Rita Dove Essay - Critical Essays

Rita Dove American Literature Analysis

The title of Dove’s Grace Notes might well serve as a metaphor for her basic strategy as a writer, for everything she writes is, to some extent, a “grace note,” a subtle embellishment or addition to the basic “melody” of experience. Dove’s attention as a poet is always on the overtones, the implications, the echoes, and reverberations of meaning that somehow surround even the simplest of plain facts. “Silos,” the poem that opens the first section of Grace Notes, is a telling example of this powerful tendency in her writing.

At first glance, a group of silos may not seem like a very promising subject. Silos are merely humble receptacles for storing grain. They are the plain, generic landmarks of the Midwest, largely ignored and unconsciously accepted by nearly everyone who sees them—except, that is, the poet. For Dove, the white silos represent a marvelous string of metaphorical possibilities, even if they are “too white and/ suddenly there.” She rejects the obvious similarities, refusing to see the silos as “swans,” “fingers,” “xylophones,” or “Pan’s pipes.” Instead, she sides with the children who recognize them as a huge “packet of chalk.” She ends with her own favorite comparisons, suggesting erotic, surreal, and anatomical possibilities for looking at silos: “They were masculine toys. They were tall wishes. They/ were the ribs of the modern world.” The point is that if Dove can make such an artistic production from the simplicity of silos, then anything becomes a possible—and fruitful—subject matter for her art.

Grace Notes as a title and silos as a subject are also ways of talking about the two poles that define the boundaries of Dove’s writing—the aesthetic and the autobiographical. The concept of “grace notes” is eminently aesthetic, the product of a mind that is steeped in music. Indeed, musical references abound in Dove’s work. The heroine of Through the Ivory Gate is a cellist. Fifth Sunday, Dove’s short-story collection, contains a piece titled “The Vibraphone” that concerns a classical pianist who turns to jazz and “new age” music. Thomas of Thomas and Beulah also happens to be a musician, a gifted mandolin player.

Musical cues are not the only aesthetic concerns voiced in Dove’s work. The cellist-heroine of Through the Ivory Gate is also a talented actress and puppeteer. Grace Notes even contains a poem titled “Ars Poetica” (the art of poetry), as if to signal the reader that these poems are not only about things but also about the nature of art itself. In fact, Dove, although she wears her learning lightly, is a profoundly cultured woman who often makes delicate and appropriate references to the great composers and artists of the Western world. Each section of Grace Notes, for example, opens with an epigraph or quotation from such writers as Toni Morrison, David McFadden, Hélène Cixous, and Claude McKay.

The mention of African American writers such as Morrison and McKay brings the reader to the other pole of Dove’s literary world—the realm of autobiography and the self. Dove is clearly not a “black” writer in the manner of such poets as Maya Angelou or Gwendolyn Brooks, nor is she overtly concerned with African American history in the manner of novelists Alex Haley and Richard Wright. Because Dove’s mature work began in the late 1970’s, she did not feel the need to repeat the highly charged political or social themes of earlier African American writers. Dove, then, could best be described as an African American author who is most concerned about representing art and autobiography in her work—not in putting forth a political agenda, no matter how valid or urgent, and for whom the woman’s life is at the center of her work.

Dove’s work, however, never omits her African American heritage, nor does it sidestep the issues of racism or bigotry. Her focus, in her poetry and in her fiction, is on the personhood of the voices and characters she evokes. One does not encounter African American stereotypes in Dove’s work. Her characters and the voices one hears in her poetry speak wisely and with profound conviction; in fact, one might even argue that Dove has helped to redefine the image of African Americans in American literature.

Dove thus draws upon the totality of her own experience as well as on the history and traditions of her own family, including a musician grandfather, an overbearing mother, and a proudly intellectual father. She recalls, in minute detail, the particulars of specific streets and houses in Akron, the noise and smells of industries, and the various shades of gray taken on by a sky filled with smoke, smog, snow, and the ever-present mists of the Great Lakes. In this connection, the silos from Grace Notes become one more talisman, allowing the poet to call up the past.

In like manner, Dove uses her memories of Phoenix and the Arizona desert landscape to great advantage in the flashbacks of Through the Ivory Gate, a novel in which the heroine lives in Akron before her family moves to Phoenix. Dove uses memories of Germany in “Poem in Which I Refuse Contemplation” from Grace Notes, a poem in which she receives a letter from her African American mother while she is living with her German mother-in-law. The result is a realistic transcription, with quotations from the actual letter, and also an artistic transformation in which autobiographical fact becomes artistic truth. This interplay between art and autobiography is the hallmark of Dove’s work, creating everything that is beautiful, memorable, and most human in her writing.

Thomas and Beulah

First published: 1986

Type of work: Poetry

Thomas, an African American man, leaves the South for Ohio, marries Beulah, and raises a large family.

Thomas and Beulah is a tour de force, a virtuoso performance by a major poet operating at the height of her powers. Thomas and Beulah takes the form of a two-part book of narrative poems that collectively tell the stories of Thomas (in “Mandolin,” the book’s first part) and his wife, Beulah (in “Canary in Bloom,” the second part). The parts are meant to be read sequentially and offer the male and female perspectives on some seventy years of private history. The two parts are followed by a “Chronology” that provides an imagined framework of the critical years in the married life of Thomas, a mandolin player and talented tenor, and Beulah, his proud and sometimes unforgiving spouse. The poems are a mixture of lush imagery involving food, musical instruments, cars, and weather, as well as quotations from songs and specimens of actual “Negro” speech. Although the poems form interlocking units, many of them (such as “The Zeppelin Factory” and “Pomade”) are self-sufficient and freestanding works of art that could be read individually, without reference to the book as a whole.

The story is a fairly simple one, even if the reader must fill in some gaps. Thomas takes a riverboat and leaves Tennessee. After two years of rambling and playing his mandolin, he settles in Akron, where there are many good jobs, and where Beulah’s family has already established itself after leaving Georgia. Thomas cuts a dashing figure, with his mandolin and fancy clothes, and becomes a womanizer. Beulah is naturally suspicious of him, but they eventually marry, and his dalliances with various women (“canaries”) cease as he becomes a respectable family man, a member of the church choir, and, finally, a grandfather. Beulah takes up dressmaking. Thomas dies in 1963, the year of the March on Washington, and Beulah dies six years later.

Thomas is captured in poems such as “Jiving” (about his mandolin playing), “The Zeppelin Factory,” and “Aircraft” (about his work at the Goodyear plant). “Roast Possum,” though, epitomizes the man and his unique speech, as he talks to his granddaughters in language that is both colloquial and literary. He uses similes and metaphors to dramatize the possum’s ferocity (“teeth bared like a shark’s” and “torpedo snout”), ending his description with a folksy twist as he notes that even the possum was no match “for old-time know-how.”

Beulah comes to life in such poems as “Dusting,” in which she dusts every item in the house while trying to recall the name of a long-forgotten boyfriend—Maurice, the final word of the poem. “Weathering Out” shows her wobbling around the house during the awkward months of pregnancy. “Pomade” is...

(The entire section is 3558 words.)