For Otelia Cromwell, 1874–1972
By Nikky Finney
Smith College commissioned award-winning poet Nikky Finney to compose a poem in honor of Otelia Cromwell. Finney recited the poem, "Maven," during the Otelia Cromwell Day convocation November 10, 2009.
"When you are a thinking woman neither violence or sugar plums can muzzle the power of thought."
Imagine, hatch, comprehend, apprehend:
Know the inside and the out. You are just
a girl when your mother dies. Left to tend
the rest of the flock, you, the oldest,
the one most like your father, taught
to leave no stone unturned, marry thrift
and industry, while burying your head
in the stacks. Sang-froid but never
silent. Inquire, picture, ponder, think
over, think and think, again. Giddy
with your own mind, "Master everything"
is the family crest, no veil feigning, faking,
guise, masquerade, or fanfare. There is
a right way and a wrong. When you give
your hand to the world, your responsibility:
To have a mind, keep in mind, change
a mind—and be the last to die.
"An educated group is a thinking group."
Intuit, divine, check and recheck, invent:
Know the backward and the forward.
You care nothing for the popular, even
less for the slipshod. Your arms flower
with all the leading out books, choosing
wisely what and who trains you: Frankness,
virtuoso, mastery, crackerjack. Think and
think, again. You leave college and university
exceptionally prepared. You are complex
and astute, as calm as a comma. No time
for jewelry or parlor beaus. There is
a gold watch, a signet ring, a Smith
College pin: White letters on gold just
above the heart. Diligent, proficient, self-
possessed, you weigh in with words, to state
your tolerance to the inefficient. You never
back down from what is right. Young Adelaide
is your "dependable" and the 9th graders
leaning in to your instruction whisper: This
must be college. You gray beautifully—but early.
"The genius does not write to please."
(nor live to marry)
Veritas. Words pulled through a fine-tooth
comb, then, before sleep, pulled through,
again. You refuse to segregate language from
life, read German for sport and swing golf
clubs just to stay on the qui vive. You write
of the legality of taxes, pica out democracy,
vow and edit for the intergral Negro intellectual.
Winnow, probe, sift through, quest: Think
and think, again. Solemnly engaged now to
Lucretia & Thomas, you dislike being called
"Dr." and remain forever keen on "Miss."
What the dutiful trained hand can perfectly
stitch delights you. Unconventional and easy-
going, your desire never wanes: To be put
through the paces, edify, enlighten, to work
outward—from simple seam to monogram.
We herald your bright hallmark of firsts,
those sprightly high-waisted truths; the soft-
spoken whippersnapper, eloping still.
All words in italics are the words of Otelia Cromwell.
©2009 Nikky Finney.