Sonderbooks Book Review of

How I Discovered Poetry

by Marilyn Nelson

illustrated by Hadley Hooper

How I Discovered Poetry
by Marilyn Nelson
illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Review posted January 26, 2015.
Dial Books, 2014. 103 pages.

How I Discovered Poetry is a series of fourteen poems Marilyn Nelson wrote about growing up black in the 1950s in a military family, her father one of the first Negro officers. She writes about moving around, making friends and saying good-by to them, leaving pets behind, and packing up possessions.

She touches on racism and Communism and feminism – but mostly she evokes childhood.

Here are two of my favorite poems. The first reminds me of games my friends and I played on the playground.


(Mather AFB, California, 1956)

When we play horses at recess, my name
is Moonlily and I’m a yearling mare.
We gallop circles around the playground,
whinnying, neighing, and shaking our manes.
We scrape the ground with scuffed saddle oxfords,
thunder around the little kids on swings
and seesaws, and around the boys’ ball games.
We’re sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray,
a herd in pastel dresses and white socks.
We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.
Our plains know no fences. We can smell spring.
The bell produces metamorphosis.
Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,
one bay in a room of palominos.

Then an early one that includes her first inspiration to be a poet some day:


(Kittery Point, Maine, 1959)

Daddy pulled a puppy from the pocket
of his flight jacket, and we imprinted
like a gosling to a goose. Speida’s my dog,
though he’s impartially affectionate.
Either he likes poems, or he likes my voice:
I read aloud from the anthology
I found with Daddy’s other college books
and he sits, cocks his head, and wags his tail.
My teacher, Mrs. Gray, told me about
the famous poetess who lived near here.
She says I’ll be a famous poet, too.
Today I read Speida one of my poems.
His face got a look of so much disgust
I laughed and forgot we’re being transferred.