Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Unicorn in Captivity,” by Marion Dornell

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Marion Dornell when she attended a class I gave a talk for, at the invitation of poet Robin Becker (see Poetry Sunday feature), a professor at Penn State. It was 2010, the year my first book came out. I did a number of readings in my home state of Pennsylvania, in Altoona, State College, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and it seemed like Dornell made it to nearly every one! She and I began to work together on her poems, by email since we live at opposite ends of the country, and we also became friends.

From the beginning, I was struck by the voice in the poems. Many were written in persona (spoken by pre-Civil War slaves, people in service of the Underground Railroad, WPA workers and others), but Dornell’s voice rang through them all, pulling the thread that connected poems spanning generations and genders. Through perseverance and hard work, these poems became Unicorn in Captivity, Marion Dornell’s first book, published by Finishing Line Press in 2015. I could say quite a bit more about the lively intelligence and sharp tongue that animates the characters in Unicorn, but I hope readers will discover that for themselves by reading the book. Here is its title poem.


Unicorn in Captivity

Months back when birds was flying North,
Mistress invite her ladies to tea
to tell them about her travels.
She saw big woven pictures, story pieces
of a unicorn, pieces bigger than the bedspreads
Mama Naomi weaves. Mistress say
each picture tells the story of hunters stealing
into the woods to catch a unicorn. The ladies
make sounds out of nature, strange birds trilling
in the woods. When Mistress bring out
her sketches of hunters attacking, capturing,
and killing the unicorn, the room fill up with sound
like a church choir singing Hallelujah at Easter.
Room got quiet when she told how the unicorn
fought those men before they killed it.

Them ladies didn’t see me trip
and almost drop the tea tray.
My tears spilled and I wonder why
they so taken with a make-believe animal
stole for pleasure. The ladies wanted to embroider
that unicorn’s story, each one make a piece,
six pieces in all. Mistress surprised
me when she said she wanted to teach
me to stitch, to help her with her piece,
“The Unicorn in Captivity,” the last piece of the story.

While Mistress taught me how to stitch
the flowers and fruit, she told me
how seed-heavy pomegranates, wild orchids,
thistles, even the tiny frog all stand for marriage
and having babies. Saint Mary’s thistle
make your sick stomach better.

Madonna lily and red carnation
mean God’s love. Dandelion
was on the table at the Last Supper.
Only thing Mistress didn’t say about that unicorn
was why he didn’t just jump
that low little fence around him.
I practiced my stitches from her sketches
summerlong. Then Mistress said I learned
enough stitches to fill in the black space
around the unicorn. I know
he’s a made-up creature
but he’s real to me. When I touch
his shiny white coat, he breathes.
I wonder what he hears. I feel his heart beat slow
like he’s at peace. I know
he can’t hear what flies over his head—maybe
warblers flying south. When I fly,
I’ll fly North.

First published in Unicorn in Captivity (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and published with the permission of the Press.

UntitledA retired registered nurse specializing in psychiatric/mental health nursing and hospice, Marian Cannon Dornell lives in Mechanicsburg, PA with her husband, with whom she has five children and six grandchildren. Marion regularly gives poetry readings in her community and also gives talks about race and our society. She has studied with Penn State University professors and poets Robin Becker and Todd Davis, and poets Rebecca Foust and Kimiko Hahn. Marion’s poems have appeared in On the Issues: The Progressive Woman’s Quarterly, Kinfolks: A Journal of Black Expression, and Fledgling Rag. Unicorn in Captivity, her first book, received an Honorable Mention in Concrete Wolf’s 2013 chapbook contest.


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  • Marcia Conner September 2, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Reading these poems is like watching an artist-weaver at work. We meet Mama, Naomi, Root Woman, Clarissa, Farmer Breitweist, Rebecca. The tapestry of characters dazzles with color and spirit. Foust refers to the voice in Dornell’s poems, and it is the voice that makes her characters come alive, the voice that captures us and draws us in. We experience their deep distrust and infinite patience. We feel their abiding faith and love.

  • Lauren D. Neal August 30, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    I have watched my mother grow as an artist over the past half a century. For years she used to deny her ability as a fine artist, musician, author. With encouragement and inspiration to move forward from people whom she trusts and whom have already achieved in their artistry, “Unicorn in Captivity” was released and Marian’s talents were captured, so that she can see for herself that it exists, in case she ever needs a reminder. It is a unique honor to have a parent who historically places your gifts on a pedestal, surpass your own achievement, if you haven’t experienced it, it’s like watching your own child do the same. While most people at this stage in life, have hung their laurels, Marian’s have blossomed spectacularly. Glad that both my parents continue to serve as role models for their family through the next quarter century, and beyond…

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen MD August 30, 2015 at 7:32 am

    This was my Sunday sermon. The voice of this poet and her choice of a subject for this poem have affected me deeply.

    Rebecca, thank you for the gift of this poem from the gifted Marion Dornell.

    Pat Allen