Today is Thursday, April 26, 2018. It’s the birthday of poets Marilyn Nelson and Natasha Trethewey. It’s also the birthday of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Our poem for today is by Rick Bursky. It’s titled, “The Legerdemain,” from his collection, “I’m No Longer Troubled by the Extravagance.” Rick reads his poem on the podcast version of today’s episode.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson’s (affiliate link) father graduated in the last class of Tuskegee Airmen in 1946. He became a pilot with the U.S. Air Force.

Photo of Marilyn Nelson.
Credit: Karen Kedmey, courtesy the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Nelson, born on this date in Cleveland, OH, in 1946, grew up living in different locations as a member of a military family. She writes about the experience in her 2014 book, “How I Discovered Poetry.”

The book’s a collection of 50 poems written as non-rhyming sonnets. A date and place are attached to each poem, documenting Nelson’s life in 1950s America.

Nelson is the author of several poetry collections, including “The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems” and “The Homeplace: Poems.” Both volumes were National Book Award finalists.

And Nelson’s written poems for children and young adults. These books include “Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children” and “Carver: A Life in Poems.”

Nelson’s won two Pushcart Prizes, a Robert Frost Medal, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She served as Connecticut’s poet laureate from 2001-2006. And she’s currently poet-in-residence at The Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey (affiliate link) was born on this date in 1966 in Gulfport, MS. Her mother was black, her father white, and interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi.

Photo of Natasha Trethewey.
By Slowking4 [GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons
Race played an important part in Trethewey’s childhood. As a third grader in Atlanta, she learned the poems of black poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks. And she remembers how her interracial parents were perceived when the family was in public places.

Though Trethewey’s father was a poet, she didn’t consider poetry as a career option until after her mother died when Trethewey was 19.

Upon hearing the news of her mother’s death, Trethewey remembered W. H. Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It begins:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood

The poem helped Trethewey cope with her grief.

Trethewey graduated from the University of Georgia in 1989. She then earned master’s degrees from Holland University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Trethewey’s first volume of poetry, “Domestic Work,” published in 2000. She published a second collection in 2002 before releasing, in 2006, “Native Guard.” It’s a book of poems that honor both Trethewey’s mother and African-American soldiers from Louisiana who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

“Native Guard” netted Trethewey a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

And from 2012-2014, Trethewey served as U.S. Poet Laureate. Her most recent book is 2012’s “Thrall.”

Marcus Aurelius

Today is the birthday of Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 CE. He was born in 121 CE in Rome.

Aurelius is credited with following the model of the Philosopher King, laid out by Plato in his work, “Republic.” The model calls for a ruler focused on helping their subjects, not on their power.

Irish actor Richard Harris portrayed Aurelius in the 2000 film, “Gladiator.” The movie depicted Aurelius passing over his son, Commodus, as heir to the empire.

In reality, though, the father and son co-ruled the empire from 177 until Aurelius died of natural causes in 180 CE.


“The Legerdemain”

Door-to-door sales is a tradition in my family. My mother bought me from a door-to-door salesman when I was five weeks old. I’ve sold everything door-to-door – from silverware to poison, drank Hemlock three times as a demonstration. Slowly closing the eyes is an effective sales tool. I was thirty-six when I sold my first tulip, a Red Emperor to a man on his way to a funeral, stopped him in his driveway. He held the tulip and sobbed. Selling tulips is selling desire. Other flower salesmen sell clichés. The tulip is a nightmare rehabilitated, closer to a human heart than a rose. Tulips are the ears of the dead. My work has hardened my knuckles. At the end of the day I sit in my car and watch the sun set in the rearview mirror. The Monte Flame is my favorite tulip, the way its orange and red petals cup every dirty secret you’ve ever told.

– “The Legerdemain” from I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance. Copyright 2015 by Rick Bursky. Used with permission of the author.

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