Monday, July 11, 2016

Carver: A Life in Poems

Every once awhile I come across a book that I can't bear to give away. I'm sorry friends, but Carver by Marilyn Nelson, (Boyds Mills Press, 2001) is a book that is staying on my shelf. 

Like me, many of you probably know some of the basics about George Washington Carver's life. You may know he was born a slave in Missouri about 1864, started the agricultural department at Tuskegee Institute, and developed new uses for peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes in his desire to help poor farmers combat poverty.
Tuskegee Institute, 1916
But what you probably don't know is that besides being a scientist, inventor, and botanist; he loved to sew, paint, play piano, and read his Bible. Although he never married or had children, for 47 years at Tuskegee he taught multitudes of students, personally corresponded with countless farmers who sought his help, and left a legacy of information and inspiration.
Award winning author Marilyn Nelson, tells Carver's story through beautiful poetry. Sometimes the poems are from Carver's point of view and his emotions and thoughts are so well portrayed that you feel as if you are inside his skin. Other poems are written from the point of view of people who interacted with him. All of them weave together well-researched details and build a narrative of Carver's life. 

Here are a few of my favorites, but please note that I had difficulty formatting the second, third and fourth poems and had to skip lines. There are no line spaces in the original. 
The Last Rose of Summer
The paper shakes so
the words are hard to read,
but what good is a singing range
from high D to three octaves below,
what good the bold step to a larger canvas
for the yucca on the easel now,
what good piano lessons paid for
with paintings, what good
a rosebud boutonniere if Jim
        your brother  
            smallpox    (p. 24)
Four a.m. in the Woods
Darkness softens, a thin
tissue of mist between trees. 
One by one the day's 
uncountable voices come out 
like twilight fireflies, like stars. 
The perceiving self sits 
with his back against bought bark, 
casting ten thousand questions into the future. 
As shadows take shape, the curtains part 
for the length of time it takes to grasp, 
and behold, the purpose of his 
life dawns on him. (p.25)

Ruellia Noctiflora 

A colored man came running at me out of the woods 
last Sunday morning. 
The junior choir was going to be singing 
at Primitive Baptist over in Notasulga, 
and we were meeting early to practice. 
I remember wishing I was barefoot 
in the heavy, cool-looking dew. 
And suddenly this tall, rawbone wild man 
come puffing out of the woods, shouting 
Come see! Come see! 
Seemed like my mary janes just stuck 
to the gravel. Girl, my heart 
like to abandon ship! 

Then I saw by the long tin cylinder 
slung over his shoulder on a leather strap 
and his hoboish tweed jacket 
and the flower in his lapel 
that it was the Professor. 
He said, gesturing, 
his tan eyes a blazing, 
that last night, 
walking in the full moon light, 
he'd stumbled on  
a very rare specimen:
Ruellia noctiflora, 
the night-blooming wild petunia. 
Said he suddenly sensed a fragrance 
and a small white glistening. 

It was clearly a petunia: 
The yellow future beckoned 
from the lip of each tubular flower, 
a blaring star of frilly, tongue-like petals. 
He'd never seen this species before. 
As he tried to place it, 
its flowers gaped wider, 
catching the moonlight, 
suffusing the night with its scent. 
All night he watched it 
promise silent ecstasy to moths. 

If we hurried, I could see it 
before it closed to contemplate 
becoming seed. 
Hand in hand, we entered 
the light-spattered morning-dark woods. 
Where he pointed was only a white flower 
until I saw him seeing it. (p. 73-4)
My Beloved Friend 
Letter to Jim Hardwick, April 1924 

Your letter touched me deeply. How I wish 
I was more worthy of the things you say 
about me. I love you more dearly because 
you are of another race. God is using you 
to teach the world the brotherhood of man, 
the fatherhood of God. How sweet it is 
to let God purge our souls of ego and 
bitterness, and to have a little taste 
of heaven here on earth. I trust you will pray 
for me, that I get rid of my littleness. 
I did not have to learn to love you: You 
were chosen for me. I knew that the first 
time I saw you. It was the Christ in you, 
of course. (p. 86)

I read this book because I thought Carver could be an inspiration for Lillie, my African American character in Half-Truths. What I didn't expect, is how much Nelson's poetry and Carver's life would inspire me. 


Linda Phillips said...

Thanks Carol. I see why you loved it and why I have to read it!

Vijaya said...

Oh, so beautiful. Thank you for sharing these.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Linda and Vijaya!

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Dear Carol,
I am glad you found such personal inspiration in this book about Carver.


Clara Gillow Clark said...

I love this book and treasure my own personally signed copy. Thank you for sharing with your readers, Carol!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Joan and Clara. I'm jealous Clara- a personally signed copy. Now that's a treasure!!

Rosi said...

I just ordered a copy after reading your review. Lovely poems. Thanks.

Carol Baldwin said...

That is awesome, Rosi! Thanks for letting me know.

Jean said...

She is an amazing poet and researcher. It seems so difficult to me to combine the two. But reading these lines makes it seem so easy.

Thanks for sharing.

Carol Baldwin said...

You are right, Jean! I would have a hard time combining them too. Thanks for stopping by.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

"Where he pointed was only a white flower until I saw him seeing it."

"I trust you will pray for me that I get rid of my littleness."

I have been eyeing this book for like 10 years! Can't imagine why I haven't bought it. I did visit the Carver museum at Tuskegee Institute a few years ago. Just being there helps one to get rid of littleness.

Thank you, Carol. Thank you, Marilyn. I just ordered the book. Excited!

Carol Baldwin said...

EXCELLENT, Joyce, you will love it!

Linda A. said...

I used to say that if George Washington Carver had been alive during my childhood, he would have found a use for the blossoms on tobacco, plucked, and tossed away. I loved reading biographies as a kid. I would have loved this book too. I'm glad I know of it now. Thanks so much for sharing this one!

Carol Baldwin said...

I'm sure you are right, Linda!

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