An Award-Winning Poet
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Rita Dove is a major force in contemporary American poetry. She has published seven full-length books of poems (her Selected Poems gathers the contents of her first three books), received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and spent two years as poet laureate of the United States (1993-1994). She was born August 28, 1952, in Akron, Ohio, and grew up with two younger sisters and an older brother. Her father, the first African American industrial chemist to work for Goodyear Tires, figures prominently in several of her poems. She shares her father’s love of mathematics and science but has embraced her mother’s love of literature and describes herself as an avid reader since early childhood. The poem “Geometry,” from her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), begins, “I prove a theorem and the house expands.”In her introduction to her Selected Poems (1993), Dove describes herself as “passionate about books,” and she tells of writing a novel when she was in elementary school: “The words led me, not the other way around.” Helen Vendler has described Dove’s imagination as “rapid, extrapolative, montage-like, and relational.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1973 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Dove attended the University of Tübingen, where she studied German and modern European literature on a Fulbright fellowship. She received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1977, and while there she met her future husband, German writer Fred Viebahn, who was teaching at Oberlin College. They married in 1979 and spent two years writing in Israel and Germany. From 1981 to 1989, Dove taught at Arizona State University, and in 1983 their daughter Aviva was born. Since 1989, they have lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove teaches as Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She is an accomplished cellist and singer with classical voice training, and she and her husband are competitive ballroom dancers.
Poetry Without Limits
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As an African American writer with strong European connections and a sense of the past as well as the present, Dove has claimed a vast world for her subject matter, one full of mysteries, small objects, broken promises, desires, contradictions, cruelties, and strange weathers. She explores the particularities of race, gender, and culture in the interstices of everything and everywhere. At the end of “Nexus,” from her first book, the “giant praying mantis” that has haunted her efforts to write from his place at the window expands and is transformed when she walks into the evening:
I walked outside;the grass hissed at my heels.Up ahead in the lapping darknesshe wobbled, magnified and absurdly green,a brontosaurus, a poet.
In The Yellow House on the Corner, Dove’s subjects range from a slave mutiny in “The Transport of Slaves from Maryland to the Mississippi” to classical music in “Robert Schumann: Or, Musical Genius Begins with Affliction.” Her verse ranges from the simple, domestic images of “Small Town” to the surreal imagery of the three poems entitled “Adolescence,” in which the first-person speaker encounters “three seal men with eyes as round/ As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.”
Dove’s second book, Museum (1983), continues to range broadly through geography and history. Notes at the end provide information on a Chinese empress, on Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Catherine of Siena, on Benjamin Banneker, and on Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s murder of twenty thousand black Haitian workers for their inability to pronounce properly the Spanish word for parsley. This last horror is presented coolly yet powerfully in the final poem, “Parsley,” which is composed in two parts. The first is a villanelle, reminding readers of Dove’s fascination with formalism. Her ninth book, Mother Love (1995), incorporates many free-verse sonnets, of which Dove inquires rhetorically in her foreword, “Can’t form also be a talisman against disintegration?” Chaos, she writes, lurks outside the gate, but the sonnet “defends itself against the vicissitudes of fortune by its charmed structure.”
One of the most talked about poems in Museum is “Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove,” which reflects on a 1929 painting by Christian Schad that was used for the book’s cover. This poem, along with the next, “At the German Writers Conference in Munich,” contributes to the establishment of a cosmopolitan perspective that various readers, such as Greek critic Ekaterini Georgoudaki, have admired in Dove from the outset. Dove has been fortunate in her critics, having attracted the favorable notice of such commentators as Arnold Rampersad and Helen Vendler. The advent of book-length treatments of the writer and her work constituted an important step in the march toward literary canonization. Significant in this respect, the first such treatment was the product of a European critic, Therese Steffen, whose Crossing Color (2001) addresses, among other matters, how Dove’s writings “fit into the African-American, U.S. and international scene.” The second book-length study of Dove’s writing is Malin Pereira’s Rita Dove’s Cosmopolitanism (2003). As Georgoudaki observes, Dove “speaks with the voice of a world citizen who places her personal, racial, and national experience within the context of the human experience as a whole.” Directly following the two poems mentioned above, Dove offers a section titled “My Father’s Telescope,” nine personal poems that reflect on family relations in such a way that readers are almost always aware of a tension between the personal, even the autobiographical, and the world at large.
Thomas and Beulah
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Dove’s third collection of poems, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah (1986), draws on the experiences of her own grandparents, a connection suggested by the printing of their photos on the book’s cover and acknowledged by Dove in interviews, though not explicitly stated in the book. The volume concentrates on the separate lives of a married couple. Dove allots first twenty-three poems to Thomas and then twenty-one to Beulah, and she provides a chronology dating from Thomas’s birth in 1900 until Beulah’s death in 1969. Their individual lives are shown obliquely in relation to larger social forces and events, such as the March on Washington in 1963.
The stories of Thomas and Beulah are told separately, from their youthful experiences before they met, through a long marriage, and on to old age and death. Each member of the couple is presented as essentially alone, with his or her greatest pains, disappointments, and dreams kept private from others, but shared with readers in a cryptic and fragmented way. The effect is eerily intimate while at the same time tragically distant. Thomas grieves and perhaps feels some guilt for his drowned friend Lem; consequently, he appears slow to find other sources of meaning and affirmation. Late in his sequence, in “Roast Possum,” Thomas reveals a passionate desire to teach a manly kind of woods lore, survival skills, and a capacity for enjoyment to his one grandson, significantly named Malcolm. The poem contains a pun on Malcolm X’s birth name, Malcolm Little: “it was for Malcolm, little/ Red Delicious, that he invented/ embellishments.” Beulah is given no single tragic incident to mourn. Instead, she evinces a subtle movement from disappointment to fantasies to meditative resignation, or possibly wisdom. In “Headdress,” working as a milliner, Beulah lets the hat she has created for another woman become the image of her own dreams:
The brim believesin itself, itsdouble rose and feathersashiver. Extravaganceredeems. Ointimate parasolthat teaches to walkwith grace along beauty’s seam.
Among all her achievements in Thomas and Beulah, Dove’s handling of narrative voice has generated the most commentary. Praising the discipline and compression of Thomas and Beulah, Bonnie Costello analyzes Dove’s success in overcoming the problems of how to “get years of her grandparents’ joy and anguish into spare lines without presuming to sum up for them; how to telescope distances of place, background, dreams, without narrating,” and pronounces Dove’s solutions to be brilliant. In his essay on the book, John Shoptaw discusses “One Volume Missing,” in which Thomas purchases an incomplete set of encyclopedias “for five bucks/ no zebras, no Virginia,/ no wars.” Shoptaw sees the poem as providing a clue to understanding the “gaps, divisions, and deletions” in Dove’s own collection. Dove’s poetry is a “fragmentary alphabet,” according to Shoptaw, and “the never-never Volume that would integrate . . . the narrator and her stories, must remain missing.”
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Of her fourth volume of poetry, Dove has commented, “With Grace Notes I had several things in mind: every possible meaning of grace, and of notes, and of grace notes, and also a little added riff.” In writing Grace Notes (1989), she sought to counter “the heavy weight of Thomas and Beulah, which had such a big scope.” The collection marks Dove’s return to a purely lyric mode, but an autobiographical impulse also dominates the work. More than in any of her previous collections, Dove can be seen as the actor in each vignette, whether as a young child learning a brutal lesson in the Southern black school of survival (“Crab-Boil”) or as a mother groping for a way to reveal feminine mysteries to her own young daughter (“After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed”). In the ironic “Ars Poetica,” she places herself on the literary chain of being with what might pass for self-deprecation. Her ambition is to make a small poem, like a ghost town, a minute speck on the “larger map of wills”: “Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:/ a traveling x-marks-the-spot.” In her assessment of Grace Notes, Bonnie Costello finds that the literary features readers have grown to appreciate in Dovearise here in their finest form: descriptive precision, tonal control, metaphoric reach within uncompromising realism. Moreover, she has brought these talents to bear upon a new intimacy and moral depth, served by memory and imagination working together.
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Accomplished though she is as a poet, Rita Dove also writes fiction, and discussion of her poetry can benefit from an awareness of her work in that genre. Her slim volume of short stories, Fifth Sunday, was published in 1985 and her novel, Through the Ivory Gate, in 1992. Her stories convey some of the same qualities of compression and understatement that are found in her poems, along with a similar range of locations between Europe and America. Included among the eight stories in Fifth Sunday are “Zulus,” about an American motorcycle gang crashing the wedding of one of its own; “Vibraphone,” about a woman music student who follows one of her musical heroes to a revealing and disappointing meeting in Italy; and “The Spray Paint King,” a moving story about an outlaw graffiti artist. The poignant title story tells of adolescent infatuation.
The subject of incest broached in “Aunt Carrie,” the last story of Fifth Sunday, is revisited in Through the Ivory Gate, which Malin Pereira describes as “a novel of artistic development.” The novel “underlines the importance of reading the episode as a symptom of a repressed primal scene of cultural amalgamation” and concerns the protagonist’s resolution “of some of the tensions about her life as a cultural mulatto.” The main character, Virginia, abandons her relationship with a black man to work with a white man, a puppeteer in an Off-Broadway play. As Pereira observes, the title “alludes to Virginia’s one-way, no-turning-back passage through the gates of the traditionally white-identified, college-educated, middle-class,” and it addresses the issue of maintaining “racial and cultural affiliation when one has gone through the ’ivory gate’ and become culturally mixed.” In Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), the gate of ivory is that of false dreams.
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Following the 1993 edition of her Selected Poems, which collected her first three books of poetry but did not include the poems from Grace Notes, Dove moved into drama with the verse play The Darker Face of the Earth (pb. 1994, pr. 1996), set on a plantation in antebellum South Carolina. Taking its origins from the Oedipus tragedy, the play in fourteen scenes concerns both incest and miscegenation, and it comes to its climax in a slave revolt, but the slaves’ cry of freedom at the end resonates with bitter irony. First aired at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in the summer of 1996, the play was also staged in the fall of 1997 at The Kennedy Center.
Therese Steffen connects Dove’s use of myth in the verse play with her next collection of poems, Mother Love (1995), which is composed largely of free-verse sonnets (more than forty in number, including the title poem, a double sonnet). In these poems, Dove revisits the myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, providing a two-page introduction in which she comments on her use both of the sonnet form and of the ancient story. She declares the myth to refer to “a modern dilemma as well,” that point at which “a mother can no longer protect her child, when the daughter must go her own way into womanhood.” In “Persephone, Falling,” for example, the mother’s voice is offered parenthetically as she warns her daughter to go straight to school and not to speak to strangers, but when Persephone leans over to pull a narcissus, she has “strayed from the herd” and Hades (not named in the poem) springs from the earth “on his glittering terrible/ carriage” and claims “his due.”
In the seven-poem sequence “Persephone in Hell,” which is not composed of sonnets, the first-person speaker appears as a naïve young woman in contemporary Paris “girded” with “youth and good tennis shoes” and speaking just “seven words of French.” In the remarkable six-sonnet sequence “The Bistro Styx,” Demeter meets with her daughter, her “blighted child,” who poses as a nude model for a painter of
appalling canvases,faintly futuristic landscapes strewnwith carwrecks and bodies being chewedby rabid cocker spaniels.
As Pat Righelato has observed, Dove elsewhere has acknowledged her debt to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) in producing her modern-day Persephone.
In her next book, her sixth full-length collection of poems, Dove declared by her title, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), that she would be returning to the context of African American history and culture. The title applies to the ten-poem sequence with which the book ends, looking back to Rosa Parks’s historic refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955. The book opens with a ten-poem narrative sequence entitled “Cameos,” which follows the lives of Lucille, pregnant among the plastic flamingos; her absent husband Joe, who “ain’t studying nobody;” and their son, from 1925 until about 1940. This sequence not only asserts Dove’s return to familiar turf but also introduces a new interest in form. This time, the poet is concerned with concrete verse, poems shaped in various patterns, like the diamond that ends “Graduation, Grammar School”:
Joesees his sonflicker. Althoughthe air is not a glass,watches as he puts his lips tothe brim—then turns away, bored.He is not mine, this sonwho ripens, quietpoison on ashelf.
Although Dove does not indulge in such formal play elsewhere in this collection, she returns to it occasionally in American Smooth (2004).
In the three central sections of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Dove creates alternative personas or presents herself in the first person, as in “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” in which “I” appears as a fifteen-year-old girl (Dove’s age in 1967). The poem’s speaker indulges her voracious appetite for reading everything from “Gone with the Wind because/ it was big” to “haiku because they were small.” As various readers and critics have noted, however, Dove rarely stays at home in her poems. She can be reminiscent, historically grounded, and even domestic, but if one poem can feature an epigraph from civil rights protester Mary Louise Smith Ware—“I’m just a girl who people were mean to on a bus. . . . I could have been anybody. ”—another, “The Venus of Willendorf,” incorporates Romanian poet Paul Celan: “Let your eye be a candle in a chamber,/ your gaze a knife;/ let me be blind enough/ to ignite it. ” Of this witty poem, Therese Steffen writes,A beautiful black woman visits an archaic Venus in Austria and feels exposed to the white, predominantly male gaze. . . . A tension between dead white art and live black beauty permeates the poem, but in the end the mystery of art transcends the color and gender division.
Typical of Dove’s constantly shifting presentation of place, the next poem in the book, “Incarnation in Phoenix,” concerns the birth of her daughter in Arizona. Dove describes her biracial, African American and Norwegian, nurse as “an African Valkyrie.” The nurse’s name, Raven, is perhaps a coincidental counterpoint to Dove’s name.
The forty-four poems of American Smooth are divided into five sections, the first of which, “Fox Trot Fridays,” includes several poems dealing with ballroom dancing. Dancing may have performed a therapeutic role for Dove after a fire in 1998 destroyed her home in Charlottesville and many of her manuscripts. Dove provides her own definition of the type of dancing named in the title poem, a form “in which the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression.” This definition might be said to apply almost as well to her craft of poetry.
The collection’s second section, “Not Welcome Here,” comprises eight poems dealing with the experiences of African American soldiers during World War I. A nine-part sequence is offered as Corporal Orval E. Peyton’s diary of his crossing of the Atlantic with the Ninety-third Division. The four regiments of this segregated division were issued French uniforms (the shoulder patch features a blue French-style helmet on a black field) and attached to French divisions rather than fighting together as a unit. Twelve pattern poems designed to decorate the backs of marble chairs in the lobby of the Federal Court House in Sacramento, California, make up the volume’s third section.
The remaining twenty-two poems are divided between two sections that are somewhat miscellaneous in nature. The first, “Blues in Half-Tones, Time,” contains poems such as “Bolero” and “Rhumba” that pertain to dancing, a scene from African American movie history in “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove,” and two works that draw on ancient legend: “The Seven Veils of Salomé” is a five-poem sequence, while the single poem “From Your Valentine” deals with the martyrdom of Valentinus. The book concludes with the dozen poems of “Evening Primrose,” most of which are first-person lyrics, the title poem being perhaps as close to a “pure” lyric as one might encounter.
Dove’s Positions and Poetics
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Dove has made herself available to interviewers, with the result that a number of her ideas about her own writing, about the craft of poetry, and about a variety of other concerns such as feminism, race, politics, and human values are available in published interviews. Thirteen such discussions have been collected in Earl G. Ingersoll’s Conversations with Rita Dove (2003). Both Steffen’s and Pereira’s critical books on Dove’s writing conclude with interviews. In her interview with Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar in Callaloo (1991), Dove says that in her poems she triesvery hard to create characters who are seen as individuals—not only as Blacks or as women, or whatever, but as a Black woman with her own particular problems, or one White bum struggling in a specific predicament.
Dove considers herself to be a feminist but notes that “when I walk into my room to write, I don’t think of myself in political terms. I approach that piece of paper or the computer screen to search for . . . truth and beauty through language.” Perhaps this passage from her 1992 interview with Steven Ratiner will suffice as a response to the many who have asked Rita Dove about the importance of music to her poems:A poem convinces us not just through the words and the meaning of the words, but the sound of them in our mouths—the way our heart beat increases with the amount of breath it takes to say a sentence, whether a line of poetry may make us breathless at the end of it, or give us time for contemplation. It’s the way our entire body gets involved in the language being spoken.
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McDowell, Robert. “The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove.” In Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Overview of Dove’s Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), and Thomas and Beulah (1986). Regards Dove as a storyteller who “tells all sides of the story” from different perspectives. Stresses her use of myth, which she distorts and revises along gender lines, and her relating public and private events as in “Parsley.”
Rubin, Stan Sanvel, Earl G. Ingersoll, and Judith Kitchen. “A Conversation with Rita Dove.” Black American Literature Forum 20 (Fall, 1986): 227-240. Dove discusses how “Parsley,” a poem about Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, was composed. She focuses on the sounds in the poem. Most of the article concerns poems from Museum (1983), which was influenced by her stay in Europe, though “Dusting” from Thomas and Beulah (1986) also receives some attention.
Shoptaw, John. “Segregated Lives: Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry L. Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian Book, 1990. Believes that Thomas and Beulah resembles fiction more than it does “a poetic sequence.” Outlines the chronology of the poem, finding that the couple “rarely intersect” and remain separate. Focuses on the lasting impact of Lem’s death on Thomas and on the unfulfilled promises in Beulah’s life. Concludes with an analysis of the biblical/religious use of “Beulah.”
Taleb-Khyar, Mohamed B. “An Interview with Maryse Condé and Rita Dove.” Callaloo 14 (Spring, 1991): 347-366. Contains many biographical details about Dove’s family and growing up in Akron, Ohio. Dove comments on how language can change perceptions and on how people caught in the “web of history” fascinate her. Although she is a feminist, she resists the urge to politicize her poetry and claims that she creates individual characters rather than symbolic black women characters. She comments on her feelings about her books of poetry.
Vendler, Helen. “An Interview with Rita Dove.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry L. Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian Book, 1990. Begins with biographical information, including information on Dove’s visit to Germany, and proceeds to a discussion of some particularly arresting images (the parrot in “Parsley,” the mandolin in Thomas and Beulah). Dove acknowledges the domesticity of her first volume of poetry, which she says was followed by a “counter impulse.” In her later poems, she notes, she is concerned with children and motherhood.