Rita Dove's "Adolescence I, II, III"

Updated on September 27, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Rita Dove



Former poet laureate Rita Dove offers a unique three-pronged expression of the mind and vision of an adolescent girl in her "Adolescence" poems.

Rita Dove’s “Adolescence" consists of three parts, each titled “Adolescence” and numbered. 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"

In "Adolescence-I," the speaker recalls a time when she and her sister would go out “behind 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 soft, / As soft as baby's skin.” The remark affects the speaker rather dramatically, and she claims that she “could hear street lamps ping / Into miniature suns / Against the feathery sky.” The news surprises the speaker, making her uncertain about the prospect of that experience.

Adolescence-II: "Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting"

In "Adolescence-II," some time has passed and the young girl’s household has changed, for she is now “sit[ting] 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, “Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles 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?" She has no answer for them, and so “They 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 “Night 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: "With Dad gone, Mom and I worked"

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

The speaker describes the twilight as “Lengths 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 of 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 of her problems disappear, until she looks past him and catches a glimpse of “[her] father coming toward [them]: / He carries his tears in a bowl, / And blood hangs 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

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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