To read the poems of Rita Dove, to go where they take you, is to follow her deeply into a series of themes and their subsets: African-Americans in history and right now, ideas of indenture and independence, sex, travel, language (she compares commas to “miniature scythes”), family, motherhood, roomy adult love and whatever is coming out of the radio.
The verse in Dove’s career-spanning new “Collected Poems: 1974-2004” demonstrates that this poet’s work leans, too, on the consolations of food: fried fish and hominy, martinis and beer, caviar and sour herring. “Bee vomit,” a boy tells his sister in one poem, “that’s all honey is.” In another, there’s this snapshot of the breakfast table: “You are mine, I say to the twice-dunked cruller/before I eat it.”
Perhaps you grew up, as I did, attaching your addiction to reading with an addiction to eating. (Come for the erudition; stay for the early onset diabetes.) So, it seems, did Dove, who recalls in “In the Old Neighborhood,” one of her most evocative poems:
Candy buttons went with Brenda Starr, Bazooka bubble gum with the Justice League of America. Fig Newtons and “King Lear,” bitter lemon as well for Othello, that desolate conspicuous soul.
There are so many casual pleasures in Dove’s poetry that the precision and dexterity in her work – the darkness, too – can catch you unawares. Take for example “Parsley,” the final poem in her collection “Museum” (1983).
Parsley. It’s a garnish. It’s also the word that Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, used in 1937 to send thousands of immigrant Haitian cane-cutters to their deaths. He identified the Creole-speaking Haitians by having his soldiers demand they pronounce the Spanish word emperejil/em (parsley). They were killed if they could not properly roll their R’s.
Dove’s poem about this massacre is among her most ambitious and assured. She moves between perspectives. At one moment we are in the cane fields, the next Trujillo’s palace. She pivots formally, too, between hints of the sestina and the villanelle.
In Trujillo we witness homicidal glee but also a bruised humanity. Dove writes:
The general sees the fields of sugarcane, 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 her R’s like a queen.
Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952. Her father was one of the first black chemists in the American tire industry. She was a gifted and determined student. She studied in West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1977. Her first book of poems, “The Yellow House on the Corner,” was published in 1980.
She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for “Thomas and Beulah,” a collection based loosely on the lives of her maternal grandparents. In “Thomas and Beulah” she woos back her memories of her own family and through them scrutinizes the moral arc of the 20th century.
A poem from that collection, “Wingfoot Lake (Independence Day, 1964),” so well observed that your heart and your internal cinema struggle to hold all it puts on display, begins:
On her 36th birthday, Thomas had shown her her first swimming pool. It had been his favorite color, exactly – just so much of it, the swimmers’ white arms jutting into the chevrons of high society. She had rolled up her window And told him to drive on, fast.
From 1993 to 1995 Dove served as Poet Laureate of the United States. The collections that followed her term were “Mother Love” (1995), the haunting “On the Bus With Rosa Parks” (1999) and “American Smooth” (2004).
“American Smooth” sprang from Dove’s interest in dance, its strictures and freedoms. She refers to it in one poem, in a metaphor for writing poetry, as “such perfect agony/one learns to smile through.” A fox trot is compared to Nat King Cole’s “slow satin smile.” Thanks to the magic of YouTube, there are videos of the author dancing the tango, the rumba, the samba, the waltz, her regal head titled upward like Nefertiti’s.
Dove’s poems have earthiness, originality, power and range. Despair and loss are among her central themes, but so is the hunt for bedrock human pleasures. As she writes in a poem called “Rusks,”
As my mama always said: half a happiness is better than none at goddam all.
‘Collected Poems: 1974-2004’
by Rita Dove
432 pages. $39.95.