A Poem for Nelson Mandela



Here where I live it is Sunday.
From my room I hear black
children playing between houses
and the El at a Sabbath rattle.
I smell barbecue from every direction
and hear black hands tolling church bells,
hear wind hissing through elm trees
through dry grasses
On a rooftop of a prison
in South Africa Nelson Mandela
tends garden and has a birthday,
as my Jamaican grandfather in Harlem, New York
raises tomatoes and turns ninety-one.
I have taken touch for granted: my grandfather’s hands,
his shoulders, his pajamas which smell of vitamin pills.
I have taken a lover’s touch for granted,
recall my lover’s touch from this morning
as Mandela’s wife pulls memories through years
and years
my life is black and filled with fortune.
Nelson Mandela is with me because I believe
in symbols; symbols bear power; symbols demand
power; and that is how a nation
follows a man who leads from prison
and cannot speak to them. Nelson Mandela
is with me because I am a black girl
who honors her elders, who loves
her grandfather, who is a black daughter
as Mandela’s daughters are black
daughters. This is Philadelphia
and I see this Sunday clean.


Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher. She has published six books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005)—which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year,” Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color—her first young adult collection, co-authored with Marilyn Nelson (2008 Connecticut Book Award), and her most recent book Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2010 Paterson Prize for Poetry). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama. She has also composed words for musical projects with composers Elena Ruehr and Lewis Spratlan.

In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. The poem was later adapted into a children’s book with illustrations by Caldecott Medalist David Diaz and released in March 2012. Her poems are included in dozens of collections and have been translated into several languages including Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic and Bengali.

Professor Alexander is one of the first recipients of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 recipient of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Most recently, she was named an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for her lifetime achievement in poetry. She is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies and the chair of the African American Studies Department.

Ruth Stone

Sharon Olds

Courtesy of Poem-A-Day

(Ruth Stone, June 8, 1915 – November 19, 2011)

And suddenly, it’s today, it’s this morning
they are putting Ruth into the earth,
her breasts going down, under the hill,
like the moon and sun going down together.
O I know, it’s not Ruth–what was Ruth
went out, slowly, but this was her form,
beautiful and powerful
as the old, gorgeous goddesses who were
terrible, too, not telling a lie

for anyone–and she’d been left here so long, among
mortals, by her mate–who could not,
one hour, bear to go on being human.
And I’ve gone a little crazy myself
with her going, which seems to go against logic,
the way she has always been there, with her wonder, and her
generousness, her breasts like two
voluptuous external hearts.
I am so glad she kept them, all
her life, and she got to be buried in them–
she 96, and they
maybe 82, each, which is
164 years
of pleasure and longing. And think of all
the poets who have suckled at her riskiness, her
risque, her body politic, her
outlaw grace! What she came into this world with,
with a mew and cry, she gave us. In her red
sweater and her red hair and her raw
melodious Virginia crackle,
she emptied herself fully out
into her songs and our song-making,
we would not have made our songs without her.

O dear one, what is this? You are not a child,
though you dwindled, you have not retraced your path,
but continued to move straight forward to where
we will follow you, radiant mother. Red Rover, cross over.

Copyright © 2013 by Sharon Olds. Used with permission of the author.

About This Poem

“When Ruth Stone, one of our great American poets, died, I was not able to get to Vermont for her burial. That morning, I sat by the window, over Riverside Drive, in New York City, and let my mind go, took off its collar and leash, and let it run–straight to her. All I asked of my mind was that it report back to me what it saw, what it thought and felt. After the poem was finished (by hand, by ballpoint in grocery-store notebook), and typed, and revised a little, it was ready to go out and seek other lovers of Ruth Stone’s poems, with whom to observe and mourn her passing, and to praise her. Later I had the sorrowing joy of reading Toi Derricotte’s story of her deep friendship with Ruth and her family, and of the day of the burial in her essay ‘Ruth Stone’s Funeral’ which was published in Water-Stone Review, Volume 15, 2012. Thus do we all keep each other company.”

–Sharon Olds


Launched during National Poetry Month in 2006, Poem-A-Day features new and previously unpublished poems by contemporary poets on weekdays and classic poems on weekends. Browse the Poem-A-Day Archive.

Sharon Olds is the author of numerous books of poems, including Stag’s Leap (Knopf, 2012), which received the Pulitzer Prize. She is a Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets and teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University.