On January 31, Marilyn Nelson will visit Calvin University as part of the January Series, where we will do a live recording of the Poetry For All podcast with her.
For those who do not yet know Marilyn Nelson’s work, try on the following experiment: Imagine your life not as a story but rather as a series of poems. Do not write a narrative that links discrete moments together. Just dwell in the moments themselves. Tell them one by one. Notice the stars in their singular brightness within the constellation of your life before you see the pattern as a whole.
That’s the way of poetry in several books by Marilyn Nelson, a Newberry honor medalist, Coretta Scott King Medalist, three-time National Book Award finalist—and someone everyone should read.
Nelson writes poetry of all kinds, but she has a special talent for the single theme or life. She has reimagined the Canterbury Tales as a pilgrimage to Brazil. She recovers the tale of an all-girls interracial jazz band from the 1940s. She offers a memoir of her 1950s childhood in the form of fifty sonnets. She weaves and lays a wreath for Emmett Till. She brings to life Seneca Village, New York’s “first significant community of African American property owners.” And she writes biographies—of George Washington Carver, of Fortune, of the Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage—by capturing the moments that make a life.
It’s the Carver biography that spoke especially to me. Beyond my job as an English professor, I serve as Executive Director of The Carver Project, a non-profit organization of Christian faculty that aims to serve and connect university, church, and society. We took our name from George Washington Carver, the scientist, artist, and man of faith who felt called by God to serve society through all his teaching and research. And here was a biography of the man, one exquisite poem at a time.
“Why Carver?” I asked Marilyn recently, as she sat in my living room with a group of students.
“I needed a saint,” she answered. She had been studying radical evil for two years, dwelling in “the worst our kind can do,” as the poet Denise Levertov has put it (in a Christmas poem of all places). “I couldn’t stay there,” Marilyn said. “It seemed there was no limit. Someone was always inventing something worse. I began to wonder if there was any limit to humanity’s capacity for evil” She needed a saint. And so she turned, quite naturally, to. . . Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth century German mystic.
“I’m not sure why,” she laughed. “I spent a long time researching her. I was going to write a book.” What changed? “An old friend of my father’s visited,” she recounts. “I hadn’t seen him in years.” He was passing through town and had just come from a Carver museum. Before pulling out, he handed Marilyn a brochure and said: “You should write about Carver.”
“I took it as a message from God,” she explained. “What was I doing with a medieval German mystic? Here was Carver, a man I studied and loved as a child. If he wasn’t a saint, who was?”
And so emerged her biography of Carver, a book invested in the possibility of unlimited goodness even in the midst of hardship, oppression, and hate.
“Your life may be the only Bible / some people will ever know,” Carver muses to himself in one of Nelson’s poems. And what was that life for Carver? An orphan, a gifted student, a painter, a scientist, an inventor, a teacher, a servant.
The Tuskegee Institute became his home, his place “to be God’s instrument.” And what an instrument Carver was. Peanuts and sweet potatoes, plastics, paintings, even a new pigment of blue—always with an eye toward the poor. As Nelson writes, “From the laboratory of a slave emerged / a varied, balanced diet for the poor, / stock foods, ink, paints, cosmetics, medicines… / Promise and purpose, the Ancestors’ dream.”
He took his learning to the poor himself. He left the lab. He taught with his hands. He planted. He trained—all in the name of God.
What makes a scientist a saint? I think, perhaps, it begins by believing that the unrelenting questions in one’s mind come from the promptings of God, and the answers, therefore, point back to him. “I thoroughly understand that there are scientists to whom the world is merely the result of chemical forces or material electrons,” Carver once wrote, adding: “I do not belong to this class.” Nelson gives us the portrait of man who perceived God everywhere. And through him, others did, too. “Where he pointed was only a white flower / until I saw him seeing it.”
From that perception of God sprang action, a summons to service. As Nelson writes in a poem titled “Called”: “For what but service is a man thus gifted?” It is a question for any of us who find ourselves scholars and teachers. How do our studies serve?
Carver served not just by searching for answers that would heal and help. He also served by passing along his ability to wonder and praise—“gave them skills and wonders,” as Nelson puts it. Both matter. Not just skills. Not just wonders. The practical and the marvelous together.
How does a scientist become a saint? How do any of us? I don’t know. I do know how to spot one. “Something about the / man does that, raises the best / in you.” What else is a saint but someone who makes all our lives more abundant?
Your life may be the only Bible
some people will know.
Carver’s life is a life well worth knowing. Thanks to Marilyn Nelson, we can know it moment by moment, poem by poem, each star held to view within the pattern of a saint.