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Rita Dove's "Adolescence"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Rita Dove

Rita Dove

Introduction and Text of "Adolescence"

Rita Dove’s “Adolescence" consists of three parts. The theme reveals the emotional turbulence of the pre-adult years in the life of a young girl.

Adolescence

I

In water-heavy nights behind grandmother’s porch
We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:
Linda’s face hung before us, pale as a pecan,
And it grew wise as she said:
“A boy’s lips are soft,
As soft as baby’s skin.”
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance
I could hear street lamps ping
Into miniature suns
Against a feathery sky.

II

Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.
Sweat prickles behind my knees, the baby-breasts are alert.
Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles quiver in pale strips.

Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round
As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.
They bring the scent of licorice. One sits in the washbowl,

One on the bathtub edge; one leans against the door.
“Can you feel it yet?” they whisper.
I don’t know what to say, again. They chuckle,

Patting their sleek bodies with their hands.
“Well, maybe next time.” And they rise,
Glittering like pools of ink under moonlight,

And vanish. I clutch at the ragged holes
They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.
Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue.

III

With Dad gone, Mom and I worked
The dusky rows of tomatoes.
As they glowed orange in sunlight
And rotted in shadow, I too
Grew orange and softer, swelling out
Starched cotton slips.

The texture of twilight made me think of
Lengths of Dotted Swiss. In my room
I wrapped scarred knees in dresses
That once went to big-band dances;
I baptized my earlobes with rosewater.
Along the window-sill, the lipstick stubs
Glittered in their steel shells.

Looking out at the rows of clay
And chicken manure, I dreamed how it would happen:
He would meet me by the blue spruce,
A carnation over his heart,saying,
"I have come for you, Madam;
I have loved you in my dreams."
At his touch, the scabs would fall away.
Over his shoulder, I see my father coming toward us:
He carries his tears in a bowl,
And blood hangs in the pine-soaked air.

Commentary

The theme reveals a speaker examining the emotional turbulence of the pre-adult years in the life of a young girl.

Adolescence-I: Before Indoor Plumbing

In water-heavy nights behind grandmother's porch
We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:
Linda's face hung before us, pale as a pecan,
And it grew wise as she said:
"A boy's lips are soft,
As soft as baby's skin."
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance
I could hear street lamps ping
Into miniature suns
Against a feathery sky.

In "Adolescence-I," the speaker recalls a time when she and her sister would go out in the yard just beyond their grandmother's porch to urinate in the yard. The house was not equipped yet with indoor plumbing, and the outhouse used by daylight was too far from the house, so at night the girls employed the yard for their purpose.

The speaker reports that her sister, Linda, philosophically tinged with experience, informs her that a boy's lips are as soft "as a baby's skin." The remark affects the speaker rather dramatically.

That strange news surprises the speaker, making her uncertain about the prospect of that experience. She seems to hear the street lights clanging against the sky as she imagines them to have morphed into "miniature suns."

Adolescence-II: After Indoor Plumbing

Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.
Sweat prickles behind my knees, the baby-breasts are alert.
Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles quiver in pale strips.

Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round
As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.
They bring the scent of licorice. One sits in the washbowl,

One on the bathtub edge; one leans against the door.
"Can you feel it yet?" they whisper.
I don't know what to say, again. They chuckle,

Patting their sleek bodies with their hands.
"Well, maybe next time." And they rise,
Glittering like pools of ink under moonlight,

And vanish. I clutch at the ragged holes
They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.
Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue.

In "Adolescence-II," some time has passed, and the young girl's household has changed. She is now located in "the bathroom"—she no longer has to make use of the yard for a relieving facility.

Instead of her sister accompanying her, she has her vivid imagination. She observes that the blinds on the window make the moon look as though it is coming in slices, and they cause the tile floor to "quiver in pale strips."

She concentrates on the surreal motion of the tiles, and then she imagines "the three seal men" have entered the bathroom to visit her. But they ask her, "Can you feel it yet?"

The speaker has no answer for them, so "[t]hey chuckle" and say, "Well, maybe next time." They depart the bathroom, leaving "ragged holes," and the speaker grabs onto the "ragged holes" and notices that "[n]ight rests like a ball of fur on my tongue."

The speaker has become intoxicated, as adolescents are wont to do. Her "seal men" represent the pink elephant that many drunks experience. Because the speaker is enamored by the process of writing, she notices that the "seal men" looked like "[g]littering" "pools of ink under moonlight."

Adolescence-III: Dreams Interrupted

With Dad gone, Mom and I worked
The dusky rows of tomatoes.
As they glowed orange in sunlight
And rotted in shadow, I too
Grew orange and softer, swelling out
Starched cotton slips.

The texture of twilight made me think of
Lengths of Dotted Swiss. In my room
I wrapped scarred knees in dresses
That once went to big-band dances;
I baptized my earlobes with rosewater.
Along the window-sill, the lipstick stubs
Glittered in their steel shells.

Looking out at the rows of clay
And chicken manure, I dreamed how it would happen:
He would meet me by the blue spruce,
A carnation over his heart,saying,
"I have come for you, Madam;
I have loved you in my dreams."
At his touch, the scabs would fall away.
Over his shoulder, I see my father coming toward us:
He carries his tears in a bowl,
And blood hangs in the pine-soaked air.

In "Adolescence-III," the final section of the poem, the speaker and her mother are working in the garden tending tomatoes. His father is no longer with them. The speaker is pregnant and "swelling out / Starched cotton slips."

The speaker describes the twilight as "[l]engths of Dotted Swiss," and she then recalls that she used to wear dresses to "big-band dances." But now, she uses those dresses to "wrap[ ] scarred knees." She then looks out her window and dreams of being rescued by her knight in shining armor.

Only this knight simply wears a "carnation over his heart," but he does say to her, "I have come for you, Madam; / I have loved you in my dreams." His magic touch makes all her problems disappear until she looks past him and catches a glimpse of her father approaching.

The father is carrying his "tears in a bowl." She envisions blood hanging in the "pine-soaked air." Her dream is brusquely interrupted by this unsolicited apparition. Her adolescence will continue in its awkward, knee-scabbed way.

PBS Interview With Rita Dove

Questions & Answers

Question: How is the meaning of the poem developed?

Answer: Meaning in poems is developed through the use of figurative and literal language.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes