Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


The House on Moscow Street

It's the ragged source of memory,
a tarpaper-shingled bungalow
whose floors tilt toward the porch,
whose back yard ends abruptly
in a weedy ravine. Nothing special:
a chain of three bedrooms
and a long side porch turned parlor
where my great-grandfather, Pomp, smoked
every evening over the news,
a long sunny kitchen
where Annie, his wife,
measured cornmeal,
dreaming through the window
across the ravine and up to Shelby Hill
where she had borne their spirited,
high-yellow brood.

In the middle bedroom's hard,
high antique double bed,
the ghost of Aunt Jane,
the laundress
who bought the house in 1872,
though I call with all my voices,
does not appear.
Nor does Pomp's ghost,
with whom one of my cousins believes
she once had a long and intimate
unspoken midnight talk.
He told her, though they'd never met,
that he loved her; promised
her raw widowhood would heal
without leaving a scar.

The conveniences in an enclosed corner
of the slant-floored back side porch
were the first indoor plumbing in town.
Aunt Jane put them in,
incurring the wrath of the woman
who lived in the big house next door.
Aunt Jane left the house
to Annie, whose mother she had known
as a slave on the plantation,
so Annie and Pomp could move their children
into town, down off Shelby Hill.
My grandmother, her brother, and five sisters
watched their faces change slowly
in the oval mirror on the wall outside the door
into teachers' faces, golden with respect.
Here Geneva, the randy sister,
damned their colleges,
daubing her quicksilver breasts
with gifts of perfume.

As much as love,
as much as a visit
to the grave of a known ancestor,
the homeplace moves me not to silence
but the righteous, praise Jesus song:

Oh, catfish and turnip greens,
hot-water cornbread and grits.
Oh, musty, much-underlined Bibles;
generations lost to be found,
to be found.

Credit


From The Homeplace, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1990 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Author


Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland on April 26, 1946, to Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force and a member of the last class to graduate from air cadet training at Tuskegee Institute. Nelson’s mother, Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, was a teacher. Brought up first on one military base and then another, Nelson started writing while still in elementary school. She earned her BA from the University of California, Davis, and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MA, 1970) and the University of Minnesota (PhD, 1979).

Nelson’s books include My Seneca Village (namelos, 2015); The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), which was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the 1997 National Book Award, and the PEN Winship Award; and The Homeplace (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), which won the 1992 Anisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award.

Nelson has also published collections of verse for children and young adults, including A Is For Oboe: The Orchestra’s Alphabet (Penguin Random House, 2022), co-authored with Lera Auerbach; Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2022); Lubaya’s Quiet Roar (Penguin Random House, 2020); The Baobab Room (Homebound Publications, 2019); American Ace (Dial Books, 2016); Carver: A Life in Poems (Boyds Mills Press, 2001); The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children (Carolrhoda Books, 1984), with Pamela Espeland; and Halfdan Rasmussen’s Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children (Black Willow Press, 1982), which she translated from Danish with Pamela Espeland.

Nelson’s honors include the 2019 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the 2019 Denise Levertov Award, a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2001–2006, she served as the poet laureate of Connecticut. Nelson was also awarded the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, given in recognition of a “storied literary career exploring history, race relations, and feminism in America.”

In 2013, Nelson was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Fellow Chancellor Arthur Sze praised her selection, saying: “Marilyn Nelson’s poetry is remarkable for its sheer range of voice and style, for its historical roots, and for its lyrical narratives that, replete with luminous details, unfold with an emotional force that, ultimately, becomes praise. She is a vital ambassador of poetry.” In 2022, she received the Wallace Stevens Award, given annually by the Academy of American Poets to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.

Nelson was the guest curator for a special series of Poem-a-Day and has taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, since 1978, where she is a professor emerita of English.

Date Published: 1990-01-01

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/house-moscow-street