What is the theme of "Daystar" by Rita Dove?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Rita Dove is an African-American poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of works both fiction and non-fiction. This poem, "Daystar," reflects the plight of a mother and wife who can only find peace in an hour of silence between her two consuming obligations. 

The tone of the poem is best reflected in the description of the everyday items and circumstances of the speaker's life. The diapers are steaming as they hang on the line, a doll is slumping behind the door, she lugs a chair to a quiet spot behind the garage, her daughter Liza is pouting, and her husband Thomas is rolling and lurching into her. These are most of the major images in the poem, and not one of them is positive. In fact, they are heavy with the weight of her duties, obligations, and cares. These images are the reflection of a woman who is weary and who is desperate for just a few quiet moments.

The primary theme of this poem is connected to all of these ideas. We meet a woman who, at the beginning of the poem is carrying out the duties of motherhood. We know that she is working hard and is thankful for the short hour when her daughter takes a nap. At the end of the poem she is primarily a wife who must meet the needs of her husband, despite her exhaustion. It is only what happens in the middle that is most interesting to her and which moves us toward the theme.

When she has a short respite, she drags a chair behind the garage, probably one of the least glamorous places in any home. She stares at dried up bugs and whatever else is there; sometimes there is nothing at all to look at.

Sometimes there were things to watch-- 
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket, 
a floating maple leaf.

Other days she stared until she 
was assured when she closed 
her eyes she'd only see her own 
vivid blood.

What she does during those few moments of peace does not matter. Looking at bugs or leaves or the back of her own eyelids is all the same to her. What does matter is that it is her time, a time to build a palace, which is of course a metaphor for dreaming of something better, finer, and grander than what she lives out in her life day to day.

Notice that we know her daughter's name, Liza, and her husband's name, Thomas, but we do not know the woman's name. Of course that is the point. She has been absorbed by her family and has nothing left for herself, nothing but a few short minutes in a chair behind the garage, surrounded by withered up bugs and field mice, in which she dreams of something more. She has no name because she barely exists as anything but a wife and a mother.

The final lines of the poem are representative of this theme, as well. That hour is the only thing she has that gives her any solace in the midst of the weary life which no longer seems to belong to her. 

She would open her eyes 
and think of the place that was hers 
for an hour--where she was nothing, 
pure nothing, in the middle of the day.

The unanswered question of this poem is whether that one hour, that "daystar," will be enough to keep her alive or if she will collapse under the weight of being what others have made her. For sure that is all that is keeping her alive now. 

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