George Washington Carver: A Life in Poems

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

In honor of Black History Month I want to share an extraordinary book about an extraordinary human being:

Carver, a life in poems (Front Street, 2001) is an intimate portrait of the botanist, inventor, scientist, artist, musician, and teacher, known as George Washington Carver. Written by acclaimed poet, Marilyn Nelson, the book takes us through Carver’s life in a series of narrative poems told from the voices of the people who knew him, and from Carver himself. Wrought with emotion and meaning, Nelson gives us a biographical experience of a man whose imprint on the world is still felt today.

Born a slave in Missouri in 1864, and raised by the white family that owned his mother, Carver seemed to always have a special spark, a reverence and joy for life, a thirst for knowledge, and an independent spirit, which led him to leave home in 1877, to attend school and begin a life-long quest for learning.

Carver’s curiosity, his hunger for answers, his drive to find out why, what if, propelled him into his destiny, and Nelson captures that in the poem, “Drifter“: “Something says find out / why rain falls, what makes corn proud / and squash so humble, the questions / call like a train whistle so at fourteen, / fifteen, eighteen, nineteen still on half-fare, / over the receding landscapes the perceiving self / stares back from the darkening window.”

Carver put himself through high school and college, studying art and science, washing people’s laundry to support himself. His success was continuous. He became known for his green thumb and his artistic talent. His paintings were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, he earned his B.A and M.A. degrees, and joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute, where he stayed for the rest of his life working on ideas and inventions, from crop rotation and cotton seed to peanut recipes and paint colors. His generous nature dictated that he never profit from his discoveries, instead he gave them away for the benefit of all humankind.

In spare, lyrical language, Nelson takes us through moments in Carver’s life, some public, some private, and reveals a man of uncommon talent and faith. She shows his gifts of observation, his thirst for knowledge, his simmering, creative energy, his insights, and his deep spirituality.

And though Carver’s life was full of the complexities of science and nature, and he never lacked for work to do, the poems also show how he valued simplicity and contemplation. Poems like “Dawn Walk” and “Dimensions of the Milky Way” depict him in quiet conversation with the universe. And light-hearted poems like “The Lace-Maker,” “The Joy of Sewing,” and ”The Wild Garden” express the simple pleasures he took in doing handwork and gathering wild greens. Recurring details like the flowers Carver would wear in the lapels of his second-hand suits not only help us imagine what he looked like but are also tender expressions of his character.

Nelson’s poems do not shy from the harsh racial climate of the era. She portrays Carver’s dedication to the Negro people, and his reactions to lynchings and injustices, with powerful poems like “Goliath.” When his Bible study students ask after another lynching, “Where is God now?” Carver responds, “God is right here. / Don’t lose contact with Him. Don’t yield to fear. / Fear is the root of hate, and hate destroys / the hater … When we lose contact, we see only hate, / only injustice, a giant so great / its shadow blocks our sun. But David slew / Goliath with the only things he knew: / the slingshot of intelligence, and one / pebble of truth.”

Each poem in the book is complete and can stand alone as an exquisite piece of poetry. The poems beckon to be read aloud, and to be read over and over again, peeling back layers of meaning and nuance. Read together in a sequence that spans Carver’s life, with seamless transitions from one poem to the next, and thematic strands that connect the poems to each other, the whole collection creates a stunning portrait of Carver and illuminates the man who he was.

As the book draws to a close, Nelson is able to capture Carver’s divine message of conservation in the poem, “Last Talk with Jim Hardwick”: “When I die I will live again. / By nature I am a conserver. / I have found Nature / to be a conserver, too. / Nothing is wasted / or permanently lost / in Nature. Things / change their form, / but they do not cease / to exist … God would be a bigger fool / than even a man / if He did not conserve / the human soul, / which seems to be / the most important thing / He has yet done in the universe.”

The very last poem, “Moton Field,” connects the past and the present, and Carver to the poet herself. The year is 1943, and we see Carver at the end of his life, penning answers to the letters piled at his bedside. While outside his window the poet’s father, Melvin Moton Nelson, one of the first Tuskegee airmen, is piloting a p-40 airplane ”high as a Negro has ever been.” The book ends with the final image of airman Nelson doing a “sky-roaring victory roll.”

Carver earned over a dozen accolades and awards including the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a 2002 Newberry Medal Honor Award, and a 2002 Coretta Scott King Honor Award. Though this was Nelson’s first book for young adults, she was already an accomplished poet with several full-length poetry collections, chap books, and translations. Since the publication of Carver she has written many more books for young people. You can read about her work at www.marilyn-nelson.com/.

Carver: A Life in Poems written by Marilyn Nelson. Published by Front Street, Asheville, NC, 2001. ISBN: 1-886910-53-7


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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