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Nurse Turned Poet Explores Legacy of Race

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Marian Dornell poses for her jacket cover photo for Unicorn in Captivity.

For Marian Dornell, her newfound status as a published poet is one she would have never predicted. But in February, a slender book of poems called Unicorn in Captivity, will be published bearing her name on the cover. 

Devoted, in Marian’s words, to “the reality that slavery existed in Harrisburg and its legacy in our lives today,” the poems spring from writing classes she began auditing at Penn State when she was in her 50s – and the reflection that came from those.

Growing up in Harrisburg during the 1940s and 1950s, Marian said racism was very much present. “I grew up in a town that considered me ‘other’, Marian says. “This book isn’t meant to punish anyone. Really, it delves into unanswered questions I had about my family’s history, and the history of African Americans in this area. We each carry this burden and have choices to make regarding how we choose to live with this legacy.”

For Marian, that legacy is carried out in continuing to raise the issue of race in our society today and in giving voice to some of the slaves who spent their lives serving the wealthy citizens of Harrisburg during the 1800s.

History and imagination converge
The poems are loosely based in historic research Marian has conducted over the years. Several tell the tale of a slave woman who lived at Ft. Hunter, a mansion which sits on a bluff above the Susquehanna River. Marian came upon a local play which included a woman who disappeared from the mansion once it became apparent that the owners had fallen on hard times and would be selling slaves. 

Since no one knows her true story, Marian named her Clarissa and wrote four poems giving her one. They include a poem about Clarissa’s escape, another about the Amish farmer who aids her escape, and the final one about her plans for a new life in Nova Scotia. The book's title comes from a poem where Clarissa describes a tapestry depicting a unicorn in captivity and the way in which she identifies with its plight.

Another is an imagined interview of a former slave by a writer working for FDR’s Works Progress Administration. That poem came about after Marian wondered what she would have been doing if she had been a writer during the Great Depression. “I figured, well, I might be working for the WPA, and then thought about who I would have wanted to talk to,” she says.

Marian came to writing – and poetry – late in life. “Thinking back to my younger self, it actually is incredible that I would have lived to see 75 in the first place, but that I would be publishing a book of poetry is even more unbelievable,” Marian says. “I hated poetry when I was young!”

As a stay-at-home mom, she raised five children and volunteered as a teacher’s aide at a local middle school. Rather than pursue the four-year degree necessary to become a teacher, Marian enrolled in a two-year nursing program. She spent her career working in psychiatric hospitals and with hospice patients. After she retired, Marian enrolled in a creative writing class at Penn State and began auditing poetry classes. The encouragement of a professor spurred her to think she might have some talent, and a poet was born.

Opening a dialogue on race and its legacy
She hopes to be able to donate copies of Unicorn in Captivity to local schools – the more she sells, the more she receives for this purpose – and has used her research and poems to open the dialogue about race and its legacy in a few Messiah College classes and some other venues. “Race is a passion of mine. It’s an important topic. We need to be able to talk about it openly and honestly, so we don’t continue to have Fergusons,” Marian says.

As for what’s next, Marian is embarking on a new poetry project exploring death and dying using experiences from her life and her work as a hospice nurse. She’s definitely not putting down her pen anytime soon.

“Age is about your spirit and how you fit in your space at any given moment,” Marian says. “When I look in the mirror, I say to myself, ‘That’s an old-looking 4th grader!’ But that 4th grader is still there. I see her.”

For information about Marian's book, click here.