11 pages 22 minutes read

Marilyn Nelson


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1990

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Marilyn Nelson is part of a coterie of writers who published in the late-1970s and 1980s after the revolutionary fervor of the Black Arts Movement. Though the period during which Nelson wrote is less acknowledged than those aforementioned, it was a time when diverse Black poetic talents emerged. Nelson’s contemporaries included Afaa Michael Weaver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Ntozake Shange, Melvin Dixon, and Essex Hemphill. Their work grappled with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic, and the contingencies of African American history.

“Chosen” is exemplary of Nelson’s fascination with the history of the African diaspora and, particularly, her explorations of antebellum and pre-Civil Rights history through the lenses of family and ancestry. The poem was published in Nelson’s 1990 collection The Homeplace, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Poet Biography

Also known as Marilyn Nelson Waniek, Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 26, 1946. Her mother, Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, was an elementary school teacher and was often the first African American instructor to work in the schools where she taught. Her father, Melvin M. Nelson, was a servicemember in the Air Force, working as a navigator and missile control officer. He was also one of the last Tuskegee Airmen whose work resulted in his family living on various military bases around the country, where Marilyn spent much of her childhood.

Nelson attended the University of California at Davis where she earned her BA. She earned her MA from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. While in Minnesota, Nelson taught at St. Olaf College in Northfield. During her tenure there, she decided to dedicate herself to writing poetry. She took workshops—including one with Black Arts Movement poet Etheridge Knight. Nelson cited African American poet Robert Hayden as an influence, particularly his poem “The Snow Lamp” about the African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson’s journey with Robert Peary to the North Pole.

Nelson has been elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and served as Connecticut’s poet laureate from 2001-06. She also taught at Cave Canem and is currently Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut. Nelson’s first book, For the Body, was published in 1978. She has also written children’s books, including A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), and translations.

Poem Text

Nelson, Marilyn. “Chosen.” 1990. Dustin Brookshire.


Diverne, an enslaved woman, is the protagonist of this poem. Diverne is raped by a nameless white man on a hot August night. To avert feelings of shame and violation, Diverne “[kills] part of her heart” (Line 3), or becomes inured to the horror of what is happening, imagining herself dead. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son named Pomp Atwood. She realizes that, had she died, her beloved son and only child wouldn’t have been born. She imagines, too, what his life might have been like had he been born to a white woman. In the poem’s denouement, Diverne concludes that Pomp—despite the repellent circumstances in which he was conceived—is evidence of her indispensability to a legacy she cannot yet define. In a leap of imagination, she diminishes the experience of rape—after all, so much was given—despite the white man’s overwhelming brutality and her fear of him and the rape itself.


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Related Titles

By Marilyn Nelson