Marilyn Nelson: The Devastating Power of Words

Being busy with various projects, and coping with grief at the death of my husband, have kept me away from this blog for awhile, but today I glanced the name “Marilyn Nelson” while checking my email, and discovered the murderously powerful poem below which stopped me in my tracks. Here and now, forget the whole world, this poem needs to be read by everyone now!! And so this poem by the inimitable Marilyn Nelson dug so deep in my soul I can never really extricate it. What a perfect poem for Black History Month, the shortest month of the year, so let’s bring it all on and make it also the most intense month, the month that matters most, the most alive month, the month we can’t really let go of all year long, the month that brings us face-to-face with our inhumanity, our bloodless, heartless, soulless coup against our own claimed humanity, embodied in this poem entitled “Realization.” May it go viral and infect us all with its burdens loaded with devastating truth. Go, Marilyn, an some truth-bomb us all!!! Here it is, to be followed by all the appropriate kudos and bios and awards. She earned so much, this doesn’t come easily, this kind of poetry. But first, read this and weep while you still can:


By Marilyn Nelson

Three-quarter size. Full size would break the heart.
She, still bare-breasted from the auction block,
sits staring, perhaps realizing what
will happen to them next. There is no child,
though there must be a child who will be left
behind, or who was auctioned separately.
Her arms are limp, defeated, her thin hands
lie still in surrender.
He cowers at her side,
his head under her arm,
his body pressed to hers
like a boy hiding behind his mother.
He should protect his woman. He is strong,
his shoulder and arm muscled from hard work,
his hand, thickened by labor, on her thigh
as if to comfort, though he can’t protect.
His brow is furrowed, his eyes blank, unfocused.
What words are there to describe hopelessness?
A word that means both bull-whipped and spat on?
Is there a name for mute, depthless abyss?
A word that means Where the hell are you, God?
What would they ask God, if they could believe?
But how can they believe, while the blue sky
smiles innocently, pretends nothing is wrong.
They stood stripped up there, as they were described
like animals who couldn’t understand
how cheap a life can be made.
Their naked feet. Her collarbone. The vein
traveling his bicep. Gussie’s answer
to presidents on Mount Rushmore,
to monumental generals whose stars
and sabers say black pain
did not then and still does not matter.

(Copyright 2021)

She is the author of A Wreath for Emmett Till, winner of the Coretta Scott KIng Award, which she Hadi previously won for another riveting book, and in case you don’t recognize Till’s household name, “In 1955 people all over the United States knew that Emmett Louis Till was a fourteen-year-old African American boy lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The brutality of his murder, the open-casket funeral held by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and the acquittal of the men tried for the crime drew wide media attention. In a profound and chilling poem, award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the boy whose fate helped spark the civil rights movement.” It’s worth reminding those who may have forgotten. This book alone is a magnificent and devastating achievement. Let those who perpetuate injustice, and oh are they vociferous and full of themselves these days, when DeSantis of Florida wants to lock up protestors against systematic racism and protect white supremacists who would mow them down with pickups. Nelson’s words, her voice against oppression, speaks more of her than her many impressive awards and kudos for her many books including poetry, memoir, and children’s books, not to mention translations, summed up upon winning the coveted Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry, as “noted for being a renowned poet, author, and translator who has worked steadily throughout her career to highlight topics that aren’t often talked about in poetry. Her literary work, spanning more than four decades, examines complex issues around race, feminism, and the ongoing trauma of slavery in American life in narratives poised between song and speech.”

For one so open-hearted, with such humility and grace. All her books, highly recommended, are unforgettable. I rest my case.

2 thoughts on “Marilyn Nelson: The Devastating Power of Words

    • A thousand thanks, Joy! It’s always a joy to hear from you. And no I haven’t forgotten Anna, who is unforgettable. Just working through my inner issues. Your prayers are indeed necessary, and I pray for you too, for the fruition of your inner light to help illuminate this world of woe.


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