Marilyn Nelson

Issue #
September 27, 2015

Visiting Poet

or the Open Book Foundation, Washington, D.C.

I ask if there are questions or comments.
A couple of hands are raised instantly,
a few come up more slowly. We begin
together to interrogate my past.
Somehow, I find myself describing how
my father punished me by telling me
that he was disappointed in me, that
he’d thought I’d had more sense than to do what
I’d done, he’d thought I was better than that.
A girl gets up, gives me a paper towel
to blot my tears. They line up, with my books.
On post-it notes are their unguessable
phonetically spelled names, some of which have
silent letters. Each pronounces their name
repeatedly, as I poise the Sharpie.
Only a few have such old-fashioned names
they speak them in abashed sotto voce.
I write each name and speak each one out loud.

Today’s an after-school program. Dinner’s
at five o’clock. I sign the last few books.
“And what’s your name?” I ask. Some of these kids
have no homes to go home to after school.
Airieya whispers, “You never got beat?”
She and the girl behind her search my face.
I shrug. “My parents were non-violent.
Otherwise, I’d have earned one or two smacks.”
As I leave, they’re being served rice and beans.
I hope someone expects greatness from them.

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