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Rita Dove's "My Mother Enters the Work Force" and Gerald Stern’s "I Who Lifted a Car"

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 “My Mother Enters the Work Force”

Former U.S.A. poet laureate Rita Dove has written many fine poems, but none is more significant than her poem, " My Mother Enters the Work Force." This fine poem consists of four free verse paragraphs (versagraphs).

The poem charmingly dramatizes all the hard work the speaker's mother engaged in before she actually made enough money to afford things she needed. The poem portrays a talented woman of spunk whose determination led her to her goal.

My Mother Enters the Work Force

The path to ABC Business School
was paid for by a lucky sign:
Alterations, Qualified Seamstress
Inquire Within.
Tested on Sleeves, hers
never puckered — puffed or sleek,
Leg o' or Raglan — they barely
needed the damp cloth
to steam them perfect.

Those were the afternoons.
Evenings she took in piecework,
the treadle machine with its
locomotive whir traveling the lit path
of the needle through quicksand
taffeta or velvet deep as a forest.
And now and now sang the treadle,
I know, I know....

And then it was day again,
all morning at the office machines,
their clack and chatter
another journey — rougher,
that would go on forever
until she could break a hundred words
with no errors — ah, and then

No more postponed groceries,
and that blue pair of shoes!

Reading of “My Mother Enters the Work Force”

Commentary on Rita Dove's "My Mother Enters the Work Force"

The speaker is dramatizing the irony of all the "work" her mother did before she actually "entered the work force."

First Versagraph: Before Business School

The path to ABC Business School
was paid for by a lucky sign:
Alterations, Qualified Seamstress
Inquire Within.
Tested on Sleeves, hers
never puckered — puffed or sleek,
Leg o' or Raglan — they barely
needed the damp cloth
to steam them perfect.

In the opening versagraph, the speaker describes the events that occurred before her mother became a student at the "ABC Business School."

The mother became a seamstress in an "alterations" shop. It was a fortuitous occasion that her mother happened to see a sign that read, "Alterations, Qualified Seamstress Inquire Within."

The mother inquired and was "[t]ested on Sleeves." She had a natural talent because her "sleeves never puckered." No matter what style she had to sew, her work was excellent and her sleeves "barely needed the damp cloth / to steam them perfect."

Second Versagraph: Much Work, Low Pay

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Those were the afternoons.
Evenings she took in piecework,
the treadle machine with its
locomotive whir traveling the lit path
of the needle through quicksand
taffeta or velvet deep as a forest.
And now and now sang the treadle,
I know, I know....

Although it was great luck that she found the job as seamstress, the downside was that the mother still had to "[take] in piecework" to make ends meet. So all evening and often into the night, the industrious mother would continue her needlework at her sewing machine with its "locomotive whir."

The speaker describes the fabrics her mother had to work with—"quicksand taffeta / or velvet deep as a forest." That she worked with such challenging materials demonstrates again the great skill that the mother possessed.

As her mother works, the speaker imagines that the machine was saying : "And now and now," and "I know, I know." These imagined thoughts seemed to be an encouragement that reminded the mother of the great goal for which she was working so tirelessly.

Third Versagraph: As a Student

And then it was day again,
all morning at the office machines,
their clack and chatter
another journey — rougher,
that would go on forever
until she could break a hundred words
with no errors — ah, and then

The third versagraph sees the mother greeting morning again, but now she is performing in her student role at the business school: "at the office machines, their clack and chatter / another journey — rougher."

This work as a student is even harder for the mother, but her determination is far stronger than the hard work. This difficult toil as a student "would go on forever / until she could break a hundred words / with no errors." Then the speaker says, "ah, and then . . . ."

Once the mother has reached that technical level of skill, she could breathe a sigh of relief.

Fourth Versagraph: Things Become Affordable

No more postponed groceries,
and that blue pair of shoes!

The fourth versagraph consists of a simple couplet. Once the mother has completed her schooling and achieved those technical skills, she will be able to earn enough money that she will be able to buy all the food she needs, and she will be able to afford that luxury of a "blue pair of shoes."

Instead of allowing herself to purchase only the necessities of life that she has always had to settle for, now she can actually afford some luxury for herself.

Interview With Rita Dove

Gerald Stern

Gerald Stern

Gerald Stern's "I Who Lifted a Car"

Gerald Stern's poem plays with reconstituted clichés and expressions that demonstrate the ruination of a body and mind plummeting into dementia.

Introduction and Text of "I Who Lifted a Car"

Gerald Stern's "I Who Lifted a Car" features four cinquains. Its theme is self-deprecation. The speaker is aging and unsettled by the degeneration of his physical and mental faculties.

I Who Lifted a Car

My lips say the words too slow
but I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me;

and pound for pound the fleabane
weighs the same as iron does
and one of my obsessions
is guessing the weight of bridges,
I who traveled by car,

and I can guess the weight
of a woman I am so good
though my lips says the words too slow
and my heart goes out to a woman,
I who drove a car.

But I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me,
I who lifted a car.

Commentary on Gerald Stern's "I Who Lifted a Car"

This poem plays with reconstituted clichés and expressions that demonstrate the ruination of a body and mind plummeting into dementia.

First Cinquain: Litany of Complaints

My lips say the words too slow
but I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me;

The speaker begins his litany of complaints by remarking that his "lips say the words too slow." He might have added ungrammatically, as he saw fit to let an adjective do the work of an adverb.

The next line features a reconstituted cliché: "I am a drop in the bucket," ostensibly allowing the reader to associate that the speaker is about to kick the bucket, while merely stating that he is not important.

The speaker then reports that his body will never catch up because he is "going in reverse." Then he complains that his slow mind has ruined him. He does not make clear just what it is with which he will never catch up.

Quite possibly, he is going in reverse back to his childhood, another clichéd scheme that the aging human being re-enters his childhood, if he lives long enough to experience dementia.

Second Cinquain: Trick-Riddle

and pound for pound the fleabane
weighs the same as iron does
and one of my obsessions
is guessing the weight of bridges,
I who traveled by car,

The speaker again reconstitutes an old concept: the trick-riddle, which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?

This speaker, for whom the reader at this point must begin to feel sympathetic, easily forgives these lapses; after all, the speaker has admitted that he is suffering from the on-set of Alzheimers.

Therefore, instead of deriding the cliché, the reader has to defend them as rather clever for a mind that is in ruin.

Thus, the fleabane and the iron having the same weight pound for pound demonstrates the presence at least of some agility of mind. The speaker then claims, "one of my obsessions / is guessing the weight of bridges."

He follows this confession with the revelation that he has, indeed, "traveled by car." No doubt, he has seen those bridges whose weight over which he obsessed, while traveling by car.

Third Cinquain: A Doubtful Fact

and I can guess the weight
of a woman I am so good
though my lips says the words too slow
and my heart goes out to a woman,
I who drove a car.

The speaker then unveils the dubious factoid that he can "guess the weight / of a woman," because he is so good. He adds that even though his lips says the words too slow, his '"heart goes out to a woman."

Again, the grammar deficiency, "lips says," but again the reader understands that this is the speaker's ruined mind at work.

That the speaker's heart goes out to a woman remains unqualified and unelaborated; she must remain a mystery woman. The speaker then adds, "I who drove a car. " Not only did he travel by car back when he was becoming obsessed with the weight of bridges, but he also drove a car.

Fourth Cinquain: Downbeat Hodgepodge

But I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me,
I who lifted a car.

The fourth cinquain features a villanelle-like repetition of early lines: the speaker is a "drop in the bucket," his "body will never catch up," he is "going in reverse," and his "slow mind has ruined [him]."

All this downbeat hodgepodge is happening to someone who lifted a car, an important line because it also titles the poem.

It is quite appropriate that the reader cannot be sure if by "lifted a car" the speaker means that he stole a car or he raised a car from the ground with his muscles. It is likely the latter, but either would imply a strength of body and mind, the loss of which the speaker is now lamenting.

Gerald Stern reading two poems at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does she think of her mother?

Answer: She is very proud of her mother.

Question: What is the theme?

Answer: The speaker is revealing the pride she takes in her mother's accomplishments.

Question: In her poem, "My Mother Enters the Work Force," why does Dove structure her poem in free verse?

Answer: The speaker is dramatizing the irony of all the "work" her mother did before she actually "entered the workforce."

Question: The speaker in Rita Dove's “My Mother Enters the Work Force” refers to “quicksand taffeta”; why?

Answer: The speaker describes fabrics such as "quicksand taffeta / or velvet deep as a forest" to demonstrate the great skill that her mother possessed in conquering the challenge of working with those difficult pieces of material.

Question: Does this poem have a theme?

Answer: The speaker is acknowledging and honoring her mother's life accomplishments.

Question: Can you describe the role of the mother in the poem, "My Mother Enters the Work Force" by Rita Dove?

Answer: The poem portrays a talented woman of spunk, whose determination led her to her goal.

Question: How does the mother’s life change in line 21-24 of Rita Dove's poem"My Mother Enters the Workforce"?

Answer: Once the mother has completed her schooling and achieved those technical skills, she will be able earn enough money that she will be able to buy all the food she needs, and she will be able to afford that luxury of a "blue pair of shoes." Instead of allowing herself to purchase only the necessities of life that she has always had to settle for, now she can actually afford some luxury for herself.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 06, 2018:

PoetikalyAnointed, thank you for your response.

The beauty of Dove's poetry is that there is no gnashing of teeth over "oppression" in it.

Helen Vendler, acclaimed scholar and critic, has correctly summarized the poetry of radical feminists and others who emphasize class, race, and gender in their art: " . . . Poems of victimage, told from the viewpoint of the victim alone, are the stock-in-trade of mediocre protest writing, and they appear regularly in African-American literature."

Rita Dove has avoided that subject matter trap by writing genuine poems that focus on human emotion and experience, instead of how bad it is to be a woman, especially a black woman in Amerikkka.

PoetikalyAnointed on December 06, 2018:

Oh My, thank you Linda for sharing such a moving piece!

The human struggle differs with each story. Ms. Dove's piece is heartbreaking yet inspiring at the same time. If only human life was actually valued for ALL peoples...in ALL ways. Oppression is a nasty and cruel reality that many face even today.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 02, 2018:

Noha, thanks for the response. Best of luck with your studies.

Noha on April 01, 2018:

beautiful I love this explanation it would help me during answering the question of this poetry thanks alot

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