the meeting house poems by marilyn nelson

picture of marilyn nelson

In The Meeting House, Marilyn Nelson has focused not only on the history of the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut, but also on slavery and bigotry in a presumably enlightened part of the Union. Her dismay is leavened by generosity of spirit, the same qualities revealed in her earlier books, about which readers and critics have been enthusiastic. Concerning My Seneca Village (2015), Kirkus Reviews has this praise: “Artfully crafted, an engrossing and important collection of memories and moments from a pivotal time in American history.” And this from Booklist: “An American saga so well suited to Nelson’s poetic touch is a gift meant to be gently unwrapped to be read with an intellectually curious spirit ready for an awakening.” Concerning The Homeplace (1990), Christian Wiman has written, “The sheer range of [Nelson’s] voice is one of the book’s greatest strengths, varying not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well.” Suzanne Gardinier’s Parnassus review reads thus: “[Nelson’s poetry] reaches back through generations hemmed in on all sides by slavery and its antecedents; all along the way she finds sweetness, and humor, and more complicated truth than its disguises have revealed.”  And Arthur Sze writes, “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.”
  The meeting house cover image
  Everett Warner, The Village Church, courtesy of Florence Griswold Museum

Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of eighteen poetry books, including several verse-histories, a biography in poems, a verse memoir, and a novel in verse. Her collection The Fields Of Praise: New And Selected Poems won the 1998 Poets’ Prize; Carver: A Life In Poems won the 2001 Boston Globe/Hornbook Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award; Fortune’s Bones was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. Nelson’s honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a fellowship from the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Poetry Society’s Frost Medal for distinguished achievement in poetry. Currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets as well as Poet-in-Residence of the Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, she was the Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2001-2006, and for ten years opened her home to young poets as “Soul Mountain Retreat.”


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ISBN 978-1-943826-12-4

Copyright © 2016 by Marilyn Nelson

5.5" x 8.5" paperback, 64 pages



Copyright © 2016 by Marilyn Nelson

The Meeting House

Lyme, CT, 1666

These are sounds the landscape has never heard:
a strange human language, axes and saws,
iron hammers pounding home iron nails.
The tromp of boots, the cough of musket-fire.
Sighing, the old-growth trees crash to the ground,
opening a blue vista. Distant sails
scud on the wind, silent as butterflies.
Englishmen are building a meeting house,
a container for worship, a refuge
from the New World of heathen savages.

Called by the Sabbath drummer at the door,
men in black breeches, fitted coats,
white stockings and white collars, and women
in long, sad-color dresses and bonnets
arrive by horseback or on foot. Armed guards
nod welcome. Through the greased-paper windows
comes light never before caught in plank walls.
They sit divided by the center aisle:
the left side men, the right women and girls,
boys in the back, with the servants and slaves.


Slave Marriage

Oxford negro man & Temperance molata girl married by Rev.
Moses Noyes, January 26, 1726 (Lyme, CT Land Records)

I do not take this woman to be my wife,
to have and to hold. But I do accept
with gratitude this gift of a help-meet,
bed-mate, and sharer of secret despair.
How should I call an owned woman my wife,
knowing my children born to her are his?
In sickness and health, richer or poorer,
when he whistles she must run like a dog.

But I will take her to the airless room
in the attic where I sleep, and our breath
will whiten the air over my pallet
until we jump to work in the pre-dawn.
I will hold her warm sobbing in my arms,
touch her with tenderness work makes wooden.
I will hear Africa’s drums in her heart,
and with her build an African future.

Loneliness is an anvil in the chest,
adding to the tonnage of helplessness.
But the lone cat in a family household
discovers it is a cat when a new cat comes.
So I say yes, let him make you my wife.
No longer alone, I shall be a we.
Shoulder to shoulder, we shall face down fate,
blessed and cursed by the trickster Ancestors.

Patriot Preacher

Rev. Stephen Johnson, Minister, First Congregational
Church, Lyme, CT, 1766

Josiah taps out his pipe, picks up the paper,
and parses some passages out for Abigail.
Reverend Johnson’s stuck his foot in it this time!
On the front page of The New-London Gazette,
he writes of “the terrible consequences”
resulting from “enslaving a free people.”
Abigail nods, knitting needles clicking
as she shifts from side to side on her wooden chair.
She wishes she’d thought to bring her cushion
from the parlor. Josiah’s face is red;
that vein has emerged in his forehead.
Their girl enters, silently serves cider,
invisible in the glare of the news.
Hearing them speak Reverend Johnson’s name,
the girl recalls her recent baptism:
his voice pronouncing strong incantations,
his hand pressing blessings on her wet hair.

“The calamities which impend over us . . .”
Josiah goes on, “. . . which we now deplore,
threaten no less than slavery and ruin
to this great people, on this continent . . .
. . . This single, this dreadful alternative . . .
slavery or independency . . .”
I like that bit about taxing us “for
the Light of the Sun and the Air we Breathe,”
Josiah says. Rising, he leaves the room.
Abigail sets aside needles and yarn
and picks up the Gazette. One of the ads
offers for sale “A likely Negro Boy,
About 13, has been in the Country
about twelve Months. Speaks pretty good English.”
She folds the paper. They could use a boy.
The girl’s no good at lifting heavy things.

The Temperance Flu

Nancy, negro servant of Mrs. Mary Ann Noyes, excommunicated
for drunkenness, First Congregational Church, Lyme, CT, May, 1817

It seem like everybody got the temperance flu:
it’s a epidemic passing from house to house
among the white peoples, and some of us.
That Reverend Rockwell say drink is evil,
and now they done started a Society
for the Promotion of Temperance, and they want
everybody in town to resolve to abstain
entirely from spirituous liquors.
Reverend Rockwell, he say I’m on the road to hell,
ungodly, unhumbled, and incorrigible.
Whatever the hell that mean. And what the hell:
Don’t he know I was born and raised in hell?
Excommunicate me from their church?
Don’t make me laugh. I never had a place at that table.
My God and me got a understanding:
He keep me supplied with ardent spirit;
I praise Him, fingers crossed behind my back.