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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