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Analysis of Poem "Dusting" by Rita Dove

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Rita Dove

Rita Dove

Rita Dove and a Summary of "Dusting"

"Dusting" is a short, free verse poem taken from Rita Dove's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Thomas and Beulah, a sequence of poems published in 1987. The characters are loosely based on Dove's maternal grandparents.

In total, there are forty-four poems about Thomas and Beulah, but as Rita Dove says:

'When I wrote "Dusting" I didn't know that this was the first of the Beulah poems that would go into the next book. Although the woman dusting was clearly my grandmother and the room in the poem her solarium, I thought I was merely using her as a template.'

'Dusting was my grandmother's way of stepping into the work and kind of throttling me, saying, "Wake up girl! I'm here, too! I wanna talk!" So that poem became the bridge from one book to the next; it proclaimed, "This is an ongoing story."'

"Dusting," though short, is packed with vivid imagery, inner reflection and figurative language. It follows the actions of Beulah as she dusts the furniture, her mind going back in time, trying to remember the name of a boy she once kissed.

The third-person speaker, distanced enough yet able to deliver startling detail from Beulah's changing thoughts, offers glimpses into the dusting woman's life as she brings dark wood to a shine.

There is something deeper going on. Although she has this memory of the fairground boy and wants to recall his actual name, other images enter the scene as the poem progresses. Her relationship with her father is mentioned—did he give her up because of what happened at the fair?

Note how the language shifts from the mundane to the symbolic, from the natural to the inner emotional. Beulah polishes the veneer of her furniture and the memories of her youth; she's cleaning off the dust of time in the hope that reconciliation of some kind can come shining through.

First published in Poetry Magazine in 1981, "Dusting" is a mix of metaphors that gradually reveal the emotional past. A ritualistic domestic chore is memory in action, a kind of therapy. In the end, Beulah finds the name.

Dusting

Every day a wilderness—no
shade in sight. Beulah
patient among knicknacks,
the solarium a rage
of light, a grainstorm
as her gray cloth brings
dark wood to life.

Under her hand scrolls
and crests gleam
darker still. What
was his name, that
silly boy at the fair with
the rifle booth? And his kiss and
the clear bowl with one bright
fish, rippling
wound!

Not Michael—
something finer. Each dust
stroke a deep breath and
the canary in bloom.
Wavery memory: home
from a dance, the front door
blown open and the parlor
in snow, she rushed
the bowl to the stove, watched
as the locket of ice
dissolved and he
swam free.

That was years before
Father gave her up
with her name, years before
her name grew to mean
Promise, then
Desert-in-Peace.
Long before the shadow and
sun’s accomplice, the tree.

Maurice.

"Dusting": Stanza-by-Stanza

First Stanza

The opening line carries with it both contrast and common ground with the mundane title, which brings images of chores and work with a duster and cloth, the job of a lowly cleaner, or the process of cleaning shelves and furniture.

Unusual use of stark language—that word wilderness conjures up all kinds of scenes, ideas about loss, bleak beauty, a place lacking intimacy and social interaction, a wild landscape.

Yet here is a human, Beulah, steadily dusting the knickknacks in a solarium (a room built for maximum sunlight to reach through window and glass). The word 'Beulah' comes from the Bible's old testament, the book of Isaiah.

She is patient, carefully cleaning the wood despite the rage of the sunlight. This contrasting language creates a kind of introductory tension. And what about grainstorm suggesting dust clouds and seeds, brainstorm and goodness?

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Here is a woman facing a wilderness with only a gray cloth, using her daily routine to make the wood and knickknacks shine.

Second Stanza

The dusting progresses, the language contrasting, suggestive—take note of gleam darker still—reflecting her memory which has both light and shade. She's looking for a name, the boy at the fair with the rifle booth (where the idea is to pay and shoot at a small target not too distant, the reward being a prize of some kind).

Beulah was kissed by this boy. An important event in the life of a growing girl. The fish she either won or was given is described as a rippling wound, implying that there was hurt involved somehow.

Third Stanza

The sense moves between Beulah's inner thoughts and memories and the dusting. Memories release, the manual cleaning restricts? Or is the opposite true?

Figurative language comes to the fore here. The metaphor of stroke and breath, almost existential. What is the canary in bloom? Canary bird, songster, bird of the sunlight, once taken down the mine as a sacrificial symbol, sensitive to dangerous gas.

Another recall—getting home in freezing weather, melting the ice that had frozen around the fish? It swims free.

Fourth Stanza

The reader learns of abandonment by the father, a traumatic episode surely, preceding the fairground kiss and the fish. The focus is now on her name, Beulah. There are two meanings—one can be broken or kept secret, and the other stretches out and is dry and arid, like the wilderness in the first stanza.

Right at the end, the name of the boy comes through. We can only assume Beulah gains satisfaction from this but nonetheless carries on dusting.

"Dusting" and the Name Beulah

  • Beulah comes from the Hebrew language and is mentioned in the book of Isaiah, Old Testament. It means to be married or possessed.
  • William Blake, the mystical English poet, used it to signify a mythological land where men and women lived in a dreamy paradise.
  • John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress chose it as a fictional place, the Land of Beulah.
  • "Beulah Land" is also the title of gospel hymn 1875/76

Sources

Dungy, Camille T., and Rita Dove. “Interview with Rita Dove.” Callaloo, vol. 28, no. 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, pp. 1027–40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3805576.

www.poetryfoundation.org

"Dusting" Rita Dove - Cornpuppy Cass (weebly.com)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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