Published on Academy of American Poets (

Land Owner

Andrew Williams, bootblack, 1825

There ain’t nothing shameful about good, honest work.
It’s a proud man that comes home with a decent wage.
I keep my head down. I listen when rich folks talk.
The finer the leather, the wiser the financial sage.

One foot on my box, Mister Man stands tapping The News
on his knee, talking shop confidentially with a friend.
I wipe off the filth, then, with a clean rag, smooth
his boot with lampblack, beeswax, and lanolin.

I deal merchandise shipped in on the Erie Canal.
Buy low, sell high. Then buy land, for the right to vote.
(You massage through his boot; caress his toes, his heel: if you’re lucky, he’ll say what’s coming on tomorrow’s boat.)

Thanks to dropped tips, I’m a bootblack with his own place.
I may bow at their knees, shushing with the horsehair brush,
but I buff with spit on a rag to a mirrored face
aflame with pride, blazing like a burning bush.


Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.


Marilyn Nelson

Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of over eight books of poetry, as well as many collections of verse for children and young adults. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2013 to 2018.

Date Published: 2016-01-19

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