J ust a lovely little jewel floating on fair Carib’s breast,
A ll a-glittering in her verdue ‘neath a blazing tropic sky.
M ust have been part of Eden, it’s so full of peace and rest,
A nd the flowers in their splendour make you feel it’s good to die
I n a spot that’s so near heaven where one never feels depressed,
‘Cause Dame Nature makes you lazy and Dame Fortune lingers nigh,
A nd you feel just like a fledgling in your mother’s cosy nest.
. . .
I Cannot Tell
I cannot tell why I who once was gay
And never knew the burden of a sigh
Now sit and pass the weary hours away,
And never have a care for what goes by.
I cannot tell why oft the teardrops rise
And my sad heart lies leaden in my breast,
And in my mind these anxious thoughts arise
For no more am I happy with the rest.
I cannot tell why life is not the same
And my heart answers not to music’s plea,
Or why I start whene’er I hear your name
And in my dreams no other face I see:
I cannot tell why I should wish to die,
Now that the time has come to say goodbye.
. . .
I cannot let you hold me in your arms
And listen while you talk of trivial things;
It pains my heart thus to resist your charms
And see the longings of my soul take wings.
I cannot feel the pressure of your hands
Without the wish to hold them to my lips,
I have no strength to face life’s big demands
While daily from my heart your image slips,
I cannot bear the thought of losing you.
Yet still your presence brings me bitter pain.
The happy days gone by we will not rue ––
Their tender mem’ries still to us remain;
But oh my heart, I cannot bid you stay,
Though as you go you take my life away.
. . .
The Peanut Boy
Lord, look upon this peanut boy,
He’s rough and coarse and rude;
He has been selling all the day,
His words are very crude.
But, Lord, he’s worn and weary now,
See how he stands asleep;
His head is resting on the post,
The basket at his feet.
Dear Lord, he has not sold them all,
But he has done his best:
And, while he stands and sleeps awhile,
With sweet dreams make him blest.
And, Lord, when I shall fall asleep
With my tasks incomplete,
Remember I was weary, Lord,
And give me peaceful sleep.
. . .
You can talk about your babies
With blue eyes and hair of gold,
But I’ll tell you ’bout an angel
That’s cast in another mould.
She is brown just like a biscuit
And she has the blackest eyes
That don’t for once remind you
Of the blue of tropic skies.
And her hair is black and shiny
And her little teeth are pearls,
She’s just a year, I’ll tell you,
But the best of baby girls.
O, she’s sweeter than the sweetest
Of all babies ‘neath the sun,
And I feel that I could eat her,
Thinking she’s a sugar bun.
O, little ivory babies
Are as sweet as they can be,
But give me my brown skin cherub
Still a-dangling on my knee.
. . .
In South Africa £25 per head per annum is spent on educating the white child. The government gives a subsidy of £2 3s. 7d. per head to the missionary bodies who have undertaken the education of 300,000 black children of the 1,100,000 who should be educated. (W. G. Ballinger at W.I.L. Conference.)
It must be by oppression; and, for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at them,
But for my countrymen. They would be learned: ––
How that might change their nature, there’s the question,
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Teach him? –– that; ––
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of learning is when it is given
To subject races: And, to speak truth of Negroes,
I have known when they have turned to serve us
Once they are taught. But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambitious ladder
Whereto the climber upward turns his face:
But when he once attains the utmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend: So Negroes may:
Then, lest they may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing they are,
Fashion it thus; that what they are, when learned
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore, think them as the serpents
Which, hatch’d, would as their kind grow mischievous;
And keep them ignorant.
(With apologies to Shakespeare)
. . .
You liked talking to people like me
You said, with a wistful smile
That enchanted me, so the pause
That came before I spoke
Must have seemed strange to you,
And when I returned the compliment
So sweetly made, I still thought
Of the wistfulness of your smile.
So you like talking to people like me,
Friend with the wistful smile,
To foreign girls who are brown of skin
And have black kinky hair
And have strange black eyes.
You like to hear the tales I tell
Of a tropic Paradise,
Of sunkissed woods and mountains high
Of skies that are bluer than ever
Skies are blue in your nordic clime:
Of magic sunsets and marvellous seas,
Of waterfalls clattering down,
Stars so near, and the moon so large,
And fireflies, stars of the earth.
I like to listen to you,
Friend with the wistful smile.
It’s not to hear of your great country
And tales of your marvellous land,
But to watch the wistful smile
That plays around your mouth,
The strange look in your eyes
And hear the calm sweet tone of your voice.
. . .
June is drawing near
And in my sun-kissed isle
The Poinciana with its flaming blossom
Casts its spell o’er all the land.
These mighty trees in regal robes
Now call the land to worship,
And the bees, hungry for hidden honey,
Swarm among its blossoms and buzz and buzz,
And the blossoms laugh and yield
Shedding their sweet perfume;
They make a crown of golden dust
To beautify the honeybee.
There on the hillside, ‘mid a tuft
Of dark green trees, towers the Poinciana
Stretching its branches eagerly
To watch the children passing by.
I see a tree I used to love
Whose red and golden glory
Has thrilled my soul with wonder;
O, I remember that glad June,
So long ago it seems,
‘Twas Harvest in the Village Church
And the merry school children
Cut great branches of Poinciana
And made a radiant glory of the Church.
June comes again and Poinciana trees
Now blossom in my sunkissed isle
And I am here in London, and the flowers
Of dainty shades and delicate perfumes
Stir my heart and wake my love,
But it is the flaming glory
Of Poinciana trees in fair Jamaica
That my lone heart is homing.
I might sing of fragrant Myrtle blossoms
Whiter than snow and sweeter than honey,
Of pink and white June roses,
Of Jessamines, Hibiscus, Begonias,
Of Bougainvillea and Cassia,
But the Flaming Poinciana
Calls to me across the distance
Calling, calling me home.
O pride and glory of our tropic Isle,
As thy red and golden petals
Drip blood drops on the sod
That thou mayst bring forth
Mighty pods of fertile seed,
So children of your tropic land
With broken hearts that bleed
In foreign lands afar
Strain every nerve to bring forth
Fruit that may enrich the race
And are anew inspired
With hope and loyal longing ––
Hope that thy red and golden banners
Now unfurled through all the land
May call men’s hearts
To bow at Beauty’s shrine ––
And loyal longing that awakes
And claims the best thy sons and daughters give.
O Fair Jamaica! my thoughts go home to you,
In love and loyalty I shall for aye be true.
. . .
How tender the heart grows
At the twilight hour,
More sweet seems the perfume
Of the sunless flower.
Come quickly, wings of night,
The twilight hurts too deep;
Let darkness wrap the world around,
My pain will go to sleep.
. . .
(as expounded by a Market Woman)
(Market woman walking quickly ahead of her friend. She carries a huge basket on her head. She swings both hands violently as she addresses the friend close behind her without turning):
“You can tan up talk wid him,
If you and him is companion
Me and him is no companion.”
(Second market woman following quickly at her heels):
“Me and him is companion, yes,
Me and him is companion
Me and all de wide worl’ is companion
For dere is nobody better dan me
And I is not better dan nobody.”
The test of true culture
Is the ability
To move among men,
East or West,
North of South,
With ease and confidence,
Radiating the pure light
Of a kindly humanity.
. . .
They tell us
That our skin is black
But our hearts are white.
We tell them
That their skin is white
But their hearts are black.
. . .
Europe is frozen.
It is too cold for birds to sing,
For children to make snowmen,
For rivers to splash and sparkle,
For lovers to loiter in the snowlight.
The heart of humanity is frozen.
It is too cold for Poets to sing.
. . .
Una Marson, of Santa Cruz, Saint Elizabeth parish, was the youngest of six children born to Rev. Solomon Isaac, a Baptist parson, and Ada Marson.
In 1928 she launched her own magazine in Kingston, Jamaica – The Cosmopolitan – which dealt with local, proto-feminist, and workers’ rights issues. Her first book of poems she self-published in 1930: Tropic Reveries. It was followed by Heights and Depths in 1931, and a play, At What a Price, performed at the Ward Theatre in Kingston. In 1937 she published The Moth and The Star. Marson spent time in London, England, from 1932-36, and again from 1938-45 (the duration of WWII); it was during the war years that her work with the BBC lead to the creation of the Caribbean Voices programme. In her later years she divided her time between Jamaica and Washington, D.C., and it is now known that she suffered from clinical depression. She died of a heart attack in 1965.
We are grateful to Alison Donnell (Una Marson: Selected Poems, Peepal Tree Press, 2011) for providing biographical details and a description of the social and political context for Una Marson’s life and work.