Alice Dunbar-Nelson, born 17 July, 1875

“There was something soothing about it, Laura always felt, as though they were repeating some classic pattern which went on recurring for ever in different fancy dresses, the group of women sitting sewing round the lady of the house while their men were at the wars, fighting the Trojans or the Turk or the Nazis.” (One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes)
No mere Penelope, the heroine of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “I Sit and Sew” ravels and unravels the difficulties of waiting, of being relegated to the “useless” household arts while men pursue the (presumably “useful”) art of war.
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-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?
              —Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Written just after the First World War, “I Sit and Sew” juxtaposes the violent landscape of the battlefield—its “holocaust of hell” where soldiers “lie in sodden mud and rain”—with a domestic life of ironic dreaming beneath a “homely thatch,” as the speaker feels more and more impuissant, until language itself is so unforgiving, that “seam” can only rhyme with itself, stifling and inelegant and “futile.”
The “martial tread” of the infantry haunts the speaker’s dreams, pounding its march into flat spondees: “grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing.” And the brutal humor of the punning (“it seems” sews the hands and head into the same kind of repetitive task that gives us “seams,” and “and sew” becomes “and so”—“and so a useless task it seems”—while her “idle patch,” far from idyllic, is spent in comparative idleness, sewing patches) reflects the mind-numbing understatements and euphemisms of battle.
Though the female speaker feels tethered to a role she appears to neither enjoy nor to consider important, she doesn’t exactly long to join the fighting, where her male counterparts are fast becoming “writhing grotesque things once men.” Frustrated with her role at the homefront, but also dreading the “wasted fields,” she repeats the same stitch until she must cry out to the heavens, “must I sit and sew?”
Alice Dunbar-Nelson herself was no idle seamstress. A suffragist and a campaigner for social justice and equality, she wrote, “I was a timid, scared, rabbit sort of a child, but out of desperation I learned to fight.” Among her many causes were the co-founding of a mission in Harlem to help young women migrating from the American South to transition into life in New York, advocacy for anti-lynching legislation, and a life-long commitment to education for people of color.

Originally Published: July 17th, 2008

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

  1. July 20, 2008

    Alice doesn't live here anymore.

  2. July 28, 2008
     Tara Betts

    I'm not sure what the first comment is about, but thanks for writing about Alice Dunbar-Nelson and commenting on her poem "I Sit and Sew". Her work gets overshadowed by one-time-husband Paul Laurence Dunbar frequently. Scholar Akasha (also credited as Gloria T.) Hull thoughtfully edited and put out "Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar Nelson". I've also been meaning to read "Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Courtship of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore" by Eleanor Alexander.