Grace Notes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In Grace Notes, African-American writer Rita Dove continues to make use of the “second sight” that she once quoted W. E. B. DuBois as saying comes “from having to live in two different cultures.” Moreover, unlike many contemporary poets, she is not content to work always in the confessional mode, in which the poet’s life becomes the text. Some of the finest poems here are personal, particularly those dealing with matters such as motherhood, but Dove regularly suggests the possibility of getting outside one’s own perceptions. The poems indicate that Rita Dove possesses the quality that John Keats, the Romantic poet, called “negative capability”—the ability to feel as others feel.

Near the middle of Grace Notes, Dove proclaims, quietly and even whimsically, her “Ars Poetica,” or art of poetry. The foreign-language title is not characteristic of Dove, and it brings to mind Horace’s and Archibald MacLeish’s poems of the same title. It suggests that Dove intends to enunciate a belief and a principle. She implicitly contrasts her attitude toward writing with the attitudes of an “unknown but terribly important essayist” and an “Australian novelist” she once met. “Stop!” the reader hears the essayist yell as he leaps from a car into the empty Wyoming landscape. “I wanna be in this.” Moments later, however, he returns to the car, “crying Jesus—there’s nothing out there!” About the novelist, Dove writes that he did not cook because “it robbed creative energy,” that “What he wanted most was/to be mute,” and that “he stacked up pages.” Most tellingly: “he entered each day with an ax.

The poem’s third strophe echoes the language of the second: “What I want,” the poet writes, “is this poem to be small,/ a ghost town/ on the larger map of wills.” She amplifies her meaning by saying then that the reader can pencil her in “as a hawk:/ a traveling x-marks-the-spot.” The poem’s force is clear. The poet thinks it unnecessary for her either to define the landscape by her presence or to attack experience with an ax. She is content to be a hovering sensibility, seeing virtually everything and, as a “traveling x-marks-the-spot,” recording it. That word “recording” is important, for Dove’s poems make their points with a minimum of commentary and few editorial words. The reader senses the poet’s presence always but is free to feel without the poet’s instruction.

The forty-eight poems in Grace Notes are divided into five numbered sections of eleven, nine, seven, nine, and eleven poems, with one poem, “Summit Beach, 1921,” standing alone at the beginning of the volume. This poem serves as a preface of sorts, evoking the generation before Dove’s own. The opening lines reflect the era: “The Negro beach jumped to the twitch/ of an oil drum tattoo and a mandolin.” The mandolin brings to mind Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (the 1985 book that won for Dove the Pulitzer Prize), for in that book, the poet’s grandfather Thomas played the mandolin. Perhaps the woman in the poem is Rita Dove’s mother, but the biographical connection is neither necessary nor insisted upon. The woman is sitting by a fire on the beach and not participating in the dancing, for her father had said, “don’t be so fast,/ you’re all you’ve got.”

The poem mentions a scar on the woman’s knee “winking/ with the evening chill,” and the scar comes to mind later with the lines “When the right man smiled it would be/ music skittering up her calf/like a chuckle.” At the poem’s end, Dove accounts for the scar by comparing the breeze to the air when, as a child, the woman “climbed Papa’s shed and stepped off/the tin roof into blue,/ with her parasol and invisible wings.” This deceptively simple poem lacks didactic content, but it implies that the young woman, heeding her father’s advice, will be a little wiser the next time she takes a step into the unknown. Perhaps the next step into the unknown will be into the arms of that smiling “right man.”

The poems in section 1 treat childhood experience in various ways. “Silos” provides multiple ways to view the silos before expressing the poet’s mature judgment of them: “They were masculine toys. They were tall wishes. They/ were the ribs of the modern world.” Such a poem, while not lacking a personal center, makes its point cumulatively. An initial simile presents the silos “like martial swans in spring paraded against the city sky’s/ shabby blue.” Then, one hears a stranger’s romantic notion of their being like Pan’s pipes. The townspeople think they are like cigarettes, their bitter smell “like a field shorn of milkweed, or beer brewing, or/ a fingernail scorched over a flame.” The children’s view likens the silos to fresh chalk “dreading math work.” Finally, the poet abandons simile to say what the silos were. The phrase “masculine toys” invites the question of what feminine toys might be and what part they play in the modern world.

The personal voice sounds in “Fifth Grade Autobiography,” based on a real or imagined photograph of the poet, her brother (squatting in poison ivy), and their grandparents “at a lake in Michigan.” The focus is on the grandfather: “He smelled of lemons. He’s died—I but I remember his hands.” The “I” in this and other poems in the collection is both lyric and autobiographical. Sometimes the “I” is ideational (as, for example, in “Ars Poetica”), and sometimes it is a persona, as in one of the last poems in the book, “On the Road to Damascus,” in which the speaker is the New Testament Saul or Apostle Paul.

In some poems, Dove employs the...

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Grace Notes Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Grace Notes, the fourth of Rita Dove’s books of poetry and the first to appear after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah (1986), is divided into five sections. A single poem, “Summit Beach, 1921,” serves as an introduction to the whole work. At the center of this poem is a young woman who accepts the attentions of the young men at the beach, drinking the sassafras tea that they bring her, while at the same time holding her essential self in reserve. The poem is built on a balancing of attitudes: shyness combined with a sense of her own worth, desire in delicious tension with withdrawal, involvement in the moment played against the pull of memory. The whole adds up to a sense of heightened expectation, too luxurious to exchange for the banalities of fulfillment. The range of attitude and the quest for balance, linked to a black woman’s perceptions, foreshadow some of the major strategies and themes of the book, as developed in the sections that follow.

The first section is made up of memory poems. “The Buckeye” establishes their setting as Ohio. One poem is specifically dated 1962, when Dove was ten, and the protagonist’s tenth year is critical throughout the section. “Fifth Grade Autobiography” recalls a ten-year-old’s examination of a family photograph taken when she was four. In “Flash Cards,” a ten-year-old struggles to rise to her father’s expectations. The child is not allowed over when her “Uncle Millet” comes to town, but she manages to memorize the stories that she has heard about her no-good relative. The pull and pain of memory are fully articulated in the last poem of the section, “Poem in Which I Refuse Contemplation.” In a rambling letter, the mother of the protagonist, who is now an adult, informs her of the death by strangulation of her cousin Ronnie. Neither the protagonist’s mother nor anyone else will know the intensity of the protagonist’s memory of her cousin as he was, as they were together, when they were ten.

As memory poems, those in the first section of the book suggest the theme of time. The second section may be read as a series of variations on the protagonist’s place in a natural and social environment. Specific locations...

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Grace Notes Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

President Bill Clinton’s appointment of Rita Dove to the position of Poet Laureate in 1993, making her the youngest person ever to hold that position, certainly constitutes a positive step for women’s literature and, less dramatically, for the situation of women in general. Yet the career of Dove raises some provocative questions about the concept of women’s literature itself. Her work may be seen as the enactment of one answer to the question of what, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, a women’s literature might be.

This is a question raised by Judith Kitchen in “The Want Ad,” an article that appeared in the Georgia Review in the spring of 1990. While responding most enthusiastically to...

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Grace Notes Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Baker, Houston, Jr. Review of Grace Notes. Black American Literature Forum 24 (Fall, 1990): 574-577. A major African American critic and scholar addresses the question of Dove’s relation to African American womanist traditions, finding the key in Dove’s autobiographical lyricism and her astute precision in naming. She makes, says Baker, a cosmopolitan and common story out of everyday lives.

Booklist. LXXXVI, September 15, 1989, p.137. A review of Grace Notes.

Costello, Bonnie. “Scars and Wings: Rita Dove’s Grace Notes.” Callaloo 14 (Spring, 1991): 434-438. In what must...

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