It’s a trifecta for me. These authors do something amazing. They craft a verse novel around a historical subject — sometimes nonfiction sometimes in the genre of historical fiction — in POETRY. For me, poetry is challenging. Studying history is challenging.  

But to do both? Extraordinary.

I’m going to do a four-part blog series — in the first blog (this one) we’re going to talk about a master of historical nonfiction verse novels — Marilyn Nelson. In the second blog, I’m going to share my passion for a second master — Margarita Engle — whose historical fiction verse novels blow me away. In the third blog, we’ll talk about some of my favorite historical verse novels. And in the final blog, we’re going to talk about memoirs that are verse novels.

Marilyn Nelson – Telling Non Fiction Through Verse

Marilyn Nelson writes gorgeous, lyrical verse that speaks to my soul. Her two books —  Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem and A Wreath for Emmett Till — are profound. Nelson’s verse carries the emotional weight of the topic AND the historical fact.

Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem (Asheville: Front Street 2003) is a requiem, which is a poetic form, commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum as part of their process to identify and contextualize a skeleton that had been in their collection. This skeleton was the bones of a slave named Fortune who was owned by Dr. Porter. When Fortune died around 1797, Dr. Porter did not burying him but treated his bones so he could continue to use Fortune as a means of studying human anatomy.

One of the most interesting sequences is the poem, “Kyrie of the Bones,” which traces each generation from Dr. Porter who had the bones and what they thought of them. The last voice to sing is soprano – “Our field trip to the Mattatuck Museum / greatly impressed me. I’ll never forget / looking into my first love’s depthless eyes / right after we first saw Larry,” (23). Larry was the name Dr. Porter’s descendants gave to Fortune’s bones.

The “requiem” in fact, through the work of Marilyn Nelson, becomes not a historical contextualization for a museum, but a way to finally free Fortune. In the final poem, “Not My Bones,” Marilyn Nelson writes: “Well, I work up this morning just so glad to be free, / glad to be free, glad to be free. / I woke up this morning in restful peace. / For I am not my body, / I am not my bones. / I am not my body, / glory hallelujah, not my bones, / I am not my bones” (27). So, through writing a song celebrating his life and memorializing his life, Nelson documented Fortune’s story and participated in his manumission.

Marilyn Nelson wrote A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin Co 2005) in the form of a heroic crown of sonnets. A Crown of Sonnets are fifteen sonnets that tie together using the last line of each as the first of the next and the last sonnet is created from the first lines of the previous fourteen.

In her introduction, Marilyn Nelson explains that the “strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter.” I’ve found structured poem to give me the same kind of opportunity. The complexity of these sonnets and the depth of the subject matter are extraordinary and should be required readings. Like Fortune’s Bones, the verse amplifies the emotional experience of the historical fact – the brutal death of Emmett Till.

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