Poor Yorick’s Inception: Marilyn Nelson on Fortune’s Bones

A Q& A by Melissa Gordon

Wow, there are so many corners in what we call “local history!” Corners worth exploring; corners in which is hidden a great deal of wisdom.

         —Marilyn Nelson on Poor Yorick

Marilyn Nelson is a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the 2012 recipient of the Robert Frost Medal. Nelson founded the Soul Mountain Retreat in East Haddam, Connecticut, where she served as Director for ten years. Author of numerous books, Nelson serves on the Advisory Board for Poor Yorick. In fact, her book Fortunes Bones, which she wrote while serving as the Poet Laureate of Connecticut, was the inspiration for the journal.

Fortune’s Bones brings to light the story of a slave who lived in Connecticut in the 1700s. Fortune was enslaved by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Preserved Porter, and upon Fortune’s death his skeleton was used for anatomical study. His wife, Dinah, who was also enslaved by Dr. Porter, was forced to clean the room where his skeleton hung. Fortune’s skeleton was donated to the Mattatuck Museum by a Porter descendant in 1933, but his name and story had been lost. In 1999, Waterbury’s African American History Project Committee began to search for the identity and story of the skeleton, and their research dug up answers. In 2003, the Mattutuck Museum opened an exhibit which accurately portrayed Fortune’s life, and they commissioned Nelson to compose a collection of poems, Fortune’s Bones, to honor Fortune’s remains.



PY: Ms. Nelson, it is an honor to be talking with you about your book Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. This collection of poems inspired the inception of Poor Yorick, evidenced in our mission statement which begins, “Poor Yorick: A Journal of Rediscovered Objects brings back into light the skeletons hidden in our cultural closets.” Can you talk about your inspiration behind Fortune’s Bones?

MN: It was commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum of Waterbury, Connecticut. The Museum and the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra had agreed to produce a musical piece to honor Waterbury’s skeleton. When I agreed to write poems about it, the museum presented me with a pile of research findings about the skeleton and its history.


PY: We see juxtaposition in manumission (liberation of a slave) and requiem (remembrance of the dead). Can you tell us about these words individually and also about the synergy they create?

MN: I started writing the piece in the summer of 2001. Starting on September 11, the radio stations were all playing requiems. The idea of juxtaposing the requiem mass and the manumission of slaves seemed perfectly suited to my project. In Christian belief, of course, every requiem is at the same time a manumission.


PY: How did you establish the order of your poems and the point of view explored in each of them?

MN: I wrote them, for the most part, in that order. It seemed the most logical. I was first moved by Dinah’s plight, so I wrote her piece first. Then I read about the history of medical education, including some very compelling interviews with first year medical school students, and wrote the part for the doctor. The rest just fell into place.


PY: I remember your reading at the summer 2012 WCSU MFA Residency. I remember hearing the poem “Not My Bones” and having a sense of deep lament and sadness followed by a sense of hope as your voice resounded, as if Fortune himself were speaking, “Life’s the best thing that can happen to you.” These words from the ghost of a man, a slave, in death his body used for the study of human anatomy. Can you talk specifically about the poem “Not My Bones” and what you were hoping to ensure would not be lost or forgotten?

MN: That line, “Life’s the best thing that can happen to you” was said by a young girl interviewed on NPR as I was driving to Cape Cod. I don’t remember why she was being interviewed, or who she was, but that one sentence, spoke in innocence and informally, struck me as something Fortune might say. Sorry to have to confess the line is borrowed! But the other good line, “you are not your bones,” is also borrowed. In this case, it was something said during the Q&A after a lecture given by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen master. Someone asked, “What is the most comforting thing we can say to someone in hospice care?” Thich Nhat Hanh said the most comforting thing we can say is “you are not this body.”  That seemed to me to be something important for Fortune to say.


PY: What do you hope to see in Poor Yorick?

MN: Wow, there are so many corners in what we call “local history!” Corners worth exploring; corners in which is hidden a great deal of wisdom. I hope Poor Yorick will encourage young (and older) poets and writers to explore those corners and to learn from them.