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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

On the surface, Grace Notes might almost seem to be a kind of poetic autobiography. As a book, it is neatly divided into five discrete sections, and this five-part format corresponds, in a general way, to phases in Dove’s life. The first section deals with childhood memories, the second with her thirtieth birthday, and the third with her daughter, Aviva. The last sections, however, do not seem to follow this pattern of personal evolutionary growth, at least not on first reading. Sections 4 and 5 contain poems with such titles as “Ars Poetica,” “Medusa,” “Genie’s Prayer Under the Kitchen Sink,” “Obbligato,” and “Lint.” Yet these poems also represent part of the artistic evolution of the poet, because the most sophisticated growth occurs on the spiritual and artistic planes. The final poems thus reveal general truths about art discovered by personal meditation on items as ordinary and ubiquitous as lint.

Grace Notes is such a remarkable example of poetic craftsmanship that it might almost serve as a textbook for literary devices. Similes and metaphors abound in this little masterpiece. In the poem titled “Hully Gully,” the moon is “riding the sky/ like a drop of oil on water.” In “Horse and Tree,” the entire poem becomes a complex metaphor linking horses and trees; the rider of a beautiful tree-horse experiences the magical sensation of “hair blown to froth.”

Many of the poems in Grace Notes, however, deal with entirely personal matters—the poet as a ten-year-old child responding to flash cards, the poet’s mother, and especially her daughter, Aviva. One of the most moving and tender poems in this group is the mother-daughter poem with the improbably long title of “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed.” The poem describes the mother’s responses to her three-year-old daughter’s questions about sex and the mysteries of menstruation and genitals. “She demands,” the poet explains,

to see mine and momentarilywe’re a lopsided staramong the spilled toys,my prodigious scallopsexposed to her neat cameo.

If “scallops” and “cameo” can serve as metaphors for the most intimate parts of the female body, then a nasty cut on the arm can become an emblem for an opening in the poet’s identity. She may be a proud African American person, but she nevertheless dwells on the puzzle of skin color. In “Stitches,” after falling and receiving a gash on her arm, she immediately focuses on one thought: “So I am white underneath.” But even this bloody moment of self-recognition is transformed immediately into “grace notes,” as the ministering physician’s teeth are seen as “beavery, yellow.” He sews up her wound, and the “skin’s tugged up by his thread/ like a trout.” In fact, the poet chides herself for being so clever in a moment of pain: “You just can’t stop being witty, can you?” Yet the wittiness extends even to the punning title; her elaborate poetic “jokes” have, in effect, kept her and her audience in “stitches.” Once again, Dove and her readers have been sustained by the exquisite grace notes that resonate powerfully, and unforgettably, in all of her poems.

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