V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Rita Dove's Eighth Book of Poetry



Rita Dove appears to have blended the lyricism
which derives from her musical background
with a fresh sense of movement and rhythm
within the poems that owes something to her developed
interest and participation in dancing.  The flow
of the lines in her poetry seems even more subtle,
more natural, and more free than in past collections. 
As the definition for the book's title suggests,
there is a greater attention to imitating motion
that mirrors improvisation and allows individual
expression.  The eloquent language is accompanied
by elegant pacing across the page.

Past commentary on Rita Dove's poetry has frequently, and correctly, focused upon its graceful phrasing of language.  As is often the case for others among our best poets, reviewers have pointed out the lyricism and musicality evident in her carefully crafted lines, even in her more narrative poems.  Indeed, given Dove's history as a trained musician and singer, not to mention the associations conveniently suggested by her last name, such comparisons between verse and song, the metrical and the musical, in her works have seemed even more natural parallels for critics to track and spotlight.
     In "The Black Dove," a chapter from Soul Says, Helen Vendler's 1995 book of criticism "on recent poetry," Vendler writes: "Technically, her poems 'work' by their fierce concision and by an exceptional sense of rhythmic pulse.  (Dove used to play the cello, still plays the viola da gamba, and is a trained singer.)  No matter how powerful her stories, no matter how sharp-edged her lines, her poems fall on the ears with solace."  Certainly, such a summary of Dove's poetic style, with its appropriate tone complemented by her finely tuned voice, provides an acute and accurate assessment for most of the poems presented in the eight collections of poetry published over the last twenty-five years by Rita Dove.
     These characteristics could easily be seen in a poem like "The Bird Frau," an example from Dove's first book, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), where readers are offered a quick description of a scene in wartime Europe, "the sun losing altitude over France / as the birds scared up from the fields, / a whirring curtain of flak."  Dove further uses her lyrical imagery to emphasize how the pain felt by the woman in the poem is exhibited:

          She hung suet from the branches, the air quick
          around her head with tiny spastic machinery
          —starlings, finches—her head a crown of feathers.
          She ate less, grew lighter, air tunneling
          through bone, singing

                                                a small song.

     Beginning with this first book, allusions to music or musical instruments and songbirds occur a number of times throughout Rita Dove's poetry, as though creating an accumulation of references for readers to trace from one collection to another.  In another instance in The Yellow House on the Corner, Dove simply records "Notes from a Tunisian Journal" in a series of vivid images:

          The nutmeg stick  of a boy in loose trousers!
          Little coffee pots in the coals, a mint on the tongue.

          The camels stand in all their vague beauty—
          at night they fold up like pale accordians.

          All the hedges are singing with yellow birds!
          A boy runs by with lemons in his hands.

          Food's perfume, breath is nourishment.
          The stars crumble, salt above eucalyptus fields.

     In an endnote from the poem "Parsley," one of the strongest works from Dove's second collection, Museum (1983), the poet reports: "On October 2, 1937, Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961), dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered 20,000 blacks killed because they could not pronounce the letter 'r' in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley."  In this poem, the dictator — haunted by his mother's death, as well as her voice carried on by a parrot — decides the very sound of one's voice, and an inability to sing with a correct inflection, would become an issue which determined each individual's life or death:

          ...the general sees the fields of sugar
          cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
          He sees his mother's smile, the teeth
          gnawed to arrowheads.  He hears
          the Haitians sing without R's
          as they swing the great machetes:
          Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

          mi madle, mi amol en muerte.  God knows
          his mother was no stupid woman; she
          could roll an R like a queen.  Even
          a parrot can roll an R!  In the bare room
          the bright feathers arch in a parody
          of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
          disappear under the blackened tongue.

     Thomas and Beulah, Dove's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection that loosely explores the lives of her grandparents in a pair of poetry sequences, portrays Thomas's need to express himself through music, as in "Variation on Pain" from the Thomas half of the book titled "Mandolin":

          He lay on the bunk, mandolin
          In his arms.  Two strings
          For each note and seventeen
          Frets; ridged sound
          Humming beneath calloused

     In a later poem from Beulah's sequence, titled "Canary in Bloom," in the same collection, the grandmother is depicted placing a canary's cage on the front porch of "The House on Bishop Street," as if a greeting to the outside world and an introduction to the lives within the home, with "strangers calling / from the street Ma'am, your bird / shore can sing!"  "Recovery," a lovely poem near the end of the book brings together the two principals in this long marriage, this couple who have shared a life:

          He's tucked his feet into corduroy scuffs
          and gone out on the porch.  From the parlor
          with its glassed butterflies, the mandolin on the wall,
          she can see one bare heel bobbing.

          Years ago he had promised to take her to Chicago.
          He was lovely then, a pigeon
          whose pulse could be seen when the moment
          was perfectly still.  In the house

          the dark rises and whirrs like a loom.
          She stands by the davenport,
          obedient among her trinkets,
          secrets like birdsong in the air.

     In a 1989 interview with Steven Schneider that first appeared in Iowa Review, Rita Dove  acknowledges that some sections of a few poems in this collection meant to imitate lyrics to Southern music are invented songs: "I made them up.  They are in the spirit of the country blues.  They are also influenced by spirituals and gospels."  Dove  recounts how she wrote the collection of poems with an influence of music, especially blues recordings: "When I was writing this book I was playing a lot of music, everything from Lightnin' Hopkins to older ones like Larry Jackson or some of the recordings that Al Lomax made of musicians, all the way up to Billie Holliday, stopping about the '50s.  It seemed to be the music for the book."
     The year 1989 also saw publication of Dove's next volume, Grace Notes, a title that carries with it an obvious connection to music, those notes not essential to the harmony or melody, but accents added as embellishments that evoke emotion or eloquently emphasize a lyrical moment.  One particularly elegant passage occurs in "Dedication," a poem written "after Czeslaw Milosz":

          Once there was a hill thick with red maples
          and a small brook
          emerging from black briars.
          There was quiet: no wind
          to snatch the cries of birds flung above
          where I sat and didn't know you yet.

          What are music or books if not ways
          to trap us in rumors?  The freedom of fine cages!

     With the first few lines of "Summit Beach, 1921," the opening poem of Grace Notes, Dove sets the musical tone: "The negro Beach jumped to the twitch / of an oil drum tattoo and a mandolin, / sweaters flying off the finest brown shoulders / this side of the world."   However, the young female subject of the poem cannot join the dancing because she is recovering from a knee injury ("the scar on her knee winking / with the evening chill").  She is restrained from participating and follows her papa's advice, "don't be so fast, / you're all you've got."  Nevertheless, she believes "when the right man smiled it would be / music skittering up her calf / like a chuckle."  The poem closes with an inpressive image of a premature leap toward freedom and a childhood desire to fly:

                                . . . She could feel
          the breeze in her ears like water,
          like the air as a child when
          she climbed Papa's shed and stepped off
          the tin roof into blue,

          with her parasol and invisible wings.

     The final poem of Grace Notes is a work that appears to perfectly complement the opening with images of contrast.  In "Old Folk's Home, Jerusalem" the perspective of a more mature woman, a poet, is presented.  ("So you wrote a few poems.  The horned / thumbnail hooked into an ear doesn't care. / The gray underwear wadded over a belt says So what.")   Her view is not one of such optimism or anticipation witnessed at the beginning of the book; instead, there is a sense of regret or resignation:

          Valley settlements put on their lights
          like armor; there's finch chit and my sandal's
          inconsequential crunch.

          Everyone waiting here was once in love.

     When Rita Dove wrote the poems for her next collection, Mother Love, a volume of poetry mostly concerned with the relationships between mothers and daughters, and with a backdrop of the mythical story of Demeter and Persephone, she had been reading Rilke's Sonnets of Orpheus, and she adapted the sonnet form for much of the new book.  As the name for the form implies and Dove reminds the reader in the book's foreword, each fourteen-line poem is a little song, tightly organized even when unrhymed and dependent upon lyricism for its impact.  The musicality of the sonnet style seemed perfect for the priority of sound Dove wanted to produce in her poems.  Dove also reports that "sonnets seemed the proper mode for most of this work" because "the Demeter/Persephone cycle of betrayal and regeneration is ideally suited for this form since all three — mother-goddess, daughter-consort and poet — are struggling to sing in their chains." 
     In  a 1998 interview conducted by Malin Pereira and published in the Summer 1999 issue of Contemporary Literature (also reprinted along with other interviews cited here, as well as a number of additional interviews Dove has given over the years, in Conversations with Rita Dove, edited by Earl G. Ingersol and published in 2003 by University Press of Mississippi), Dove states:

          I believe that language sings, has its own music,
          and I'm very conscious of the way something sounds,
          and that goes from a lyric poem all the way to an essay
          or to the novel, that it has a structure of sound which I
          think of more in symphonic terms for larger pieces.  I
          really do think that sonnets to me are like art songs. 
          That's one thing.  I also think that resolution of notes,
          the way that a chord will resolve itself, is something
          that applies to my poems—the way that, if it works,
          the last line of the poem, or the last word, will resolve
          something that's been hanging for a while.  And I
          think musical structure affects even how the poems
          are ordered in a book.  Each of the poems plays a role:
          sometimes it's an instrument, sometimes several
          of them are a section, and it all comes together
          that way too.

     By the time Rita Dove had written her seventh collection of poetry, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), any notion that her poetry was influenced by the musical background she had experienced had been repeatedly confirmed, and her poems continued to exhibit lyrical expression.   When interviewed by Robert McDowell for The Darker Face of the Earth (2001), published by Story Line Press, Dove responded to a question about musical influence on her work: "I grew up with all kinds of music — blues and jazz and popular R&B.  I have been actively involved in music since the age of ten, when I began playing the cello.  Playing chamber music taught me the cadences of fugues and the power of harmony.  I believe my poetry reflects an intensive relationship to the music of the spoken word."
     An interesting metaphoric example of the connection between music and Dove's process as a poet can be seen in "The Musician Talks about Process" from On the Bus with Rosa Parks. The musician central to this poem is Anthony "Spoons" Pough, and the speaker confides an ability to accompany anything he comes upon that pulses to a beat, no matter how simple or ordinary, and especially those rhythms of nature with which humans align themselves through song and melody:

          I can play to anything;
          a dripping faucet,
          a tambourine,
          fish shining in a creek.

          A funny thing:
          When my grandfather died,
          every creature sang.
          And when the men went out
          to get him, they kept singing.
          They sung for two days,
          all the birds, all the animals.

     Two and a half decades since the publication of her first book, music remains a constant presence in Rita Dove's work; yet, the evolution of Dove's poetry continues to reflect an enlightenment and enrichment brought about by a willingness for technical exploration and an openness to life experiences.  Although not a writer one would usually characterize as experimental, Dove has consistently employed different forms, including the villanelle and the sonnet, and personae, such as those in the slave monologues and the narratives of her grandparents, in her poetry throughout the years.  In addition to poetry, she has written a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), and a verse drama, The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), as well as a song cycle, Seven for Luck (1998), which was written to music by John Williams.  She also served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995.
     However, according to recent news reports, a devastating event that helped shape the direction of Rita Dove's latest book of poems, American Smooth, happened in 1998 when her home was struck by lightning.  She and her husband, German novelist Fred Viebahn, escaped the fire that followed and destroyed their house.  Among the items on Dove's list of things to accomplish and to lift her spirits as she was forced to start anew was to commit herself to a newly discovered desire for learning ballroom dancing.
     The title of the new collection, American Smooth, is explained in a prefatory note: "A form of ballroom dancing derived from the traditional Standard dances (e.g., Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango), in which the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression."  A number of the poems draw their titles from dance as well, such as "Fox Trot Fridays," "Ta Ta Cha Cha," "American Smooth," "Samba Summer," "Rhumba," "Bolero," or even "The Seven Veils of Salomé."
     In this new book, Rita Dove appears to have blended the lyricism which derives from her musical background with a fresh sense of movement and rhythm within the poems that owes something to her developed interest and participation in dancing.  The flow of the lines in her poetry seems even more subtle, more natural, and more free than in past collections.  As the definition for the book's title suggests, there is a greater attention to imitating motion that mirrors improvisation and allows individual expression.  The eloquent language is accompanied by elegant pacing across the page.
     An extreme example, "Rhumba," is designed with lines that alternate left margin flush and right margin flush, as well as plain text and italics.  The separation of white space between the alternating lines, along with the feeling of independence presented by the two voices in the poem, and the rocking back and forth motion one seems to sense when reading the poem appear to mimic the movement of dance partners across a ballroom floor, combining the drama of opposition with the gracefulness of synchronization.  At the same time, "Fox Trot Fridays" shows a softer and smoother movement through the poem that imitates the milder steps of dancers escaping from their difficulties one day each week through the soothing therapy of mellow music and dance:

          Thank the stars there's a day
          each week to tuck in

          the grief, lift your pearls, and
          stride brush stride

          quick-quick with a
          heel-ball-toe.  Smooth

          as Nat King Cole's
          slow satin smile,

          easy as taking
          one day at a time. . . .

     The wonderful title poem of the collection continues this mood.  The speaker reveals her thoughts about the precision of execution necessary to dance with energy and yet give the audience an impression of ease: "such perfect agony / one learns to smile through, / ecstatic mimicry / being the sine qua non / of American Smooth."  The dancer is so absorbed into the dance, so distracted by her conscious efforts to make not only the correct steps, but also all the proper body and facial movements, that she suddenly realizes she'd forgotten her partner's presence:

          I didn't notice
          how still you'd become until
          we had done it
          (for two measures?
          four?)—achieved flight,
          the swift and serene
          before the earth
          remembered who we were
          and brought us down.

     "Bolero" attempts to imitate the movement of the dance and the rhythm of the music through the use of three-line stanzas, each with an overly long first line followed by two very short lines.  The poem successfully contains language evocative of the passionate relations between the man and the woman — "a woman with hips who knows when to move them, / who holds nothing back / but the hurt // she takes with her as she dips, grinds, then rises sweetly into / his arms again."
     Although the poems in this collection that focus on dance as metaphor are delightful and innovative additions to Rita Dove's oeuvre, perhaps the most significant and ambitious contributions to Dove's repertoire are the poems contained in a section of the book titled "Not Welcome Here," a series of historical poems about African-American fighting men during World War I.  An endnote explaining this section offers the following history:

          African-Americans clamoring to enlist for combat
          during World War I came up against the bulwark
          of Race: The American armed forces, segregated
          and intransigent, showed no trust in the combat-
          worthiness of the would-be soldiers, who languished
          stateside until the French, who knew no such
          squeamishness, asked for them.  The celebrated
          369th was the first regiment to arrive; by war's end,
          it had logged the longest time in continuous combat
          (191 days) and received a staggering number of medals
          (170 individual Croix de Guerre) It was also the
          first regiment to fight its way to the Rhine in 1918.

     Even in this section, however, the works begin with references to music and dance in the initial poem, "The Castle Walk."  The subject of the poem is James Reese Europe, an African-American bandleader at the time of World War I who was hired along with his orchestra to provide the music for Vernon and Irene Castle, the most famous dance team of the time and favorites of elite New York City society.  Conscious of the contrasts between the music the band usually plays and the tastes of their uptown white audience, the speaker confides how he chooses to dilute the music some:

                      . . . pour on

          the violins, insinuate
          a little cello,
          lay some grizzly piano

          under that sweey jelly roll.
          Our boys got a snap and buzz
          no one dancing

          in this gauze and tinsel
          showroom knows how
          to hear . . . .

   The reader is then informed of another contrast which concerns the speaker, the carefree and careless atmosphere of the upper-class socialites juxtaposed to the growing violence and evil of war across the ocean.  Also, the ever-present gap between the black and white communities or cultures in the United States ("Those white folks stalk / through privilege / just like they dance") parallels the emerging gap between the self-absorbed wealthy elite secure in New York and the endangered populations encountering a daily threat of death and destruction in Europe ( "the old world's / torched").  Using the collective "we," the speaker comments:

          We ain't nobody

          special, but at least we know it:
          Across the black Atlantic,
          they're trampling up the map

          into a crazy quilt of rage
          and honor; here,
          the biggest news going

          would be Irene and Vernon
          teaching the Castle Walk.
          (Trot on, Irene!  Vernon, fake that

          juke joint slide.)

     Near the end of this section, the same main figure makes another appearance in a work titled "The Return of Lieutenant James Reese Europe."  In this poem, the bandleader is directing his group of soldiers, just returned from war in Europe, in a victory parade through New York City.  This poem acts as a perfect complement to the earlier one.  In contrast to the safe haven of upper-class society seen in the previous poem, the African-American men in this poem have witnessed the effects of war and been involved in entertaining completely different audiences, have tried to ameliorate the suffering of others:

          We toured devastation, American good will
          in a forty-four piece band.  Dignitaries smiled; the wounded
          settled back to dream.  That old woman in St. Nazaire
          who tucked up her skirts so she could "walk the dog."
          German prisoners tapping their feet as we went by.

     This poem also exhibits a greater sense of pride for what the men have endured and accomplished, as they march straight through midtown New York ("stepping right up white-faced Fifth Avenue") and on up toward Harlem performing music reminiscent of where they have been, and displaying their war medals for all to see:

          No jazz for you: We'll play a brisk French march
          and show our ribbons, flash our Croix de Guerre
          (yes, we learned French, too) all the way
          until we reach 110th Street and yes! take our turn
          onto Lenox Avenue and all those brown faces . . . .

     The most extensive poem in this section — indeed, the longest poem in the book — is "The Passage," which consists of nine parts, each a diary entry written between March 30 and April 7 of 1917 by an African-American soldier aboard ship during his Atlantic crossing toward war in Europe.  The soldier and speaker in the poem ("Corporal Orval E. Peyton, 372nd Infantry, 93rd Division, A.E.F.") upon whose diaries and reminiscences the work is based, was a friend of Rita Dove whom she first met in Tucson in 1987.  The voice of the diary entries detailed in this poem is effectively flat at times, recording ordinary moments in an extraordinary time of history; yet, the content is often compelling and contemplative: "This will be a day never to be forgotten"; "I am not worried; I am anxious to go"; "When I think that I am a thousand miles / from land, in the middle of the Ocean, / I am not a bit impressed as I imagined I would be. / Things have certainly changed"; "I wonder where I'll be this time next year."
     The poem's description of the soldiers' march toward port for their journey overseas appears as an appropriate precursor to the victory parade narrated in "The Return of Lieutenant James Reese Europe," quoted above but placed later in the section:

                  . . . I looked back at
          several hundred men
          marching toward they knew not what.
          When we passed through the lower end of the city
          a few colored people
          stood along the street, watching.
          One lady raised her apron to wipe away a tear.

     As the ship nears the coast of France, approaches the horrors of the war ashore, a hospital ship is passed and war news arrives nightly on the wireless.  Peyton writes in his diary of the mood on ship, a mixture of eagerness and anxiety, and the strength the men drew from one another as they anticipated the battles ahead:

                                       . . . Ever since supper
          there has been a bunch on deck laughing,
          singing and dancing.  A large wave swept
          over the planks and drenched us all but
          the stronger the sea, the more noise we made.
          At last, just as Pickney had finished
          a mock speech with "I thank you, ladies and gentlemen,"
          a larger wave poured a foot of water on the deck.

          The sailors had crowded around us; they say
          pity the Germans when a bunch like us hit them.

     In the last diary entry, after services for a cook who has died on board, a sense of resignation and resolve arises from the solitary reflections written, as well as a feeling of relief that the ocean crossing is nearly over:

          This is an ideal Sunday afternoon:
          I wonder what we would be doing back home
          if I was there.  Now I will read awhile
          and then lie down.  I am tired of the voyage.
          I suppose there are lonesome days before me,
          but no more so than those that have already passed.
          I can make myself contented.

     Once the soldiers have driven inland toward the war and confront the violent realities of battle, the images and language of Dove's poetry drifts adeptly to fit the shifting moods.  A powerful poem ("La Chapelle. 92nd Division. Ted.") carries the date of September, 1918.  Underneath its title the poem opens ironically with an explanation that the "lonely beautiful word / means church." The poem continues with a serene setting and almost silent atmosphere, the town deserted except for a single cow.  "La Guerre is asleep," and the soldiers experience a momentary pause, provided unexpectedly, from the noise and destruction of the war:

          . . . it is quiet here; the stone
          walls curve
                              like slow water.
          When we arrived the people were already gone,
          green shutters latched and stoops swept clean.
          A cow lowed through the village,
          pushing into our gloves her huge
          sodden jaw.

     However, even in this brief respite soldiers are unable to escape their ever-present thoughts of war.  They are cognizant of the losses they have suffered, and they are conscious of dangers that loom ahead.  A delicate transition deftly occurs in the poem's language, mood, and imagery:

                                   Here, even the wind has edges.
          Drizzle splintered around us; we stood
          on the arched bridge and thought
          for a moment of the dead we had left
          behind in the valley, in the terrible noise.

     The section's final poem, "Ripont," relates a visit by Rita Dove, her husband, and their baby daughter to the French battlefields of the 369th:

          the great war's Negro Soldiers
          who it was said fought like tigers
          joking as the shells fell around them
          so that the French told the Americans
          Send us more like these and they did and so
          the Harlem Hellfighters earned their stripes
          in the War To End All Wars

     About three-quarters of a century had passed since the war, and at first the quiet scenes in the villages through which Dove drives seem eerily similar to those images of the deserted town found by the soldiers in "La Chapelle. 92nd Division. Ted."; though, the language in this poem is richer with vivid description and a tone more identifiable as the poet's own voice.  She views pastures bisected by cow paths and hamlets: "noonday silence dreary stone barns and a few / crooked houses cobblestones boiling up / under our wheels the air thick with flies / the sky streaked cream stirred in a cup."  However, soon the family comes upon a location that has remnants preserved from the way it had been during the war:

          This was the village before that September
          decades ago before victory ploughed through
          leaving her precocious seeds.  Past
          the brambles the broken staves of barbed wire
          we could see a frayed doorway a keystone
          frame of a house gone a-kilter
          like a child's smudged crayon drawing

     They stop at a memorial site for one of the battles where fallen soldiers of the 369th had been buried, African-American soldiers alongside French.  Mistaken for descendents of the dead, Dove and her husband allow the crowd at the memorial to believe this error as the people wave and the baby daughter waves back.  Dove confides finally that she could not write of that day until only now, many years later, and for her daughter, as the poem closes with a dedication — "for Aviva, leaving home":

          We kept on until twilight stopped us
          found an inn in a town not starred on our map
          where I sat in a room at a small wooden table
          by the side of our bed and wrote nothing
          for thirteen years not a word in my notebook
          until today  

     An unfortunate alignment in the organization of this collection of poems positions a fairly weak section titled "Twelve Chairs" immediately following the extremely powerful "Not Welcome Here."  In the endnotes, Dove describes "Twelve Chairs" as a section in which "most of these pieces — some in slightly different form — can be found carved on the backs of twelve marble chairs in the lobby of the Federal Court House in Sacramento, California as part of an installation by designer Larry Kirkland." 
     In a profile of Rita Dove by Renee H. Shea that appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of the magazine Poets & Writers, Dove clarifies that the thirteen brief poems (twelve are titled for seated jurors and one is for an alternate) were commissioned for colaboration with an architect, and she had to keep in mind the chairs around a table could be read in any order rather than the sequence that appears in the pages of the book.  In the article, Dove explains the section's placement as the third of five in the collection, that they were to serve "as a fulcrum because [the collection] is all about our particular, American brand of justice."  Though the rationalization for this section and its positioning sounds logical, the very short poems come across as slight and ineffective, especially when compared to the cogent poetry in much of the rest of the collection.
     For instance, "Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove" is a more convincing and forceful poem that appears in the following section, "Blues in Half-Tones, 3/4 Time."  Rita Dove revisits in this piece a theme she has perfected in the past, portraying an African-American icon, particularly a strong or influential black woman.  In an endnote, Dove reports: "Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar (Best Actress in a Supporting Role) for her portrayal of Mammy in the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind." 
     This remarkable poem offers an introduction, with exquisite imagery, to McDaniel in the magnificent first few lines, as she enters "late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias / scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent, / her gloves white, her smile chastened. . . ."  During the course of the poem, Dove not only describes Hattie McDaniel's entrance — "striding into the ballroom / where no black face has ever showed itself / except above a serving tray" — but she also manages to encapsulate the lifetime of experiences and relationships that have brought McDaniel to this moment on this evening: "the little lady in Showboat whose name / Bing forgot" or "the four husbands, the phantom / pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated / ice box cake" or "Your giggle above the red petticoat's rustle, / black girl and white girl walking hand in hand / down the railroad tracks / in Kansas City, six years old."
     The poem slowly, surely, steadily leads up to the moment of McDaniel's important entrance and a word of instruction from the speaker, a bit of advice perhaps for all, to savor this significant moment:

                                 . . . Three million dishes,
          a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
          you are: poised, between husbands
          and factions, no corset wide enough
          to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
          by that spontaneous smile—your trademark,
          your curse.  No matter, Hattie: It's a long beautiful walk
          into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
          so go on
          and make them wait.

     With poems as strong as this one and many others included in American Smooth, Rita Dove continues to accumulate an impressive record of poetry that examines her world and the worlds of others, past and present, with insight and compassion.  She once again brilliantly explores even more closely themes or forms she has shown mastery over before; yet, in this collection Dove also dares to discover new areas of interest and additional poetic techniques that provide fresh subject matter and novel presentations.  At times, the works in American Smooth exhibit ambitious and adventurous attempts at innovative style as well as a widening historic scope that has marked Dove's poetry in the past with distinction. 
     Much like the fox in "Quick" that is envied for its "pure purpose / poured into flight," or the dancer in "American Smooth" who feels she has temporarily "achieved flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence," Rita Dove's words of poetry move gracefully and sharply across the page with an elegant sense of purpose, one that often elevates even subjects frequently overlooked as ordinary to a higher level, until we realize, as the final lines in "Against Flight" observe, we are "bare to the stars, buoyant in the sweet sink of earth." 
     The experience of reading one of the fine poems by Rita Dove in this book can be as thrilling as defying gravity for just a short time, as if one had joined the leaping dancers in their momentary and exhilarating suspension in air until, as the title poem reminds in its closing lines, "the earth / remembered who we were / and brought us down."  Fortunately, there are many potent poems in this collection, each one allowing readers to leap again and again with "just the sweep of Paradise / and the space of a song // to count all the wonders in it" ["Fox Trot Fridays"]. 
     As in a dance performed perfectly, in which each partner must do his or her part with exactly the right feel for the other's presence, as well as an awareness about the presence of an audience watching every step, in American Smooth Rita Dove writes with a precise feel for the presence of others, whether they be the array of subjects who populate her poetry — some striding beside her and others independently moving through the experiences central to their own lives — or the numerous readers whose lives are enriched by following them line by line, foot by foot, and one step after another.            

Dove, Rita. American Smooth. New York, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. ISBN: 0-393-05987-1  $22.95

© by Edward Byrne


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