Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church
by Marilyn Nelson
Miss Charlotte Thompson, daughter of Ada
Thompson of Seneca and the late John,
and Timothy James Seaman, son
of the late Nancy Seaman, on Sunday.
Reverend Rush performed the ceremony.
The bride (twenty-four) was educated
by a literate friend, and by seeing
the African Theatre Company’s
productions of Macbeth and Richard III.
She teaches in Colored School #3.
Her father was a slave. Her mother, freed
by a clause in her late mistress’s will,
sews and sells exquisite lace lingerie.
The bridegroom (twenty-six) cannot read or write,
but ciphers and is a skilled carpenter.
His mother was slaved to an early death.
She told him he was descended from kings.
I make it a rule not to read other people’s interpretations of a poem before I post my own thoughts, but it’s happened by accident and I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know.
I was checking to see if “Thompson and Seaman Vows” was “found poetry, “ that is, an actual historical record of a wedding announcement that poet Marilyn Nelson came across and elevated with line breaks so that the words could come alive in a new way.
Spoiler alert: it isn’t.
On the Poetry Foundation website is a young reader’s fan letter about the poem and Nelson’s generous answer. She explains the history of the poem, the historical milieu, her intentions. I can’t add much to it, so I’ll re-print her comments here.
Let me just say that Nelson’s poem makes all those Sunday New York Times wedding announcements look like puffed-up poseurs. In “Thompson and Seaman Vows,” the typical announcement elements—occupations, parentage, age, wedding details— are moving rather than envy-inspiring.
[Do you know the song by Caetano Veloso called “Paloma”? It’s very beautiful. You can hear Caetano singing it on Youtube. Harry Belafonte recorded it in the Fifties; it’s always been one of my favorite melodies, though I don’t know or understand the lyrics.]
But, to the point: I’m very glad you like my poem so much that you wrote to me about it. I’m glad that you see that the poem is telling a story. I’m sorry I didn’t give a little introduction to the poem before I read it on the video. The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1825 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.
“Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church” is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times. The real, contemporary wedding announcements always begin with the names of the couple, the date of the wedding and the name of the person who officiated the ceremony. Then there is a paragraph about the bride: where she was educated, and where she works. Then a paragraph about her mother and father and their professional histories. Then the groom, his education and his work, and then information about this mother and father. If you read a lot of them, you see they follow a formula.
In the case of the couple in my poem, they are free, living in Seneca Village, New York, but the wedding takes place in 1847, a time when most of the black people in America where enslaved. In 1847 there were not many opportunities for black Americans to go to school. People who learned to read taught other people to read. That’s why the bride in the poem has been “educated by her literate friend.” In a couple of other poems in the book we learn that she loves Shakespeare, the great writer she knows (books were expensive; she wouldn’t have been able to own a collection of Shakespeare’s works, and libraries were usually available only to white people) only from seeing two of his plays performed by the African Theatre Company, in all-black productions (blacks would probably not be able to go to a white theater). But the fact that she can read and that she knows a little bit about the greatest poet of the English language makes her educated enough to teach in the Seneca Village school.
As for the groom, he is not exactly educated, but he can do math computations (i.e., measure a board and know where to cut it to fit a space in the building of a house) and he is a good carpenter (in other words, he has skills that translate into earning a good living). Although his mother was “slaved to an early death,” she did not forget that she and her people were stolen from a land that had its own greatness, and she passed on that knowledge and pride to her son, by telling him that he was descended from—as you put so well—“a noble family in Africa.”
Thanks for noticing the line breaks!
The topic came because I was trying to write poems that presented a panorama of village life, so I wanted to include a wedding. I found the names in the U.S. Census records of Seneca Village, but I invented the characters, the love story, and the wedding. There was a church with that name in Seneca Village. I’m so glad you loved my poem!
Here’s a bio of Nelson from a previous post:
Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.
She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.
“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry. She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.
She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.