The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson

I enjoyed the first half of this 200 page book, which dealt with the experiences of motherhood and brought to life Nelson’s ancestors. I was thoroughly enjoying the personalities and lives she was celebrating.

But in the second half of the book she is obsessed with religious feeling and seems infatuated with a figure called Abba Jacob. I did not end up infatuated with him but found him and her admiration of what he says tiresome. Some later poems focus on evil. There were two poems in the this section I enjoyed. One was a rendering of the story of Jonah in a humorous voice. The other was the very last poem which tells of an act of contrition by a racist redneck.

I am not a religious person, which I’m sure affected my response to the poems in the second half of the book. Others might enjoy the Abba Jacob poems. This second half wrestles with divine love–union with god and attempts at unconditional love toward humanity in general.

I also should mention Nelson’s use of form. I recall a couple of ballads, one villanelle, some bluesy moments and many sonnets, including a well-done crown of sonnets (“Thus Far By Faith”) about an Uncle Warren, who started out preaching to mules and eventually ended up founding a church because the racists banned people of color from their church. This also had religious subject matter but I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

I would look at another of her books but would scan it first to gauge the number of religious poems in it. In my opinion, she is at her best reviving history and celebrating the lives of ordinary people, none of whom are ordinary when she renders them. She’s excellent at conjuring voices, which brings both Uncle Warren and Jonah to life.

At the end of the book, Nelson provides notes on some of the poems that are helpful. One tells that the poem was written for a couple who purchased her “poem-writing service” at a church auction for $73. Kudos to her for thinking to offer such a service and kudos to the couple who thought to purchase it!

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About jppoetryreader

Poetry reviewer and poetry consultant for libraries
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3 Responses to The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson

  1. We are a poetry and literature publishing company/ blog. We’d like to add you to our list of contacts as a reviewer, if that sounds agreeable to you?

    Like this review very much by the way.

    • Hi Dagda Publishing,

      I’d be happy to review for you but I have to confess that I’m behind the times techwise. I don’t have a kindle and don’t like to spend much time sitting in front of my computer. If you’re willing to send a hard copy my way, I’d be glad to review for you.

      Best of luck with your venture. What are your publishing ambitions?

      • We have a couple of books coming out over the summer, so I can whack you a hard copy for review of each one. Do you have an email address? Cheers 🙂

        Publishing ambitions, well, we want to become a recognised publisher in the fields of poetry and fiction. We’re concentrating on the poetry side of things at the moment, and then branching out by degrees.

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