The Ballad of Aunt Geneva

Marilyn Nelson

‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva’ by Marilyn Nelson is about a Black woman’s life, relationships, and work. It is based on local rumors and assumptions about her character.

Marilyn Nelson

Nationality: America

Marilyn Nelson is an American poet born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946.

She has written numerous books for children and worked as a translator.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: It's easy to make assumptions about someone's life

Themes: Identity

Speaker: A niece or nephew of Aunt Geneva

Emotions Evoked: Compassion

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 20th Century

This poem is a unique ballad, one that tells a story of someone's life but leans heavily on rumors and hearsay

The poem is a ballad, meaning that it is written in narrative form and tells a story. In this case, it tells the story of the life of Aunt Geneva. The use of the word “Aunt” in the title indicates that the speaker is someone who knows Geneva fairly well. But, still, they depend on rumors to outline the events in her life. This may suggest that Geneva is quite a private person who doesn’t share her personal life with anyone, even her family members. 

The Ballad of Aunt Geneva by Marilyn Nelson


Summary

‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva’ by Marilyn Nelson is a poem about a single woman’s life and actions. 

The poem is based on the life of Aunt Geneva, a woman who is immediately described as wild and a tart. The woman is alone, even in her old age, and becomes the subject of gossip in the town regarding her apparent murder of another woman and her affairs with white men. The detailing of her life in this poem is entirely based on rumors. Each of these begins with the phrase “they say.” Readers can’t take any of these rumors as facts, something that adds to the mystery of Geneva’s character.

Structure and Form 

‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva’ by Marilyn Nelson is an eleven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines. The poem follows a classic ballad rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines are also all very simile in length, something that’s maintained throughout the entire poem and gives the text a great visual unity.

 

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. They include: 

  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Geneva” in stanzas one and two. 
  • Refrain: the repetition of an entire line of verse or more. In this case, the poet uses the first stanza as a refrain, repeating it at the end of the poem. 
  • Imagery: the poet uses interesting descriptions that help readers imagine the scenes of this poem in great detail. For example, “by braining the jealous heifer / with an iron frying pan.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanzas One and Two

Geneva was a wild one

Geneva was a tart.

Geneva met a blue-eyed boy

And gave away her heart.




Geneva ran a roadhouse.

Geneva wasn’t sent

To college like the others.

Pomp’s pride her punishment.

In the first lines of ‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva,’ the speaker begins by using repetition, repeating the name “Geneva” at the beginning of five of the next six lines. These statements reflect how Geneva was in the simplest terms. She was “a tart,” “wild,” and infatuated with a “blue-eyed boy.” The statements also describe this woman’s actions. She “ran a roadhouse” and didn’t go to college. Within the first two stanzas, readers have a decent understanding of who the speaker saw Geneva as, at least in the most basic of ways. 

Geneva was clearly a proud person who did as she pleased and took care of herself, even if that meant making a few mistakes along the way. But, as the last lines of the second stanza suggest, she may not have been entirely happy with the life she was living. The author suggests that she may have wanted more out of life than running a roadhouse and being considered a “tart.” 

Stanzas Three and Four

She cooked out on the river,

(…)

with an iron frying pan.

The next lines add details to Aunt Geneva’s life, including a rumor about her actions. 

The speaker describes how she “cooked…on the river.” She was a hardened, tough person, the speaker adds. She was used to dealing with adversity, and her appearance showed her history of hardship. 

The next stanza includes a rumor, indicated by the author’s use of the words “They say.” The speaker doesn’t know this to be true, but they feel it adds to the overall image of Geneva and so they decided to include it in their “ballad.” 

The speaker describes how “they say” Geneva killed a woman with an “iron frying pan” because she was jealous of this woman’s relationship with a “good black man.” The other woman is described as a “jealous heifer,” or cow. This is an insult that suggests that the speaker is on Geneva’s side or, at the very least, can understand how Geneva would’ve seen this woman. 

Stanzas Five and Six 

They say, when she was eighty,

(…)

I need to buy some things,

The next lines include another rumor. “They,” like the citizens of the area Geneva lived in or even her family, believe that when she was old, she would get up late at night and bring her “old white lover” into the house to sleep with. 

So far, multiple references have been made to this woman’s sex life. The focus on this suggests an attitude of conservatism and judgment based on what is seen as morally acceptable. It fits in well with the description of Geneva as a “tart,” an insult usually reserved for women who are seen as too sexually promiscuous. 

The following lines describe the sounds that indicated to those listening that Geneva had a man in her house. There was the “singing of the springs,” or the characteristic squeaking noise that bedsprings make when multiple people are on the bed. Then, they heard Geneva’s voice say, “I need to buy some things.” This is continued in the next stanza. 

Stanzas Seven and Eight 

So next time, bring more money.

(…)

And you know damn well I m right.

The speaker notes that there’s also heard do you need to tell the white man that he should probably have more “money” and more “moxie.” She’s better than he is and has no time to waste on “limp white men like you.” This suggests the man was not what she was expecting. He did not perform sexually in the way that she hoped.

The eighth stanza suggests that Geneva is reacting to something the man said. She is unwilling to give in to any request he might have or take back the insults that she’s already delivered. She knows that he knows she’s right in her assertions about him.

Stanzas Nine and Ten 

Now listen: take your heart pills

(…)

walk down the dawnlit street.

In a commanding tone, she tells the man that he needs to take his heart pills and do what the doctor tells him. If he doesn’t, he might “up and die” on her. If he does this, she’ll be angry and “whip” his behind. This suggests that Geneva has no time for messing around and is not willing to accept anything less than what she wants. 

Somehow, the speaker knows (likely based on rumors) how the two walked through the parlor of the house, and Geneva stood at the door watching the old white man walk down the street in the light of dawn. It’s the beginning of a new day, a symbol of the future as well as the cyclical nature of life itself. These lines indicate that an event like this was not uncommon in Geneva’s life and may have been witnessed more than once.

Stanza Eleven 

Geneva was the wild one.

(…)

and gave away her heart.

The final stanza of the poem is a repetition of the first stanza in full. It is known as a refrain. The stanza has more meaning after reading through nine other stanzas that describe Geneva’s life. The contrast between the first two statements in the stanza and the third statement it’s also easier to see at this point. 

While Geneva may have been considered “wild” and a “tart,” she also “gave away her heart.” This suggests that she was looking for love, and when she thought she found it, she committed to that person. But, it didn’t work out for her. Because this event is described twice in the poem, readers can assume that it was highly influential on her life and may have been why, even at an old age, she was alone. 

FAQs 

What is the theme of ‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva?’ 

The themes of ‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva’ include life, relationships, and rumors. The poem is filled with assumptions about who Aunt Geneva is. There are judgments of her character and opinions on her actions, particularly her relationships. 

Why did Nelson write ‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva?’

Nelson likely wrote this poem in order to tell a very specific story about a real person or, perhaps, in order to allude to the ways that judgments define how people see one another. Geneva was a “tart” based on what everyone thought. 

What is ‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva’ about? 

‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva’ is about an older, Black woman’s life, what she did for a living, the relationships she had, and the mistakes she made. The poem is filled with assumptions about her character that are not backed up by facts. 

What kind of poem is ‘The Ballad of Aunt Geneva?’

This poem is a ballad that’s written in ballad form. This means that the poem deals with elements of storytelling and imagery and uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Marilyn Nelson poems. For example: 

  • How I Discovered Poetry’ – is a tragic poem detailing an impactful event in the young life of Marilyn Nelson.
  • The Song Is You’ – explores love through the metaphor of musical instruments being played and the music they create.

You might also like the following: 

  • Woman Workby Maya Angelou – a poem that celebrates women’s strength. It uses natural imagery to speak on this topic and various others.

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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