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‘How I Discovered Poetry’ by Marilyn Nelson

Above: an illustration from Marilyn Nelson’s “How I Discovered Poetry.”

An illustration from Marilyn Nelson’s “How I Discovered Poetry.”

Poetry ‘Discovered’

Poet Marilyn Nelson got used to being the new kid on the block when she was growing up in the 1950s. Her father, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, was a career Air Force officer so the family moved from base to base.

Nelson, a former Connecticut poet laureate and two-time finalist for a National Book Award, tells the story of her life and times in “How I Discovered Poetry” (Dial), a memoir in verse. Each poem title is followed by the year and name of the Air Force base or community her family called home at the time. From 1950 to 1959, the period covered by the book, her family lived in Portsmouth, N.H.; Kittery, Maine; Sacramento, and Cleveland as well as on Air Force bases in Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.

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Nelson’s coming of age plays out against a backdrop of racism and the stirrings of the civil rights movement as well as the “Red Scare” and fears about the hydrogen bomb. (Nelson as a young girl hears it as “hide drajen.”) When her parents talk about Emmett Till, she doesn’t understand everything they say but she knows enough to be thankful that her father isn’t stationed in Mississippi. She writes: “All Hell seems to be breaking out down South!/My days start with radio news; they end/blessing the students integrating schools/and giving thanks for the National Guard.”

Her parents frequently mention the “First Negro” to do this or that. When they move to Kittery Point, Maine, she writes, “We’re the First Negro Family in Town,/the First Negro Children in the Town’s School.” Her teacher tells her about Gwendolyn Brooks, the “First Negro Poet to Win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Life is confusing, and it feels good to take refuge, as she puts it, “in the arms of poetry,” dreaming of becoming a poet herself. After she turns off the lamp at night, she writes, “I say to the dark:/ Give me a message I can give the world.”

A quest for science

“How would you define nothing?” is the question Warren Gefter asked his daughter, Amanda, when she was 15. At the time, she thought science class was boring, but the question sparked a decade-long inquiry, a career as a science journalist, and a book. “Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything” (Bantam) is the Cambridge resident’s memoir of the hunt that took the two of them to the offices and labs of renowned physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind, the former Bronx plumber who invented string theory. The title makes reference to a visit the two made to the house in Princeton, N.J., where Albert Einstein lived from 1936 until his death in 1955. It’s privately owned so the best they could do was stand out front.

Coming out

 “The Days of Anna Madrigal”

by Armistead Maupin (Harper)

 “Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave” by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky (Simon and Schuster)

 “Carthage” by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco)

Pick of the week

Mary Fran Buckley of Eight Cousins in Falmouth recommends “The Purity of Vengeance” by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Dutton): “Since his involvement in an incident in which one colleague was killed and another paralyzed, Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck has been assigned to a basement office to work on cold cases. He becomes intrigued by a series of mysterious disappearances that occurred almost 15 years earlier. One of the links is Curt Wad, a right-wing master of the Purity Party.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her @JanLGardner.
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