November 1999

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson Marilyn Nelson is the author, most recently, of  The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Award, and the PEN/Winship Award, and won the 1999 Poets' Prize. She teaches at the University of Connecticut.

Ruellia Noctiflora    Click to hear in real audio

A colored man come running at me out of the woods 
one Sunday morning about twenty years past. 
The Junior Choir was going to be singing 
at Primitive Baptist over in Notasulga, 
and we were meeting early, to practice. 
I remember wishing I was barefoot 
in the heavy, cool-looking dew. 
And suddenly this tall, rawbone wild man 
come puffing out of the woods, shouting 
Come see! Come see! 
Seemed like my mary-janes just stuck 
to the gravel. Girl, my heart 
like to abandon ship! 

Then I saw by the long tin cylinder 
slung over his shoulder on a leather strap, 
and his hoboish tweed jacket 
and the flower in his lapel 
that it was the Professor. 
He said, gesturing, 
his tan eyes a blazing, 
that last night, 
walking in the full moon light, 
he'd stumbled on 
a very rare specimen: 
Ruellia Noctiflora
the Night-blooming Wild Petunia. 
Said he suddenly sensed a fragrance 
and a small white glistening. 
It was clearly a petunia: 
The yellow future beckoned 
from the lip of each tubular flower, 
a blaring star of frilly, tongue-like petals.
He'd never seen this species before. 
As he tried to place it, 
its flowers gaped wider, 
catching the moonlight. 
suffusing the night with its scent. 
All night he watched it 
promise silent ecstasy to moths.

If we hurried, I could see it
before it closed to contemplate
becoming seed.
Hand in hand, we entered
the light-spattered morning-dark woods.
Where he pointed was only a white flower
until I saw him seeing it.



Marilyn Nelson: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue NineThe Cortland Review