by Candace Barrington
On 7 May 2019, the Poetry Foundation announced that Marilyn Nelson had won the 2019 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for poetry in the United States. In her verse, Nelson vividly records the lived experiences and (too often) overlooked contributions of Black people in America. Repeatedly, her poetry has made us aware of the beauties and horrors of Black lives as they struggle of make this inhospitable place their home. She captures the sense of displacement and dislocation instigated by the African diaspora in her 2005 collection, The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems. In this account of her journey to “some place sanctified by the Negro soul” (11), Nelson re-imagines the pilgrimage structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a suitable vehicle for challenging the “imperialist grand narrative” (David Wallace, “Chaucer’s New Topographies” SAC 29) and, as Kathleen Forni argues in Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (2013), as “stylistic testament to the multivocal inclusivity afforded by the musical versatility of Chaucer’s verse and the conceptual versatility of his structural frame” (111). Worth reading in it’s own right, Nelson The Cachoeira Tales also fits well in a Canterbury Tales classroom as a way to interrogate “white” ownership of the Middle Ages.
Recently, as the poet laureate of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Nelson has shepherded the Maundy Thursday readings of Dante’s Inferno.
For a sampling of her verse, see the Poetry Foundation’s website.