Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Five Poems

The Resurrection Issue
Volume 14:3, Summer 2013

I Sit and Sew

I sit and sew—–a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyes, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—–I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew–—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men.  My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But–—I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch:
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ!  It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—–God, must I sit and sew?

Alice_Dunbar-NelsonThe Lights at Carney’s Point

O white little lights at Carney’’s Point,
You shine so clear o’’er the Delaware;
When the moon rides high in the silver sky,
Then you gleam, white gems on the Delaware.
Diamond circlet on a full white throat,
You laugh your rays on a questing boat;
Is it peace you dream in your flashing gleam,
O’’er the quiet flow of the Delaware?
And the lights grew dim at the water’’s brim,
For the smoke of the mills shredded slow between;
And the smoke was red, as is new bloodshed,
And the lights went lurid–neath the livid screen.
O red little lights at Carney’’s Point,
You glower so grim o‘’er the Delaware;
When the moon hides low sombrous clouds below,
Then you glow like coals o’’er the Delaware.
Blood red rubies on a throat of fire,
You flash through the dusk of a funeral pyre;
Are there hearth fires red whom you fear and dread
O’er the turgid flow of the Delaware?
And the lights gleamed gold o’’er the river cold,
For the murk of the furnace shed a copper veil;
And the veil was grim at the great cloud’’s brim
And the lights went molten, now hot, now pale.
O gold little lights at Carney’’s Point,
You gleam so proud o’’er the Delaware;
When the moon grows wan in the eastering dawn,
Then you sparkle gold points o’’er the Delaware.
Aureate filigree on a Croesus’’ brow,
You hasten the dawn on a gray ship’’s prow.
Light you streams of gold in the grim ship’’s hold
O’er the sullen flow of the Delaware?
And the lights went gray in the ash of day,
For a quiet Aurora brought a halcyon balm;
And the sun laughed high in the infinite sky,
And the lights were forgot in the sweet, sane calm.


A swift, successive chain of things,
That flash, kaleidoscope-like, now in, now out,
Now straight, now eddying in wild rings,
No order, neither law, compels their moves,
But endless, constant, always swiftly roves.

April is on the Way

April is on the way!
I saw the scarlet flash of a blackbird’’s wing
As he sang in the cold, brown February trees;
And children said that they caught a glimpse of the sky on a bird’’s wing
from the far South.
(Dear God, was that a stark figure outstretched in the bare branches
Etched brown against the amethyst sky?

April is on the way!
The ice crashed in the brown mud-pool under my tread,
The warning earth clutched my bloody feet with great fecund fingers,
I aw a boy rolling a hoop up the road,
His little bare hands were red with cold,
But his brown hair blew backward in the southwest wind.
(Dear God! He screamed when he say my awful woe-spent eyes.)

April is on the way!
I met a women in the lane;
Her burden was heavy as it is always, but today her step was light,
And a smile drenched the tired look away from her eyes.
(Dear God, she had dreams of vengeance for her slain mate,
Perhaps, the west wind has blown the mist of hate from her heart,
The dead man was cruel to her, you know that, God.)

April is on the way!
My feet spurn the ground now, instead of dragging on the bitter road.
I laugh in my throat as I see the grass greening beside the patches of snow
(Dear God, those were wild fears.  Can there be hate when the Southwest
wind is blowing?)

April is on the way!
The crisp brown hedges stir with the bustle of bird wings.
There is business of building, and songs from brown thrush throats
As the bird-carpenters make homes against Valentine Day.
(Dear God, could they build me a shelter in the hedge from the icy winds that
will come with the dark?)

April is on the way!
I sped through the town this morning.  The florist shops have put yellow flowers
in the windows,
Daffodils and tulips and primroses, pale yellow flowers
Like the tips of her fingers when she waved me that frightened farewell.
And the women in the market have stuck pussy willows in long necked bottles
on their stands.
(Willow trees are kind, Dear God.  They will not bear a body on their limbs.)

April is on the way!
The soul within me cried that all the husk of indifference to sorrow was but the crust
of ice with which winter disguises life:
It will melt, and reality will burgeon forth like the crocuses in the glen.
(Dear God!  Those thoughts were from long ago.  When we read poetry after the
day’’s toil and got religion together at the revival meeting.)

April is on the way!
The infinite miracle of unfolding life in the brown February fields.
(Dear God, the hounds are baying!)
Murder and wasted love, lust and weariness, deceit and vainglory—–what are they
but the spent breath of the runner?
(God, you know he laid hairy red hands on the golden loveliness of her little
daffodil body)
Hate may destroy me, but from my brown limbs will bloom the golden buds with
which we once spelled love.
(Dear God!  How their light eyes glow into black pin points of hate!)

April is on the way!
Wars are made in April, and they sing at Easter time of the Resurrection.
Therefore I laugh in their faces.
(Dear God, give her strength to join me before her golden petals are fouled in the slime!)
April is on the way!


I had not thought of violets late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.
The thought of violets meant florists’ shops,
And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine;
And garish lights, and mincing little fops
And cabarets and soaps, and deadening wines.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields; and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made,—
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.
And now—unwittingly, you’ve made me dream
Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (July 19, 1875 — September 18, 1935) is the author of Violets and Other Tales (1895) and The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899). She edited Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (1914) and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920). Dunbar-Nelson was a regular columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier and the Washington Eagle and co-editor of the A.M.E. Review. She also served as a Mid-Atlantic Field Organizer for women's suffrage, a representative for the Woman's Committee on the Council of Defense, and was a popular speaker to a wide range of groups. She helped to establish the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshalltown, DE. Dunbar-Nelson married Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1898 and moved to DC. The marriage was not a happy one; Dunbar was physically abusive and the pair separated in 1902, and Dunbar died of tuberculosis and alcoholism in 1906 at age 33. Dunbar-Nelson subsequently moved to Maryland and Delaware. She married two more times, but always retained her eminent first husband's last name. Her third marriage, to Robert J. Nelson, a journalist, was her happiest. Her diary, Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, edited by Gloria T. Hull, was published posthumously in 1984.