Every Atom | No. 141

Marilyn Nelson

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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In the mid-Seventies, on leave from my teaching position at St. Olaf College to work on my dissertation (and write poems), I spent a Spring semester with my German then-husband teaching at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Our apartment in the university’s guest house was near the opera house and a short walk through shady residential avenues to the beautiful promenade along the Alster River. The Alster walk was like something out of an Impressionist painting, a park lined with tall flowering trees and plantings of flowers and shrubs, with lawns, benches, singing birds and ducks and swans and students and lovers of various ages, most of them dressed alike, as was the custom in Germany at that time (my husband and I owned, and often wore, matching sweaters and wind-breakers). I spent a lot of time in the English language library of America Haus, hearing and meeting visiting American writers (Daniel Halpern came through, and, I think, N. Scott Momaday, and probably others I no longer recall). I read a lot that Spring. But the only book I actually remember reading was Leaves of Grass. And what I remember best (“the nearest gnat is an explanation...”) was that (“why should I wish to see God better than this day...”),  just after I had read (“I depart as air...”) the last few sections of (“I bequeath myself to the dirt...”) “Song of Myself,” I left the apartment to walk to the Alster. (“I stop some where waiting for you.”) And my feet did not touch the ground.

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Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of twenty award-winning poetry books. Her honors include Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, the NSK Neustadt Prize, the NCTE Poetry Prize, being a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and being Poet-in-Residence of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 


Cover art by Libby Schwers