A warning: this review should be more properly called a celebration, because the publication of Rita Dove’s Collected Poems 1974-2004 is cause for just that. She was a United States Poet Laureate before she turned fifty, has won one Pulitzer Prize and is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Dove’s poems from forty two years ago, which is where this book begins, all display a crystalline sound and composition. They read as if they were always meant to be. If the book’s pages were in a loose binder, I could toss them in the air and when they landed quote from the leaf that was closest to me. They are all worthy of high praise and deep ingestion.
“In the Old Neighborhood” is the first. It is, like later work, a masterly combination of detail and music that add up to pure storytelling.
Raccoons have invaded the crawl space
of my sister’s bridal apartment.
The landlord insists they’re squirrels;
squirrels he’ll fight, not raccoons-
too ferocious and faggy, licking
their black-gloved paws.
My mother works up a sudsbath
of worries: what if
the corsages are too small,
if the candles accidentally ignite
the reverend’s sleeve?
Father prefers a more
reticent glory. He consoles
his roses- dusts them
with fungicide, spades in
fortified earth. Each summer
he brandishes color
over the neighborhood,
year after year producing
lovelier mutants: these
bruised petticoats, for instance,
or this sudden teacup
blazing empty, its rim
a drunken red smear.
I am indoors, pretending
to read today’s paper
as I had been taught
twenty years before:
“Sudsbath” is an invented word, and I have a soft spot for such terms and think everyone should because they enrich language. Dove, like other inventors, on the page or elsewhere, encountered a need and seamlessly met it in the only way possible. This sounds and looks a lot easier than it probably was. I have pondered compiling a dictionary of words created by poets, and am delighted to be reminded that someday I must.
“He liked to joke and all his jokes were practical,” she says in a poem called “Sunday Night at Grandfather’s,” an entertaining, anecdotal treasure of a scene with three generations and a parakeet. Dove’s poems are always painterly and well shaded, even when, as here, she doesn’t declare what color the bird is. Knowing what pigment to announce and what not, is always a fraught skill, and Dove has mastered it. The bird is “mean as half-baked sin,” and that’s all we need to know, with its suggestion of the snide, and harsh wrinkles, not to mention a disapproving, righteous granny, aunt or wife. Or male elder possessed of a preacher’s calling, with or without the collar.
Thomas and Beulah, which was published in 1986, is first-rate historical fiction in the guise of poetry. It opens on a Tennessee ridge with
the two Negroes leaning
on the rail of a riverboat
Dove’s eye does the talking so acutely one wants to recall each image the way one aches to hold on to what is seen on a journey that is epic. It speaks for both the author and for those who lack her voice. This classic story was performed in Chicago long ago, and it is time for a revival, especially in scenes that contain just the two main characters.
…so he wraps the yellow silk
still warm from his throat
around her shoulders. (He made
good money; he could buy another.)
A gnat flies
in his eye and she thinks
Everything here is visibly tactile, and we can see him reaching for the fly in his eye, as opposed to swatting it. There we are, with her and her tender misapprehension. We feel his body-warmth, which is gentler than the word “heat.” Slowness and clarity are present, in an impeccable mix. So I deliver an amen to earlier published praises of this composition.
In “Silos” Dove starts by comparing those Midwest icons to “martial swans in spring paraded against the city sky’s shabby blue, they were always too white/ and suddenly there.” “Shabby blue” is one of those elastic combos so right because the inner eye of every reader is just different enough to make that blue wonderfully imagined in a way that feels written ONLY FOR YOU. What we have here, and on most pages, is a universal intimacy.
Rita Dove stays true to herself as an artist, and that is reflected in the subject of every poem. Every writer comes to grips with degrees of openness about where they come from and how that is named. Work from On the Road With Rosa Parks is riveting, and “The negro and his song/are inseparable,” a crucial line in a section from the book called Cameos, connects to what is carved away and what is displayed in subtle, touchable relief. It is like a large treasured brooch from a beloved elder, or a small, delicately carved ring. That the elder may have received the jewelry from a former slave is part of what (paraphrasing Heaney) can be described as “under-text,” in a composition called “Homework” and in the lines that bracket it:
“If his music is primitive
and if it has much that
is sensuous, this is simply
a part of giving
pleasure, a quality
to the Negro’s
entire being. Indeed
his love of melody, his
childish faith in dreams’’
We have a male who does not want to be categorized and the entire composition becomes manifesto as much for one group of people as for another when considering, for example, African melodies that had Biblical lessons imposed on them, just as Klezmer or early ballads from Ireland and Scotland are musical mixes of oppression and joy. When Dove uses the word “shit,” she does not abuse it.
Writing about Dove is, as I hope I have made very evident, a multi-layered exercise in gratification, and one of the layers includes apprehending her particulars of the cruelties and beauties the world imposes, and the complex strength displayed by countless individuals. She is, happily, never far removed from her youthful memories. She takes the mundane musings of a female teenager and makes them sing, as in these spunky lines that were written by an adult who remembers what it was like to be young and thirsty for the vastness in the pleasures of books:
So I read GONE WITH THE WIND because
it was big, and haiku because they were small.
I audited history for the rhapsody of dates,
lingered over Cubist art for the way
it showed all sides of the guitar at once.
All the time in the world was there,
and sometimes all the world on a single page.
As much as I could hold on my plastic card’s imprint, i took,
greedily, six books, six volumes of bliss,
the stuff we humans are made of:
words and sighs and silence,
inks and whips, Brahma and cosine,
corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels-
I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage, where, on its boarded- up doors,
someone had scrawled :
I can eat an elephant
IF I TAKE SMALL BITES.
Yes, I said to no one in particular :
That’s what I’m gonna do!
The poem, called “Maple Valley Branch” is a thank-you note to public libraries and the multitudes they contain, and a shout-out to anyone who has ever been curious. “Rhapsody of dates” induces giddiness, and the whole poem calls out to be memorized and recited, with an in-your-face optimism so necessary at our perilous historical moment.
Dove is an absolute master of the narrative poem, in every length, and in “Bellagio, Italy,” a querulous postcard, she is in a turret on a large glacial lake, in a space that is :
Not a studio so much as an earthbound turret,
or periscope thrust
through the earth’s omphalos:
Yoo-hoo, anybody there?
The walls are sleek as a shell’s.
I will write my way out on a spiral of poems.
A mile down waits the lake, chill Cyclopean blue;
While outside the door glimmers
the lesser mirror
of an artificial pond.
Is it true goldfish grow
to fit their containers?
Circles within circles.
Rapunzel let down your hair
Most landscapes are either ancient or tampered with, and become mythologized. In this poem and in so many others, Dove gracefully reminds us why so many honors are hers. Read every word she gives. Celebrate. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.