Marilyn Nelson, “Daughters 1900”
Marilyn Nelson’s “Daughters 1900” is both a witty villanelle and a nuanced vignette. The villanelle, an old French poetic form containing 19 lines and two refrains, is musical, intricate, and strict; it’s the form that shapes such classic poems as Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Its rhymed, cyclical scheme rarely allows much in the way of description or narrative. Yet “Daughters 1900” manages to set a scene and give us characters and even dialogue, all while closely but not precisely following the rules of its form. As we’ll see, adherence to and departure from convention are among its main themes. The poem presents a vignette, or literary sketch, of a transitional moment in the history of a family and, more subtly, in the history of the modern world.
Though it works as a standalone piece, the poem is also part of Nelson’s 1990 collection The Homeplace, which chronicles episodes in Nelson’s family history from the pre–Civil War era through the mid-20th century. Blending private narratives with public events, the collection charts the complexities of African American lives across generations and regions, including the southern United States and the Europe of both world wars. The poems vary considerably in form and tone, from the harrowing sonnet “Chosen” and the bawdy, rollicking “The Ballad of Aunt Geneva” to the plainspoken free verse elegy “Lonely Eagles.”
In “Daughters 1900,” we encounter seven figures on a porch. As suggested by a family tree provided in the collection, the seven are Pomp and Ann (aka Annie) Atwood and their first five daughters: Ray D., Blanche, Geneva, Annie, and Rosa. Pomp and Ann are both about 38 years old, and their oldest daughter, Ray, is a young woman. The poem’s opening lines suggest that even Ray is still immature in some respects; she is old enough to venture out into the world but not yet old enough to avoid “bickering” with her siblings.
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,are bickering. The eldest has come homewith new truths she can hardly wait to teach.
Here is a family whose rising generation is getting its first taste of adulthood. The image of “slant light” on their porch evokes the angled sunlight and shadow of evening, when daytime workers “come home.” It also recalls the famous Emily Dickinson poem “There’s a certain Slant of light,” which contains this description of moody winter sunlight:
None may teach it – Any –’Tis the seal Despair –An imperial afflictionSent us of the Air –
Notice the additional connection in the word teach. Though the proud oldest daughter is eager to impart “new truths” to her sisters—she has recently become a schoolteacher in town—the echo of Dickinson reminds us that some aspects of the world resist easy comprehension and explanation.
The Dickinson allusion may also serve a secondary purpose. Along with Walt Whitman, Dickinson is one of the foundational American poets of the 19th century. A visionary experimentalist in poetic craft, Dickinson is considered a bridge to 20th-century Modernism—and, as such, a great teacher of poets who came after her. Perhaps Dickinson’s ghostly presence in “Daughters 1900” helps conjure a particular historical moment. In 1900, many old truths, assumptions, and conventions were about to yield to radically new ones, in literature and beyond. The first published collections of Dickinson’s poetry appeared posthumously in the 1890s and were a publishing sensation. The first works of European Modernism arrived within a few years and World War I a few years after that. Soon after the war’s end, the 19th Amendment—the fruit of generations’ worth of feminist activism—granted American women the right to vote, even as access to the polls remained unequal across racial lines.
And so the poem inhabits a delicate crossover point between generations, centuries, and eras. Within the context of The Homeplace, it’s a peaceful interlude between depictions of war and hardship. The previous poem in the volume, “Coal,” sketches Pomp Atwood’s tenacious struggle upward from enslavement: “He made a living selling land and coal / as, when he was a boy, he had been sold.” We gather that Pomp and Ann’s prudence and sacrifice in post–Civil War America secured their daughters’ teaching opportunities as well as their family’s home and porch. A few poems later in the book, we see their son Rufus serving bravely in World War I, reconnecting switchboard wires because “German shells, / like jealous overseers, / keep undoing his work.” Back home, he shelves his uniform in disgust when a fellow black soldier is lynched in his town. For the Atwood children, then, much was made possible and much more seems possible, but these possibilities are harshly circumscribed by the realities of a racist country. To readers gazing backward, the slant light of “Daughters 1900” combines the glow of anticipation, the tint of nostalgia, and the shadow of loss.
Appreciating this context in full requires reading The Homeplace as a whole, yet “Daughters 1900” contains many of the book’s themes in miniature while offering a freshness and power all its own. Its formal surface—traditional, polished, but fractured here and there—reflects a time and place in which new conventions were starting to disrupt old ones. One of the poem’s refrains includes the phrase can hardly wait, which builds via repetition into a drumbeat of excitement. Together, the two refrains enact a rhythm of desire and constraint: the family eagerly anticipates future events (“can hardly wait to teach” each other or pupils in town) even as the author keeps pulling us back to the present scene (“Five daughters in the slant light on the porch”).
The poem’s present, for the author and for us, is a long-vanished past. Its period details distill a rich social history. All five daughters, for example, wear “blue-sprigged dresses,” a fashion of the time but probably also a sign that their dresses are locally made or homemade from the same pattern. Though the Atwoods have achieved a certain hard-won status, they lack the means to cultivate distinctive wardrobes in an age before modern retail. All five daughters are current or soon-to-be schoolteachers, a job they take great pride in but also one of the relatively few professional opportunities available to American women (especially women of color) during that time. Even the group relaxation on the porch, with the father reading his print newspaper, seems quaint to modern readers—a faded, in some ways limited, domestic ideal—though a similar scene is of course possible today.
Then there’s the lesson the oldest daughter, Ray, imparts to her sisters:
The eldest sniffs, “A lady doesn’t scratch.”The third snorts back, “Knock, knock: nobody home.”The fourth concedes, “Well, maybe not in church ...”
It’s a lesson not in academics but in etiquette, once a common component of public school curricula. The oldest hopes to coach her sisters in their society’s expectations for “a lady” and thereby help them gain (or at least not lose out on) social opportunities. Of course, she’s also acting superior in the way older siblings sometimes do—hence the “bickering.” Tellingly, it’s her younger sisters’ pushback that strikes us as the most modern element of the scene. The fourth daughter suggests that the codes dictating “a lady’s” conduct might not be so rigid outside the special setting of church, and the third seems to have no patience for such codes at all.
Again the date in the title matters. The daughters are growing up during the age of the “New Woman,” a period that saw the flourishing of first-wave feminism and the gradual expansion of women’s social roles and opportunities. The iconic female rebels of the American 1920s are on the horizon; by way of comparison, the third and fourth daughters are just a few years older than Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Nella Larsen (1891–1964), two groundbreaking novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. Such figures helped explode prevailing ideas about how women and people of color “should” think, work, and behave. In her sarcastic rebellion against Ray’s lesson, then, the third daughter is a harbinger of the future.
Ray wants to teach her sisters, her sisters may have things to teach her back, and all five still have much to learn about life. In the third repetition of the second refrain (line 15), the sisters themselves are “the new truths,” and their parents “can hardly wait to teach” them. Presumably Pomp and Ann have already taught their daughters a fair amount over the years, but now they’ll need to offer new kinds of wisdom: about work, marriage, family, finances, and so on. Appropriately enough for the final word of a refrain, teach implies both continuity and variation, as each generation must learn both “old” and “new” truths about the world.
Just as appropriate, given the poem’s theme, is the way Nelson both follows and breaks the boundaries of her chosen form. Like her young characters, she negotiates her own relationship with tradition. She preserves the meter (iambic pentameter) and basic rhyme scheme (aba aba aba aba aba abaa) of the standard villanelle, along with the 19-line, double-refrain structure. However, she departs from the pentameter in at least one line (line ten, with eight syllables), and some of her rhymes are as slant as the evening light: search/porch, groan/brown, and so on. She also includes perfect (brown/town) and approximate (home/groan) rhymes, varying the scheme still further. In a fitting symmetry, her first and last b-rhymes are the same word: home. Most notably, she rejects the conventional close of the villanelle, which repeats lines one and three in succession as lines 18 and 19. Instead she repeats line one as line 19 and frees up line 18 for a different image entirely:
The fourth concedes, “Well, maybe not in church ...”
Even as the daughters dispute the etiquette of scratching oneself, Nelson wittily subverts the “decorum” of the villanelle.
Such playful tensions are a constant throughout “Daughters 1900.” Nelson compares the daughters in their dresses to birch “saplings” (spring trees) “whose leaves are going yellow-brown” (as birch leaves do in autumn). The image evokes their dress colors and skin tones while reminding us that, even in their youth, they are not immune to time. (Recall that we’re observing them from the vantage point of many decades later.) The poem’s surface is charming in many ways, but the underlying reality of life for African American women in 1900 complicates that charm—even as The Homeplace as a whole surrounds the poem with painful contrasts.
All these tensions are bracketed by an identical opening and closing line, which is initially the subject of a complete sentence and finally a self-contained fragment. “Five daughters in the slant light on the porch”: if this image serves as an “establishing shot” that transitions into the poem’s action, it is also the “freeze-frame” on which the poem ends. This unusually dynamic villanelle resolves into a wistful snapshot; this scene of family “bickering” resolves into a fragile harmony.
Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.