, moving from place to place as her father, a high-ranking officer, changed postings and her mother found new teaching jobs. Her family were often the “First Negroes” for townies and classmates, but they nonetheless generally rooted into each new place, Marilyn finding solid friends and excelling academically. Notes of the era are effectively played as young Marilyn imagines fighting the Red Menace and absorbs adult commentary about “that lady in Montgomery” and “a boy named Emmett.” The tightly written yet musing poems (many of them unrhymed sonnets) effectively capture single moments as slices of a larger, longer trajectory of growth, travel, and inquiry. Young Marilyn’s capable, confident family (“Daddy corrects white men who call him boy./ Even when they’re in police uniforms”) provides a solid foundation for both her and the narrative trajectory, and her need to find herself over and over again in each new location provides an unusual opportunity for self-awareness and reflection that understandably translates into becoming a poet. Attractive and subtle design adds appeal, with poem titles in slate blue and simple decorative spot art, usually dichromatic, neatly supplying both a retro visual quotation and contemporary currency; [End Page 370] occasional family photographs provide additional immediacy. Use this to bring a vivid personal touch to an exploration of the era, or as a gloriously personal entry in a poetry unit that will prompt eager imitation. Final illustrations not seen.

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