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Rita Dove's Poetry

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

Introduction: Eschewing Victimhood

Acclaimed scholar and critic, Helen Vendler, has correctly summarized the poetry 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. The position of victimage, and victimage alone, seems imaginatively insufficient to Dove, since it takes in only one half of the poem’s world.

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 America. Born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952, Rita Dove became a Presidential Scholar and graduated from high school at the top of her class.

Dove completed a B. A. degree in English summa cum laude from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Dove continued her education at the University of Iowa, where she earned a masters of fine arts degree. In 1987, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems titled Thomas and Beulah. Dove remains a genuine poet; thus Helen Vendler’s description of the "mediocre protest" poet does not describe the writing of many of Rita Dove’s finer poems. This former poet laureate continues to offer insightful, accessible, and engaging poems to the American canon.

Sample Poems

Dove’s poetry is charming, sometimes nostalgic, and always tough and durable. Her "Golden Oldie" exemplifies the charm and nostalgia of the work.

Golden Oldie

I made it home early, only to get
stalled in the driveway-swaying
at the wheel like a blind pianist caught in a tune
meant for more than two hands playing.
The words were easy, crooned
by a young girl dying to feel alive, to discover
a pain majestic enough
to live by. I turned the air conditioning off,
leaned back to float on a film of sweat,
and listened to her sentiment:
Baby, where did our love go?-a lament
I greedily took in
without a clue who my lover
might be, or where to start looking.

The speaker is a young woman who arrives home but remains in her car because a cool tune is playing on the radio. She shuts off the air-conditioner, leans back and listens: "'Baby, where did our love go?'—a lament / I greedily took in / without a clue who my lover / might be, or where to start looking." Anyone of a certain age will hear immediately the voice of Diana Ross of the Supremes in the line "Baby, baby, where did our love go?"

Exit

Just when hope withers, the visa is granted.
The door opens to a street like in the movies,
clean of people, of cats; except it is your street
you are leaving. A visa has been granted,
"provisionally"—a fretful word.
The windows you have closed behind
you are turning pink, doing what they do
every dawn. Here it's gray. The door
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase,
the saddest object in the world.
Well, the world's open. And now through
the windshield the sky begins to blush
as you did when your mother told you
what it took to be a woman in this life.

The speaker in Dove's "Exit" is also a young woman, but instead of reporting in first person, as did the speaker in "Golden Oldie," this speaker muses to herself using "you" as the poetic "self." She remarks that she has registered to obtain a "visa," indicating likely intentions of traveling out of her country of residence.

Dove’s poem, "Vacation," will be remind anyone who has ever traveled by airplane of those moments just before boarding: "I love the hour before takeoff, / that stretch of no time, no home / but the gray vinyl seats linked like / unfolding paper dolls." The speaker then describes the other passengers as they wait to be called for the flight.

Parsley

1. The Cane Fields

There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears

to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—
out of the swamp, the cane appears

and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears

in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.

2. The Palace

The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming
four-star blossoms. The general

pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
Who can I kill today. And for a moment
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled

all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive

dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now

the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears

the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed

for a single, beautiful word.

Rita Dove’s eerie "Parsley" is one of her most famous works; she read that poem at the White House. This poem was motivated by the "creativity" of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who slaughtered thousands of Haitians because they could not pronoun the Spanish "r" correctly. The Haitians, of course, would pronounce the "r" sound with the French sound made in the throat instead of trilling the tongue as the Spanish "r" requires.

Trujillo intended to murder the Haitians anyway as a matter of racial cleansing, but instead of just unceremoniously killing them, he lined them and required them to pronounce the word for "parsley" in Spanish, which is "perejil." So as these Haitian French "r" pronouncing tongues failed to replicate the Spanish trill, they were marched off and slaughtered. The poem masterfully engages the images of sugar cane, a parrot, the death of Trujillo’s mother, and the word itself; thus, the poem concludes with the eerie, discomfiting line, "for a single, beautiful word."

Sources

Questions & Answers

Question: How is the persona female in Rita Dove's poetry?

Answer: A persona may be understood as "female" if the character displays traditional feminine qualities, is referred to using the feminine pronouns of "she" and "her." or states that she is a girl, woman, or female.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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