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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

1875–1935

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson was born on July 19, 1875 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She graduated from Straight University in New Orleans and worked as an elementary teacher. She was an activist for civil rights and women's suffrage, as well as a poet, journalist, short-story writer, and playwright. Her works include Violets and Other Tales (Monthly Review, 1895) and The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1899). She married Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1898, though they later separated. She died on September 18, 1935 in Philadelphia. 

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

By This Poet

8

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 tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, 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 seam
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?

Sonnet

I had no thought of violets of 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 songs, and deadening wine. 
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.      

The 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 questioning 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 filagree 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.
 

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