Dear Marilyn Nelson,

Greetings and Salutations. My name is Bridget, and I absolutely loved your poem “Moonlily.” It’s incredibly creative and deep with so much meaning. The title was a perfect choice. It really captures one’s attention and the main point of the poem clearly.

I truly adored the way you used the different horse coats to demonstrate the difference or lack of difference the girl felt. I loved how outside they were all just young girls playing together with no difference between them. Running around, pretending you were horses takes me back to the days when I did the same with my friends on the playground. It made me feel a deeper connection to your poem.

The hidden, or not so hidden, messages caught my attention such as “One bay in a room of palominos.” It took me a minute to understand the meaning that she was a different race than the others, but once I did, the poem became even more incredible! I reread it a few times and saw it in a whole new light which made me love it so much more! The line “We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden” was one of my favorites. The pauses put in gives it so much emotion and depth.

I was wondering if the girl felt that these differences were positive or negative? Was she treated any differently inside the classroom than she was outside? Outside she was “part of the herd,” where they were different but the same and equal, but inside she noticed the difference greatly. Was that ever a hindrance of her abilities in school? Or did she not care and carried on?

Thank you so much for reading this. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece and putting it out into the world for us to read and appreciate. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Grade 10
Utica, Nebraska

I want to thank everyone who wrote to me for their insights and questions, and for sharing their own memories of recess! Since you zeroed in on the same things, I’d like to address my response to JillianSarah, Bridget, and Sofia as a group. Greetings and salutations!

To tell the truth, Jillian, I don’t think I knew the Moon Lily is a real flower! Thanks for teaching me that! (And thank goodness for google!) As far as I can remember, in the process of writing the poem I was just trying to come up with a name a 10-year old girl would think extraordinarily beautiful. But now that you’ve showed me the actual Moon Lily, I can imagine someone finding symbolism in a white flower that’s highly toxic! I’m so glad you didn’t yield to that temptation!

Yes, Sofia, you’re right that the girls are presented as “a unity, a ‘herd,’ emphasized by the repetition of ‘we’” That’s very good! I hadn’t noticed that before you pointed it out. Yes, they are sort of dissolved in a oneness as they play, and reality is replaced by imagination. I like your description of them as young mares on the playground, and I love your saying you remember watching girls transform as they ran across the field and became horses, witches, huntresses and lionesses. Are you a poet, by any chance?

Sarah, i like the way you picked up on the word “filing” as the children return to their desks. It’s such a reduction, isn’t it, from the freedom of running and yelling, to the uniformity of lining up like little soldiers and being marched back to the classroom? Thanks for pointing out “the theme of freedom of imagination,” and pointing out my descriptions of what freedom means to the girls. Yes, “self-named.” I think I was thinking of times in history when people’s names were taken away:  people enslaved, for instance, people urged to accept “American” names. Women giving up their birth names when they marry…  I’ve been noticing how many great writers and artists have named themselves. That’s not in the poem; I’m just musing. But I do think this is relevant to the freedom of these girls calling themselves by names they choose.

Yes, Bridget, when the girl speaking in the poem returns to the real world of the classroom, she is returned to the reality of racial division in the nation. Although it’s not said in the poem, I think by implication that “one bay” in a “palomino” world would feel the burden of that difference of color. The poem doesn’t say anything about that, but I suppose the fact that its sub-title gives the date of 1956 would give a reader who knows something about the history of race relations and the Civil Rights Movement some idea of what the world was like outside of that classroom. 

Sarah, you asked whether the poem is in free verse to symbolic the untamed children. Actually, it’s not in free verse: it’s a sonnet, with each line being iambic pentameter. I know a lot of people can’t hear rhythm in verse, but maybe if you count the syllables in each line, you’ll be able to see how un-free the verse is! But you’re right, it doesn’t rhyme. Yes, “self-named” and “untamed” does have a purpose, which, I guess, is to add emphasis. But so much of the writing process is intuitive; I’m not always conscious of why I make choices.

I guess the bottom line in this poem is that I was trying to show the girls transformed into something like an animated scene of a fantasy herd of beautiful, galloping wild horses. And then when the bell rings, the wild mares are transformed into obedient, ordinary children tied to the narrownesses of the 1950’s America they have inherited.  

All best to you young mares—

Marilyn Nelson

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