Grace Notes Essay - Critical Essays

Rita Dove


While Grace Notes is neither a poem nor a sequence, it is not merely a gathering of poems either; it is carefully and effectively shaped as a book. Not one of its five sections has the sort of unity that would lend itself to easy summation, yet each has its own thematic identity and makes a distinct contribution to the design of the whole.

The first section has the feel of autobiography. Without insisting upon it, the poems invite the reader to interpret them as moments in the life of a single protagonist, in some way descended from the girl encountered in “Summit Beach, 1921.” The poems of the second section focus on their protagonist’s awareness of the limits imposed on the self by what is outer and “other”—thus the emphasis on specific locations, on the natural environment, and on other people, as well as the “resolution” of the section in the acknowledgment of the death of another.

As in the first section, the emphasis in the third is on the personal and the familial, with the protagonist now assuming the role of mother rather than child. The mother is black, and the child’s father is white. (Rita Dove married a German novelist.) Yet, as they discover when the child insists on comparing her vagina to her mother’s, they are also pink, they are in the pink, the pink is in them. In this pivotal section of the book, and at one of its most intimate moments, Dove reminds the reader that diversity exists and is to be cherished, not only among groups but within the individual self as well.

The book’s fourth section turns outward once again, gazing with reserves of irony, sometimes bordering on the satirical, on a milieu dominated by the intellectual and the academic. Moving beyond the personal and personally known in the last section of the book, Dove assimilates figures of the distant and recent past to her poetic vision. The poet thus remains true to the task of knowing herself by discovering and defining her place in the world.