Dear Marilyn Nelson,
My name is Sofia and I am a senior in high school in Los Angeles, California. I have recently been engaging in a lot of poetry and I really enjoyed “Moonlily” because of its powerful depiction of childhood pretend games.
What stands out to me the most is the presentation of the girls as a unity, a “herd” emphasized by the repetition of “we.” Despite their similarities, the schoolgirls in “pastel dresses” and “white socks” in the act of pretending to be horses are “self-named,” as the speaker refers to herself as Moonlily, “unridden” or perhaps unburdened by the expectations that wait for them back at their “desks.” There is an implied diversity in the description of the young mares’ different coats. When these girls “thunder” around the other children as horses, fueled by instinct and the smell of “spring,” there is an energy channeled from the game that bolsters their wildness and autonomy as they learn of the power in supporting one another.
I remember seeing those girls that played horses when I was younger. From the outside, I know that it can look like harmless skipping and whinnying, but this poem reveals what it feels like to be a young mare on the playground. I achieved the feeling in my own pretend games with friends. Whether I played a person or creature, I was always strong, fearless and free. When I joined the “boys’ ball games” on occasion, I would watch the other girls transform as they ran across the field and saw what most of my teammates could not: horses, witches, huntresses and lionesses. There is something unspoken about these games, a shared experience that is echoed beautifully in “Moonlily.”
Memories can serve as a wealth of inspiration for art. In your poetry, do you draw mostly from your own experiences or others? Does writing poetry help you to better understand yourself? How important is identity in the career of a poet?
Los Angeles, California
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 Jillian, Sarah, 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—