Pauli Murray is mostly known for her legal scholarship and activism work for Civil Rights throughout her life. But Murray, born in 1910 in Baltimore and raised in Durham, was also a writer in prose and poetry. She had written poetry since she was a teen. In 1970, when Murray was 60 years old, that her poems were published as a collection.
The book, “Dark Testament and Other Poems,” has poems from all eras of Murray’s life, from the 1920s on, and it’s full of her feelings and impressions from her work, her travels, her romances. The sense of living through the decades of 20th century America as a black, bisexual woman is clearly registered. The book had been out of print for some time and was picked up again and reprinted in 2018.
Murray begins “Dark Testament” boldly with this short poem.
Friends and countrymen!
I speak for my race and my people —
The human race and just people.
Here are six of Murray’s poems on love. Her poems on history and politics are passionate and sweeping. But her love poems are more quiet, although still sensual and earthy. They show a woman who was familiar with the small back-and-forth of relationships, with stormy days, and with loss.
Love’s More Enduring Uses
Round and round I’ve paced these walls of sorrow
Seeking some pitying ray of light,
This darkness presses heavily upon my mind.
Oh, I am weary of eternal night.
I would be off again, heavenbent
To catch the arrows of the sun,
Bruise my wings on tips of stars,
Ranks of snowy clouds outrun.
But love, alas, holds me captive here,
Consigned to sacrificial flame, to burn
And find no heart’s surcease until
Its more enduring uses I may learn.
We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air —
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.
But the slowly wrought words of love
And the thunderous words of heartbreak —
These we hoard.
Three times have I known tears —
When I loved you,
When I lost you,
When you lost yourself.
Dinner for Three
There were three who sat and drank of wine,
On food and laughter they fed,
They talked of worlds that hurtled by,
Yet of love — not one word was said.
But love was there, ah love was there —
Brighter than candle light,
The brave, the tender and the fair
Were hosts to love that night.
Suffused in April twilight
I lie beside you.
Still as a sepulchre
The room is vibrant with soundless voices.
Each nerve and sinew finds its counterpart,
Clings, blends and communes
Without touch or speech.
In this moment of benediction
You have retrieved your Siegfried’s blade
From years of rusted grief,
While I, bright sword redeemed,
Will flash once more in battle
To blind the eyes of tyrants.
I’ll sink my roots far down
And drink from hidden rivers,
Renew my kinship with growing things —
The little ants will hold their congresses
Upon my arm, and cautious insects
Will make brief tours across my brows
And spiders spin webs from toe to toe.
The spears of sun will prick
No blade of grass to wakefulness
But I shall feel it tremble,
No further straw be laid upon a nest,
No twig but I shall see it quiver.
I’ll hear the symphonies within a stone,
Catch every murmur of the ground,
Travel the heavens with each vagrant cloud
And mark the golden islands in the sky.