Dove, Rita 1952–
Rita Dove 1952–
Poet, writer, educator
U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove is the third African American—and the youngest poet ever—to hold the post of distinction in her field at the U.S. Library of Congress. From 1937 to 1985, the position was called consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress; in 1986, the name of the consultancy was changed to that of poet laureate. Preceded in the position by black poets Robert Hayden (1976-78) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1985), Dove has infused her role with an unprecedented measure of freshness, resolve, and vitality: she is committed to bringing poetry to the masses throughout the nation. “I think people should be shaken up a bit when they walk through life,” she commented in Time. “They should stop for a moment and really look at ordinary things and catch their breath.…When a poem moves you, it moves you in a way that leaves you speechless.”
Dove is generally held to be one of America’s best contemporary verse writers and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987. Celebrated for sensitively revealing personal epiphanies and black American collective experiences, she has published several critically acclaimed books of verse since her late twenties, beginning with her first volume, The Yellow House on the Comer (1980), followed by Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah (1986), and Grace Notes (1989). Her work has also appeared in chapbooks, magazines, and anthologies. A collection of selected poems from her first three books was published late in 1993, while a verse-drama is scheduled to come out in 1994.
In keeping with her interest in African American history, poems in the third part of The Yellow House on the Corner are written from the vantage point of American slaves. In the 1986 volume Thomas and Beulah, the black experience from the early 1900s on is revealed through the lives of Dove’s maternal grandparents. Though Dove often writes about herself, her family, and black history in America, her works reflect a broad social awareness and deal with a variety of subjects. While she acknowledges her role as an African American poet, she does not like being restricted to that role. Her poems, she has said, are about people, and sometimes these people are black. However, she told the Washington Post, “I cannot run from, I won’t run from any kind of truth.”
Dove has handled fiction successfully as well, receiving praise for her collection of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), and novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992). Both of these works established her versatility as a writer. Aside from writing for publication, Dove has taught creative writing for many years.
Born Rita Frances Dove, August 28, 1952, in Akron, Ohio; daughter of Ray (a chemist) and Elvira (Hord) Dove; married Fred Viebahn (a German-born novelist); children: Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn. Education: Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1973; attended Tubingen University, West Germany, 1974-75; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1977.
Poet, writer, educator. Arizona State University, Tempe, assistant professor, 1981-84, associate professor, 1984- 87, professor of English, 1987-89; Tuskegee Institute, writer in residence, 1982; University of Virginia, professor of English, 1989—, Commonwealth Professor of English, beginning 1993; named U.S. poet laureate, 1993. National Endowment for the Arts literature panel member, 1984-86; commissioner, Schomburg Center, NYC; past judge/panel member for several awards in poetry.
Member: National Endowment for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, Phi Kappa Phi, PEN American Center.
Selected awards: Fulbright scholar, 1974-75; National Endowment for the Arts literature grant, 1978 and 1989; Guggenheim fellow, 1983-84; Lavan Younger Poet Award, Academy of American Poets, 1986; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1987, for Thomas and Beulah; General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, 1987; Ohio Governor’s Award, 1988; Bellagio residency, Rockefeller Foundation, 1988; Andrew W. Mellon senior fellowship, National Humanities Center, 1988-89; fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies, University of Virginia, 1989-92; honorary degrees from Knox College and Miami University.
Addresses: Office —University of Virginia, Department of English, Wilson Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903.
She is currently an English professor at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville.
Dove has always felt the need to excel in academic endeavors, perhaps as much because of her family’s and peers’ high standards as her own. She was born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952, to Ray Dove, the first African American chemist to enter the tire-and-rubber industry, and Elvira Hord, a high school honors student who passed on her love of learning to Dove and her three siblings. In her pursuit of scholarly excellence, Dove scored among the top one hundred high school seniors in the country and visited the White House as a “Presidential Scholar” in 1970. She went on to study at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as a National Achievement Scholar, and graduated with honors in 1973. The year after that she attended Tubingen University in West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. Later, Dove returned to the United States and pursued graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Though she changed her focus several times in college, Dove wound up majoring in English and writing poetry. While her parents supported her decision, her peers questioned it. “As a young black person in college I was expected to be a professional,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “Writing poetry was unthinkable then. I was writing but not showing it to anyone yet because I couldn’t see myself as a writer.” But her parents and professors recognized her talent and encouraged her to keep writing.
After graduating from the University of Iowa with her M.F.A. in 1977, Dove began publishing poems and short stories, first in periodicals, later in chapbooks, and then in book form. She wrote for six to eight hours each day, every day of the week, for nine years, and supported herself with teaching fellowships at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and Alabama’s Tuskegee University. In the late 1970s, she met and married German-born novelist Fred Viebahn, with whom she had a daughter, Aviva.
Dove’s first full-length poetry book, The Yellow House, appeared in 1980. While some critics called the autobiographical quality of the book unoriginal and self-serving, others praised Dove for her melodious voice, the universal quality of her characters, and her allusions to the Old Testament. About one poem, “A Suite for Augustus,” essayist Arnold Rampersad wrote in the African American journal Callaloo, “With deft wordplay, an excellent dramatic sense, and a sure ability to choose just the right fragment of experience and expose it to precisely the correct amount of light, Dove takes us—within the space of relatively few lines—on a historical tour of a sensibility.” The suite’s opening, “1963,” refers to the death of President John F. Kennedy: “That winter I stopped loving the President / And loved his dying. He smiled / From his frame on the chifforobe / And watched as I reined in each day / Using buttons for rosary beads.”
Museum, published in 1983, was Dove’s most critically praised book before the appearance of Thomas and Beulah. In Museum, she writes about her own experiences and those of legendary historical and mythic figures in poems titled “Nestor’s Bathtub,” “Catherine of Alexandria,” “Shakespeare Say,” “Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove,” and “Parsley.” Reviewers noted the work’s maturity, Dove’s skilled use of imagery and color, and the thoughtful, foreknowing quality of her voice.
In Callaloo, Rampersad described “Parsley” as “a chilling evocation of the madness that led General Trujillo allegedly to order the massacre of thousands of Haitian blacks in the Dominican Republic apparently because they could not pronounce the letter Y in perejil, the Spanish word for ‘parsley.’” The first part of the poem, spoken by Haitians, reads: “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—…”
Dove’s award-winning collection, Thomas and Beulah, enhanced her reputation as a top lyric poet of her generation. Half of the book is told from the point of view of Thomas, born in 1900 in Wartrace, Tennessee, and the other half is from the perspective of Beulah, born in 1904 in Rockmart, Georgia. The book sprang from Dove’s curiosity about her grandfather’s move from the “Tennessee Ridge” to the North in 1919 with just a prayer and a mandolin. “I was after the essence of my grandparents’ existence and their survival, not necessarily the facts of their survival,” she told interviewer Steven Schneider in the Iowa Review.
Poet Emily Grosholz wrote in the Hudson Review, “In her wise and affectionate portrait [Thomas and Beulah], Dove emphasizes their separateness by arranging the book in two halves, Thomas’ story (vignettes from about 1920 to his death in 1963) followed by Beulah’s in similar sequence. The ordering reveals how differently each perceived their union.…But [the book] is arresting not only as a study of character, but for the brilliance of Dove’s style.…Dove can turn her poetic sights on just about anything and make the language shimmer.” Similarly, Jack E. White commented in Time that “the effortless economy and exactness of the language she employs to distill the essence of life’s small happenings [etches] gemlike verbal images that detonate a gentle shock of recognition” in her readers.
Having taken part in the black migration from the rural, southern United States to the industrial North, the poet’s grandparents embody the spirit of their era. Dove told the Washington Post, “The poems are about industrialization, discrimination sometimes—and sometimes not—love and babies—everything. It’s not a dramatic story—nothing absolutely tragic happened in my grandparents’ [lives].…But I think these are the people who often are ignored and lost.” As Peter Stitt put it in the Georgia Review, “The very absence of high drama may be what makes the poems so touching—these are ordinary people with ordinary struggles, successes, and failures.”
In her fourth book of poems, Grace Notes, Dove again writes about personal things, such as nursing her daughter and recollecting her own childhood. The poems also deal with living in the moment, the mystery of life, and the relinquishing of facts for larger truths. In “Ars Poética,” Dove wrote, “What I want is this poem to be small, / a ghost town / on the larger map of wills. / Then you can pencil me in as a hawk: / a traveling x-marks-the-spot.” About Grace Notes, S. Keith Graham wrote in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “[Dove’s] tone is sensitive, her style accessible and her imagery chiseled with spare power.… ‘Grace Notes’ presents the small but precious moments of illumination that can come to any of us in ordinary life.” While A.L Nielsen commented in the Washington Post, “The poems of Grace Notes are largely autobiographical and abound in the unforgettable details of family character.…Rita Dove’s Grace Notes are her turnings of the tunes we all hum, the tunes that pluck at our memories.”
Dove’s debut novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), centers on a gifted black woman named Virginia King, who returns home to Akron, Ohio, to serve as an artist-in-residence at a grammar school. While teaching puppetry, she relives memories of family life, a restrictive community, and her participation in a communal puppet theater. Reviewers praised Dove for her understanding of human character, her heartfelt emotions, and her effective discussion of the topic of race. Some, however, were disappointed with her failure to bring fresh insights into ordinary moments, something she does so well in her verse.
Novelist Francine Prose wrote in the Washington Post Book World, “Too often, Dove’s novel recreates moments we feel we’ve experienced before…and fails to take that extra step that might transform them into art.” But Prose also observed, “Dove skillfully evokes the mood of a decade when social change seemed not only possible but imminent.…[She] has great affection for her characters and never patronizes or trivializes their hopes and fears and desires. There are no villains here, exactly, just the fallout from human frailty, human error, human misunderstanding. The daily tensions inherent in ordinary family life and magnified over time…are touchingly and convincingly rendered.”
Though primarily a poet, in the coming years Dove intends to write fiction and poetry. She does not believe one genre excludes the other. Through her post as poet laureate, to which she will devote herself exclusively until her term ends in late 1994, Dove plans to be “a force” for poetry. “I’m hoping that by the end [of my tenure] people will think of a poet laureate as someone who’s out there with her sleeves rolled up, not sitting in an ivory tower looking out at the Potomac,” she told Newsday. Her aim is to keep poetry in the public eye. “People are hungry for poetry,” she said. “What makes poetry spiritually nourishing in a way only poetry can be is that it can stop a moment, and by capturing one moment makes us take a break and look around and feel really alive.”
Ten Poems (chapbook), Penumbra, 1977.
The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (chapbook), Porch Publications, 1980.
The Yellow House on the Corner, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980.
Mandolin (chapbook), Ohio Review, 1982.
Museum, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1983.
Thomas and Beulah, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986.
The Other Side of the House, photographs by Tamarra Kaida, Pyracantha Press, 1988.
Grace Notes, Norton, 1989.
Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1993.
The Darker Face of the Earth (verse drama), Story Line Press, 1994.
Fifth Sunday (short stories), Callaloo Fiction Series, University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
Through the Ivory Gate (novel), Pantheon Books, 1992, Vintage Contemporaries (paperback), 1993.
Associate editor, Callaloo Journal of Afro-American Arts & Letters, 1986; advisory editor, Gettysburg Review, 1987, TriQuarterly, 1988—. Work published in anthologies and magazines, including Agni Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Nation, and Poetry.
Selected poetry from Dove’s first three collections, read by the author, was released on audiocassette by Random House AudioBooks in 1993.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 50, Gale, 1988, pp. 152-58.
Contemporary Poets, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 237-238.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets Since World War II, Gale, 1992, pp. 47-51.
Poetry Criticism, Volume 6, Gale, 1993, pp. 103-124.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 19, 1989, sec. L. p. 8.
Atlantic Monthly, July 1989, p. 61.
Booklist, September 15, 1992, p. 122.
Boston Globe, November 13, 1992.
Callaloo, Winter 1986, pp. 52-60.
Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1992.
Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 1992, p. 13.
Ebony, October 1987, p. 44.
Emerge, July/August 1993, p. 12.
Essence, October 1993, p. 52.
Georgia Review, Winter 1986, pp. 1021-33.
Hudson Review, Spring 1987, pp. 157-64.
Iowa Review, Fall 1989, pp. 112-23.
Library Journal, August 1992, p. 146.
Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1991, sec. BR, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1992.
Ms., July/August 1992, p. 23.
Nation, May 16, 1987, p. 654.
Newsday, November 1, 1992; June 1, 1993, part 2, pp. 43, 53.
New York Review of Books, October 23, 1986, p. 47.
New York Times, November 12, 1989, sec. 7, p. 11; May 19, 1993, pp. C15, C18.
New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, p. 11.
People, May 31, 1993, p. 92.
Publishers Weekly, July 28, 1989, p. 212; August 3, 1992, p. 68.
Time, October 18, 1993, pp. 88-89.
Washington Post, April 17, 1987; April 8, 1990, sec. WBK, p. 4.
Washington Post Book World, October 11, 1992, p. 5.
Writer’s Digest, December 1991, p. 12.
Yale Review, Autumn 1988, p. 84.
—Alison Carb Sussman
Dove, Rita 1952–
Rita Dove 1952-
(Full name Rita Frances Dove) American poet, dramatist, short story writer, and novelist.
For additional information on Dove's career, see Black Literature Criticism Supplement.
Dove is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the first African American to be named poet laureate of the United States, serving in that position from 1993 until 1995. She has been described as a quiet leader and as an artist who weaves African American experience into the broader perspective of international culture. Dove's lyrical and accessible poetry reflects her interest in music and drama as well as her commitment to social justice and her sensitivity to women's issues. A much-honored and prolific author, she is best known for her 1986 poetry collection Thomas and Beulah, which was awarded the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The volume commemorates the lives of Dove's grandparents and offers a chronicle of the collective experience of African Americans during the twentieth century.
Dove was born in 1952 in Akron, Ohio, the daughter of Elvira E. and Ray A. Dove, the first black chemist in the tire-and-rubber industry. Dove grew up in a home full of books and was an avid reader who also enjoyed writing and staging plays. In 1970 she was named a presidential scholar, one of the top one hundred high school graduates in the country that year. She earned a national merit scholarship to Miami University in Ohio, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1973. After that, she received a Fulbright fellowship to attend the University of Tübingen in West Germany and then completed a master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In 1979 she married German novelist Fred Viebahn; the couple has one daughter. She published two chapbooks of poetry in 1977 and 1980—Ten Poems and The Only Dark Spot in the Sky, respectively—then made her formal literary debut in 1980 with the poetry collection The Yellow House on the Corner. During the 1980s she taught in the English department at Arizona State University and then moved on to the University of Virginia in 1989, where she is a professor of English. She has continued to publish poetry collections, most notably Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah, Grace Notes (1989), Mother Love (1995), and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). She also has explored other genres, composing the full-length verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), the short stories in Fifth Sunday (1985), and the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992).
Dove's poetry is characterized by a tight control of words and structure, an innovative use of color imagery, and a tone that combines objectivity and personal concern. Although many of her poems incorporate black history and directly address racial themes, they also present issues such as prejudice and oppression that transcend racial boundaries. The poems in The Yellow House on the Corner focus on the narrator's Akron, Ohio, neighborhood and reveal the poet's growing sense of personal identity. The verse in Museum combines detailed depictions of images drawn from the poet's travels in Europe with poems of love and admiration for the poet's father. This sense of family is further developed in Thomas and Beulah, which is arranged in two sequences: one devoted to Thomas, born in 1900 in Wartrace, Tennessee, and the other to Beulah, born in 1904 in Rockmart, Georgia. The couple encounters despair, grief, and hardship throughout their lives but they overcome these struggles through loving devotion, laughter, and strength. In addition, through allusions to events outside the lives of Thomas and Beulah—including the Great Depression, the black migration from the rural South to the industrial North, the civil rights marches of the 1960s, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—Dove emphasizes the couple's place in and interconnectedness with history.
The poems in Grace Notes are largely autobiographical, delineating Dove's role as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, and poet. The novel Through the Ivory Gate tells the story of Virginia King, a gifted young black woman who takes a position as artist-in-residence at an elementary school in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. Documenting the protagonist's acceptance of her black identity in a society that devalues her heritage, the novel alternates between past and present as Virginia's return stirs up strong, sometimes painful memories of her childhood. Depicting the events that ensue when a wealthy white woman named Amalia gives birth to a slave's child, The Darker Face of the Earth imbues the theme of slavery with high drama as well as the murderous elements reminiscent of the classical Greek drama Oedipus Rex. Centering on the relationship between communal events and private experience, the poetry collection Mother Love is dedicated to Dove's daughter, Aviva, and takes a candid look at the often troubled and painful interactions between mothers and daughters. Dove's daughter also inspired some of the poems in On the Bus with Rosa Parks; the title refers to an occasion when the poet and her daughter found themselves on a bus trip with the celebrated civil rights heroine.
Critics have consistently praised Dove's innovation, technical mastery, lyricism, finely crafted use of language, vivid and expressive imagery, and ability to capture a variety of thoughts, events, and perspectives and distill them into insightful and intricate works of poetry and prose. A considerable amount of attention has been paid to Thomas and Beulah, which affirmed Dove's reputation as a leading poet of her generation. Scholars have applauded her ability to combine the personal with the historical and have observed that although the poem sequence has no conventional plot, Dove succeeded admirably in telling her story through imagery and character development. They also have extolled her use of language, calling it richly lyrical, colloquial, and musical, and have commended her rich portraits of family, focusing on how Dove stressed the "oneness" of her grandparents and the loving relationship they maintained despite the rigid gender roles they inherited. Looking at her oeuvre as a whole, critics have begun to examine Dove's relationship to the New Black Aesthetic, which includes literature that parodies the Black Arts movement, crosses race and class boundaries, focuses on the universality of personal experience, and offers candid assessments of black culture. According to scholar Malin Pereira, the verses in Museum particularly articulate Dove's cosmopolitan viewpoint—which is at the base of the New Black Aesthetic—and offer proof that in her writings Dove "deliberately foregrounds her poetic identity as a poet of the world and writes from perspectives that cross history, cultures, genders, socioeconomic positions, races, and ethnicities."
Ten Poems (poetry) 1977
The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (poetry) 1980
The Yellow House on the Corner (poetry) 1980
Mandolin (poetry) 1982
Museum (poetry) 1983
Fifth Sunday (short stories) 1985
Thomas and Beulah (poetry) 1986
The Other Side of the House (poetry) 1988
Grace Notes (poetry) 1989
Through the Ivory Gate (novel) 1992
Selected Poems (poetry) 1993
*Lady Freedom among Us (poem) 1993
†A Handful of Inwardness: The World in the Poet (lecture) 1994
†Stepping out: The Poet in the World (lectures) 1994
The Darker Face of the Earth: A Verse Play in Fourteen Scenes (verse play) 1994; revised edition, 1996
Mother Love: Poems (poetry) 1995
The Poet's World (lectures) 1995
Evening Primrose (poetry) 1998
On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems (poetry) 1999
The Best American Poetry 2000 [editor] (poetry) 2000
American Smooth: Poems (poetry) 2004
*Poem read on the occasion of the return of the statue "Freedom" to the Washington Capitol, October 23, 1993.
Emily Walker Cook (essay date March 1995)
SOURCE: Cook, Emily Walker. "‘But She Won't Set Foot / In His Turtle-Dove Nash’: Gender Roles and Gender Symbolism in Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah." CLA Journal 38, no. 3 (March 1995): 322-30.
[In the following essay, Cook focuses on the theme of gender in Thomas and Beulah, examining in particular perspectives on gender influence the couple's sexual and financial roles within the marriage.]
When Rita Dove wrote the first of the forty-four poems appearing in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Thomas and Beulah, she did not anticipate that others would follow. Rather, the writing of each of the collection's poems seemed to necessitate another, until Dove developed a sequence which she molded into a distinctive, unified narrative.1 Among the many remarkable traits of Dove's chronicle is its conveyance of feeling, experience, and attitude in a seemingly static form, while simultaneously maintaining a narrative thread recounting events that span over four decades. Dove's concentration on protagonists Thomas and Beulah's distinctive, gendered perspectives plays a central role in establishing this flowing yet constant feel. The importance of gendered experience is evident in every facet of the collection from its organization to its thematic substance. To reinforce her gendered theme Dove moves freely into the psyche of her characters, mapping emotional reactions to two fundamental elements of the couple's relationship: the sexual and economic roles of their courtship and marriage.2 Thomas and Beulah's variant perspectives on these issues recur in complimentary form throughout Dove's work, equipping the reader with a sound sense of masculine/feminine dichotomy. Yet Dove does not portray Thomas and Beulah as a disparate, mismatched pair. Instead, she weaves a subtle but profound poetic image of Thomas and Beulah as a couple with deep emotional ties and as individuals who oftentimes only grudgingly accept their gender roles, which they find frustrating and confining.
From the outset Dove establishes Thomas and Beulah's different perspectives by dividing her book into distinctly masculine and feminine sections prefaced by individualized epigraphs. Still, by this structure, Dove does not deny the oneness of the couple's experiences, linking them together with the overall preface of "[t]hese poems tell two sides of a story. …"3 Thomas' section, entitled Mandolin, bears a masculine, aggressive, demanding feel, borne out in the titles of the poems. Titles such as "The Event," "Satisfaction Coal Company," and "Thomas at the Wheel" provide the reader with an early and clear sense of Thomas' dominance and responsibility. Beulah's section, conversely, appears second in the collection, is shorter than Thomas', and exudes a sense of confinement, dependency, and denied aspirations.4 The epigraph to Beulah's section bears out the point. "[Once]," but, by implication, no more, "her fire-lit heart … felt furies / [b]eating, beating," Dove tells the reader (45), following this initial announcement of denied dreams with such indicative titles as "Taking in Wash," "Dusting," and "Obedience." 5 Dove's masterful progression from the initial tone set by her titles and prefaces to a full account of each character's distinct gender perspective provides the reader with a social as well as psychological commentary on Thomas and Beulah's lives.
With her carefully planned framework in place Dove moves to more firmly establish Thomas's and Beulah's gendered perspectives in the first poem of each of their respective sections. In these initial poems Dove connects both Thomas and Beulah's opinions, attitudes, and decisions to formative experiences from their childhoods or adolescences.6 In both Thomas' and Beulah's cases causal incidents related directly to gender provided them with senses of self that embodied prescribed gender roles. For Thomas, a manly, and ultimately fatal, challenge to best friend and fellow river boat dandy, Lem, imprinted him with a lifelong sense of lost male companionship. This loss, directly connected to Thomas' masculine daring, informed Thomas with a confused and frustrated understanding of masculine aggression that, in the face of uncontrollable circumstances, often proved grievously destructive. Dove dutifully and skillfully returns to this dual theme of Thomas as both aggressor and victim throughout the story, using Lem's mandolin, left to Thomas at his friend's death, as a symbol of Thomas' masculinity.
A frightening and abusive childhood encounter informed Beulah with a sense of dependency that serves as a counterpart to Thomas' aggressive dare.7 In the first poem of Beulah's section, "Canary in Bloom," Dove subtly informs the reader that Beulah endured incestuous advances, if not outright rape, from her drunken father. Beulah's nightmares, described in the same poem, imply that such advances occurred more than once, instilling Beulah with the manipulated sense that "she was Papa's girl" (47).8 Indoctrinated with this pervasive sense of being dominated and dependent, Beulah moves from her father's care into the care of a husband, finding it impossible to explore the sense of power through travel that is her latent but lifelong dream.9 By placing such shocking, gender related, and basically formative experiences at the beginning of both Thomas' and Beulah's stories Dove establishes the importance of gender to her work and sets the tone for the couple's entire relationship.
With the importance of formative gender experiences firmly established, Dove next describes the development of the couple's relationship. The connection Dove makes between her character's early life experiences and their courtship, marriage, and intimate life is clear, as each immediately adopts traditional passive or aggressive marital roles which, as with their earlier experiences, ultimately prove frustrating and unsatisfactory.
Nowhere is this more true than in the couple's sexual relationship. From the outset, Thomas is the dominant figure. He, like Beulah's father, is the approacher, the questioner, the proposer. Thomas is "King of the Crawfish" in a flashy "yellow scarf" wooing Beulah by any means he can, including the slight deception of tear made possible by a "gnat" flying in his eye (17).10 Yet, while Dove solidly establishes Thomas' dominance, she is quick with a reminder that his prancing bears a price. As the dominant figure in the relationship he must consistently demonstrate his virulence not only to his wife but to the world.11 Consequently, after the birth of four daughters, Thomas' frustration and embarrassment over his inability to father a son is unconcealable. Dove conveys a sense of the resulting social, if not physical, impotence by depicting Thomas' mandolin as nothing more than a living-room wall ornament, hanging for all to see.12 In so doing Dove reinforces her double portrayal of Thomas a masculine conqueror, responsible for a prodigious flock of four, and a frustrated impotent, prevented from obtaining all that his masculine role promises.
Thomas assumes sexual domination to be a natural part of his masculinity while Beulah, in contrast, cringes at his sexual forcefulness, either repelling or silently enduring his advances. During courtship, the mores of the time allowed, if not demanded, a certain prudishness on Beulah's part. Here Dove's extensive historical research into Thomas and Beulah's era pays off, as she manipulates her understanding of mid-twentieth-century social standards to convey a striking image of Beulah's gentle rejection of Thomas' advances. Beulah would not "set a foot / in [Thomas'] turtledove Nash," Dove writes, because such behavior in the 1930s and 1940s would have suggested a type of promiscuity that "wasn't proper" (16).13 In those days, a single woman riding alone in a car with a man suggested impropriety, but a wife who refused sexual relations with her husband all but defied her marriage vow. In matrimony Beulah knew that she must "swallow" her dread of Thomas' sexual demands, trying to forget his "hulk" of a penis already "clumsy" under his suit before the couple departed the church where they married (51). Sexual domination, Dove implies, comprised a part of Beulah's gender role that she must accept, even if she never became completely resigned to it.
Although Dove depicts sexual relations as particularly frightening and unpleasant to Beulah, the author stops short of denying Beulah's ability to enjoy intimacy. In fact, as Dove constructs the story, the sexual acquiescence demanded in Beulah's marital relationship is a central factor rendering intimacy unpleasant and belittling to her. When mentally traveling outside those constrictive marital bonds, Dove suggests, Beulah is able to muse about the pleasure of sexual experimentation. To make her point Dove includes a brief scene in which Beulah thinks back to an intimacy shared with an adolescent sweetheart (52). Beulah's remembrance of this encounter indicates a denied desire for loving contact in which emotional freedom, not gender role restriction, is the defining factor.
In addition to the intimate roles Dove portrays as directly related to gender, marriage contained financial responsibilities also linked to gender expectations. Here again, Thomas' role as of head of the household placed him in a dominant position, designating him as the financial provider for the family. Nowhere is the importance of male economic provision more clearly borne out than in the poems describing Thomas and Beulah's early relationship. Before winning Beulah as a bride, Thomas had to demonstrate his financial stability to both his prospective mate and her father. Dove emphasizes the importance of the economic aspects of courtship by describing Thomas' courting of Beulah with such expensive gifts as his silk scarf, solidifying his economic responsibility with a steadfast promise to Beulah's father that he will give his proposed bride a "good life" (17). Furthermore, there can be no question that Thomas relishes the power implied by the economic responsibility attached to his gender role. Throughout the book he indulges in the self-gratification of allowing Beulah small privileges of modest wealth, such as letting her pick the color of their first new car. Such flaunting of his ability to provide economically highlights Thomas' full acceptance of his provider's role.
While Thomas' role of economic dominance may at times be gratifying, it also carries responsibilities that can be frustrating and debilitating. With gender roles tied to financial stability, Thomas' masculinity is at the mercy of his employer and the economy. Dove's depiction of lean economic times, such as the Great Depression, bears out the relationship between Thomas' masculine self-perception and his ability to provide for his family. Thomas' frustration during long periods of unemployment or dependence on unsatisfactory jobs forces him to question his family commitment. Here again, the symbol of the mandolin reinforces Dove's point. Just as with his frustrated sexuality, economic hardship pins Thomas' mandolin to the wall, only this time the luxurious silk scarf, symbol of Thomas' lost financial stability, hangs in "faded … rivulets" around the instrument (29).
In such a system of gender-defined economic responsibility, Beulah occupied the supposedly privileged, protected position of the one provided for. Dove demarcates Beulah's position early in the poems by making her conspicuously absent from the stanza in "Courtship" where Thomas claims his role as provider. Thomas' promise of economic provision, made to Beulah's father, takes the form of a man-to-man exchange, thereby defining economic matters as specifically masculine. Beulah understands this social system of gendered economic roles, embracing and, at times, enjoying the deference it implies. Her almost giddy response to Thomas' allowing her to pick their car color highlights the sincere, if infrequent, pleasure of her protected, recipient role. Beulah's exclamation of "How they'd talk!" when she pictured the "tsk tsking" (21) of friends and family provides a striking, if predictable, counterpart to Thomas' self-gratifying deference. Even when hard times caused this economic ideal to break down, Beulah remained in her subservient role, taking only a back-room, hence invisible, position as a seamstress and presser in a dress shop. Dove emphasizes Beulah's traditional qualities of feminine frugality and ingenuity over her financial contributions by depicting Beulah saving small scraps of the shop's discarded fabric to make the family's clothes.
Beulah clearly understood and fulfilled her feminine economic role, yet she did not always find it comfortable, much less satisfying. Her subservient status confined her within the home, thereby demanding self-deprecation and denying an outlet to the intellect and stamina which Dove shows to be part of Beulah's personality. In reaction to her domestic confinement, Beulah presses the limits of her housewife status by attempting to eke out a time and place solely her own, where for a few hours each day she can think or just be "nothing" (61).14 Ultimately she adopts millinery as an outlet to her frustrated energies, never voicing her dissatisfaction with the subservient gender role which she has accepted as hers since childhood.
Although Dove emphasizes Thomas and Beulah's individuality when exploring economic and sexual roles, she never allows the reader to forget that together their experiences tell a single story that is neither masculine nor feminine. Throughout the frustration of separate gender statuses, Thomas and Beulah maintain a nurturing relationship, supporting each other in difficult times and deeply grieving when death causes a final separation. Even Thomas' forceful masculinity cannot hide the emotion that he feels for Beulah as he steals slivers of watermelon to satisfy her cravings during pregnancy, and he feels his heart "slowly opening" upon receiving consent to marry (16).15 Beulah shares Thomas' strong sense of devotion as shown by her feelings of loneliness and loss after his death. Clearly, Dove does not intend the reader to see Thomas and Beulah as emotionally at odds; rather she portrays them as individuals with individual problems, views, and roles that complement each other, together giving a complete picture of their marital relationship.
Thomas and Beulah did not devise the gender roles they played; they inherited them. Under such preestablished constraints they had no choice but to struggle toward a unified perspective of the world, constructed from two convention-laden, ready-made gender perspectives. Doves' narrative is, consequently, not the story of angry, frustrated, and bitter individuals, but rather, quite simply, the story of average black Americans struggling under the weight of what society tells them to be. In the end, the couple's loving relationship testifies that Thomas and Beulah "were good" at unifying the separate selves which society had prescribed for them, even though, as Beulah acknowledges, "[they would] never [have] believed it" (74).
1. Rita Dove, "Coming Home: An Interview with Rita Dove," interview by Steven Schneider, Iowa Review Fall 1989: 112-23.
2. See Peter Stitt, rev. of Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove, Georgia Review 40 (Winter 1986): 21-33; rev. of Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove, Virginia Quarterly Review 64 (Sept. 1988): 270-72; Robert McDowell, "Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry," The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove, ed. James McCorkle (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990) 301; and Emily Grosholz, "Marriages and Partings," Hudson Review 40 (Spring 1987): 156-64.
3. Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon UP, 1986) 5, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. See, also, Grosholz 156-64 and McCorkle 294.
4. McCorkle 294.
5. See Schneider 120.
7. See Stitt 31 and Schneider 116.
8. See McCorkle 301.
9. Vendler 120.
10. See Lisa Steinham, "Dialogues Between History and Dream," Michigan Quarterly Review 26 (Spring 1987): 428-38, and Schneider 120.
11. McCorkle 296.
12. McCorkle 300.
13. See Steinham 433; McCorkle 295; Arnold Rampersad, "The Poems of Rita Dove," Callaloo: An Afro-American and African Journal of Arts and Letters 9 (Winter 1986): 54; and Schneider 118-20.
14. See McCorkle 301.
15. See Grosholz 156-74.
Pat Righelato (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Righelato, Pat. "Geometry and Music: Rita Dove's Fifth Sunday." Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 62-73.
[In the following essay, Righelato presents a detailed investigation into Dove's use of geometric symbols and musical elements in the short stories contained in Fifth Sunday.]
Rita Dove's collection of short fiction published in 1985,1 takes its title, as she has explained in an interview, from the idea of there being some leeway, some place for individual expression, even in the most regulated forms of institutional control:
‘Fifth Sunday’ is also the title of the lead story and refers to those occasional months where there are five Sundays. In the church I attended when I was growing up, fifth Sunday was youth Sunday, and the entire service—all except the sermon—was conducted with the church youth. Using that title for the book was an intuitive decision, one I can't really articulate—I suppose there is the sense of a fifth Sunday as something special—once in a blue moon—as well as the idea of being in control only occasionally, and in strict accordance with the social rules.2
She went on to say that the eight short stories all ‘feature individuals who are trying to be recognised as human beings in a world that lives to pigeonhole and forget’ (p. 165). Her interest in the possibilities for individual expression of spirit within very socially prescriptive worlds unites the stories thematically: their variety of form is an index of the diversity of that expression.
‘Fifth Sunday’, the lead story, moves to its concluding negative epiphany with a Joycean assurance. Dove herself invites the analogy in stating that several of the stories ‘are fairly traditional, à la Joyce's Dubliners’ (p. 164). ‘Fifth Sunday’ deploys naturalistic motifs to track and drag the romantic desires of Valerie, the teenage protagonist, within the confines of an urban American black church. As in ‘Araby’ in Dubliners,‘Fifth Sunday’ mirrors the painfully limited environment against which youthful fantasy presses, but Dove is ideologically acute in revealing that Valerie's romantic longings and aspirations are not an escape, but the most marked internalization of the narrow constrictions of her social group. The revelation of the conclusion is how readily Valerie is re-absorbed into the petty downside of her society.
The preparation of effect to make such a conclusion both an unpleasant shock and also inevitably proved, is finely done. In this tightly controlled narrative the imagery which acquires a structural value is that of geometry. The opening sentence condenses the essential framework with a poetic economy: ‘The church stood on a hill all to itself, at the intersection of Prospect and Maple’ (p. 3). The church is the focus of all Valerie's social aspirations, and it suggests a fine vantage point, exclusivity, with nature and culture amicably combined and coded in the names of the streets. However, it becomes apparent that the parts of the area available to blacks, even relatively prosperous respectable ones such as Valerie's father, are rundown and decayed. The park, in which ‘birds sat as if drugged in the trees’ (p. 4), is a geometric construct which facilitates transit. The second paragraph lays down the ironic markers precisely:
Catercorner from the church was a park. It was everything a park should be: green, shaded, quiet. Stout black poles marked its perimeter at regular intervals, and strung between each pole were two chains, one at waist-level and another six inches from the ground. The park itself was segmented by two concrete paths that cut it on the diagonals, like a huge envelope.
The exactitude of the term ‘catercorner’ might be expected from the writer who has composed the poem ‘Geometry’, 3 but the exactitude in ‘Fifth Sunday’ marks cultural limits, not intellectual euphoria. The park is ‘catercorner’, that is set diagonally across from the church; the term is used not only in geometry, but also in natural history. Another diagonal is the location of ‘Max's Diner’ to which the path leads across the park. Valerie comes at almost everything geometrically: she crosses town to go to church; she is invited as one of ‘the black youth’ of her church to the white Lutheran church ‘one block over’ (p. 5) to see a film about Martin Luther King. This is the grid of racial and social distinction which contains her.
This stultifying schema is paralleled by a horizontal and vertical hierarchy within her church community to which she is highly alert: the horizontal floor plan of the church is yet another grid of class distinction, and the struggle to move up the ladder of attainment through the strata of Sunday schools, through the decisions about the relative social distinctions of being in the choir or being a junior usher are equally anxiety-ridden tracks. Poignantly, Valerie represses her real yearning to sing because girls in the junior choir are ‘fast’: her social aspirations police and contain her spirit and her sexuality. Valerie has her eye on the minister's son, a young man of spectacular ugliness whose one-eyed state is an ironic mirror of her own Cyclopian determination to close out a larger perspective. It takes a good deal of resolve on her part to find him attractive and to align her adolescent fantasies with the grid of her social aspirations.
The third-person mode of narration gives the reader a more alert reading of the markers than Valerie herself. The upwardly mobile possibilities that she craves are interpreted by the reader as the index of stunted horizons. At her moment of maximum confidence, Valerie stands at the top of Prospect looking down: ‘This was not the choked, winding alley where her father parked— here the road fell straight and sharply into the city below’ (p. 6). It seems to suggest access, as if the grid falls away, and the moment is followed by Andrew, the minister's son, sitting next to her. It also seems as if the next day, fifth Sunday, will allow space for love to flower, but culture and nature conspire against her when she faints from the heat. The shame she feels at such conspicuousness is unsurprising in a self-conscious teenager; however the savagery with which she responds to overhearing a woman remark that she might be pregnant is shocking in its naked aggression:
She was thinking of that woman spitting the word over her like a pronouncement: pregnant. Well, the bitch wouldn't get away with it. There weren't that many people in this church she didn't know—she'd find out who she was. She'd make them tell. Bitch. She'd find her. She'd find her.
Valerie's rapid assessment of the damage is evident in the viciousness of her reaction. Jolted by the smelling salts, she fights with the weapons she has unconsciously assimilated. The epiphany reveals how threadbare, how contaminated the youthful dream had been.
‘Fifth Sunday’, the most bleakly Joycean story of the collection, represents not the ‘paralysis’4 of the African-American community, but rather an excess of self-regulation which subjects nature to hierarchical coding and exactitude of manifestation. Even the sun which ‘bowled’ through the window ‘bisected the table’ (p. 8), as if on entry to the church it participates in this rectilinear world. Dove revises ‘Araby’, portraying feminine rather than masculine adolescent fantasy and frustration, and relocating to urban African-American experience. Rather than a style of ‘scrupulous meanness’ (Joyce, p. 83), the naturalistic detail of the narrative is a symbolic geometry, the cultural matrix of a black community whose ritualistic adherences are the sign not of paralysis, but of ideological stress.
Ritual is central to the following story, ‘The Zulus’, written with a lightness of touch to contrast with the deterministic grid of ‘Fifth Sunday’. The Zulus are a gang of bikers who provide a glimpse of exotic off-limits glamour to a group of girls whose classmate from a lower social stratum is the subject of their snobbish curiosity. Like the Zulus, Caroline seems, to the other girls from more educated backgrounds, to live on ‘the dark edges of adventure and superstition’ (p. 10). However, the paradox of Caroline is her absolute normality. The product of a broken home, she confers all the feminine values of middle America upon her apparently shoddy locale, meanwhile expressing homespun, surprisingly feminist, common-sense views. She homemakes in unpropitious circumstances; her wedding to the ‘dimwitted’ biker, Leander Swope, in a vulgarly decorated backyard seems the epitome of the fate which her clever college-educated friends can enjoy commiserating with: ‘Poor Caroline! What an ending for the most admired girl in the city, one who owed it to herself to do better. And for what—Love?’ (p. 12). As wedding guests, the friends catch thrilling sociological glimpses of the intransigent tribal mores of the lower class male: the wedding is delayed because ‘Lee was inside watching baseball on T.V. and wouldn't come out until the game was over’ (p. 12). The comic denouement is the appearance of the Zulus to be fed wedding-cake over the fence like amiable exotics with a nicely refined sense of decorum: ‘They wouldn't come in but they would have some cake’ (p. 13). Amiability is the keynote of this story in which the girl, Caroline, seems to have the knack of creating happiness wherever she is. Dove described ‘The Zulus’ as ‘an upbeat piece’ and as a genuine love story in which the girl's spirit transcends the ‘dead-end’ of her surroundings it acts as a counter to ‘Fifth Sunday’. 5
‘The Spray Paint King’, like ‘The Zulus’, is concerned with society's perceptions of certain kinds of youthful expression, but the narrative perspective is reversed. The narrator is a graffiti artist writing a journal in a youth detention centre in Cologne at the behest of his psychiatrist. The grandson of a liaison between a black American soldier and a German girl, the narrator is a ‘quadroon’ subject to abuse in a racist society. He attributes to the psychiatrist a mind-set which will equate the black colour of the spray paint he uses with his feelings of racial insecurity; she will find him a fascinating example of ‘reverse projection’ and will want to ‘ease me back into society; she will tell me I have a talent I mustn't squander’ (p. 22). The question that exercises the psychologist is whether German society can assimilate this deviant young man, but this is ironic in the light of his own larger preoccupations with the moral health of the community. Before society has got to the point of assessing him, he has been assessing society and finding it deficient. His painting of a Madonna on the stanchion of the Severin bridge is an artistic commemoration of the five men who were buried in one of the cement pilings during construction; the efficiency of the engineering process, in which his own father worked and took pride, was not halted to recover their bodies. In his journal the spray paint king declares: ‘Oh citizens who have forgotten, I was there to remind you, I put the stain back on the wall—no outraged slogan, no incoherent declaration of love, but a gesture both graceful and treacherous’ (p. 22).
A further irony is that the youth is not concerned to give his own story, but believes that the five men who died are ‘looking for a place to tell their story’ (p. 22). ‘The Spray Paint King’ can be read in broad terms as a narrative of the German desire to bury the past deep in the national psyche, to create clean white buildings from which the stain has been erased, where the black of dying, or mourning is not permitted. These resonances adhere to the ironies of a society's attempts to acculturate a non-conforming individual. It is significant that the young man is aware that he must provide a double record: the naming of the men in his journal and the spray painting of the Madonna, like a Madonna of sorrows, to express the loss of the blue.
‘Second-Hand Man’ is written in a folksy black idiom and in subject matter is close to Thomas's courting of Beulah in the lyric sequence Thomas and Beulah (1985).6 Dove picks up some of the motifs again in 1989 in ‘Summit Beach, 1921’, the opening poem of the volume Grace Notes. 7 She evidently found a rare dignity in the idea of a girl evolving and refining her own elaborate code of courtship based on a set of demanding cultural norms. It is interesting to compare the lyric condensing of time in the poem ‘Courtship’ in Thomas and Beulah with the more protracted rhythms short fiction gives space for. The title ‘Second-Hand Man’ is reminiscent of a folk song and it has the repetitions with variations of a classic of the genre. Self-respect and sexuality are the twin poles of the narrative which weave and dip towards each other in an elaborate protocol of concordance. The narrative is relayed partly by an observing neighbour and occasionally through the mind of the protagonist, Virginia, with some additional dramatic dialogue which is spectacularly stereotypical. A characteristic sequence is when she meets James Evans from Tennessee: ‘"Miss Virginia," he said, "you're a fine piece of woman." Seemed he'd been asking around. Knew everything about her. Knew she was bold and proud and didn't cotton to no silly niggers’ (p. 23). Much of the pleasure of the story is in the recognition of stereotype in the minimal dialogue and in the folksongs that James plays which are a magnet to the girls and with which he woos Virginia. There is a comic contrast between the beguiling triteness of the dixie songs and the resolute strategy of the girl. As Virginia knows, however, ‘There's a point when all this dignity and stuff get in the way of Destiny’ (p. 27), and she accepts his proposal of marriage. It is not until her marriage is six months old that the ‘snake crawled out from under the rock when it was good and ready’ (p. 27). To learn that her husband is a second-hand man presents the proud Virginia with a moral dilemma. She meditates for three days and nights while holding her husband at the point of a rifle: ‘She didn't see no way out but to shoot him’ (p. 28). Time, however, is on her side and just as she has trusted to time in courtship, so it rescues her in this crisis. She has time to consider. The rifle is put away and the baby is born next spring.
‘Second Hand Man’ exudes an easy-going pleasure in a stock man-woman narrative. The phrasing has a poetic exactitude, a musical, a dramatic sense of form: the contrapuntal contrasts between the feminine clipped staccato, ‘Did, too’ (p. 23), and the masculine seductive drawling, ‘Vir-gin-ee-a he said, nice and slow’ (p. 23), are like a staged, ritualized ostension of the known moves in this old theatre of the sex war. Virginia's sense of brinkmanship, of pace, is dazzling and, equally importantly, she knows when to give a little ground: ‘It was time to let the dog in out of the rain, even if he shook his wet all over the floor’ (p. 26). The homespun metaphor exactly captures the feminine affectation of contempt for the man whom every nerve is being strained to capture. The phrasing, blending the spoken and the sung, is closer to Langston Hughes's poetry than any of Dove's own poetry, but it comes from a distinctly feminine perspective, unencumbered by polemical intent. Hughes's poetry is more didactic and exemplary, whereas Dove in ‘Second-Hand Man’ draws on traditions and rhythms of black orality as a relaxation of the guard against prejudice and discrimination. Even within the limited compass of short fiction, there seems space to give this story an oral amplitude quite different from the treatment of a similar feminine protagonist in the poem ‘Summit Beach, 1921’ which emphasizes racial segregation and the acute vulnerability of the young black girl. The tighter form and edgy economy of the poem is like the ideological net that constricts her spirit. ‘Second-Hand Man’ also opens with Summit Beach in the 1920s and the encounter of a man who has left the South after his friend has been lynched and an Akron girl who has nothing but her own resolve to test him. It shows that a woman with spirit and nerve can write her own script with a bit of luck and judgement in learning when to concede to the larger, in the sense of more extensive, script of masculine fallibility. ‘Second-Hand Man’ portrays a culture equally as subject to malign gossip as ‘Fifth Sunday’, but the form and the outcome are completely different.
Dove's eye for racial and class behaviour is always acute and her narratives reveal patterns of discrimination yet, rather than exercise a reactive didacticism, she chooses a free-ranging expression of energy. The short story ‘Zabriah’ portrays a black woman's visitation (it seems the appropriate word) upon a genteel white poetry circle which meets in the ‘Euclid Arcade’ (p. 55), another irony directed to the exactitudes of geometry. Dove referred to the story as ‘a rhapsody or an aria’ (Rubin and Kitchen, p. 164), signalling its exuberance and musical panache. Zabriah is very obviously ‘low,’ a creature to be avoided in the sanitized arena of a white shopping arcade, ‘a woman built like a man, a black woman with lint in her nappy hair and one shoe in her hand, a woman built like a pissoir’ (p. 55). Her comic implosion upon the scene of a woman reading poetry, ‘mouth nibbling at the words printed’, has a carnivalesque disruptive force:
Zabriah sits down, breasts and beads spilling, she folds her arms, pushing up the sleeves of her sweater, the woman in the suit repeats Black milk of death we and Zabriah interrupts, Ain't nobody Black around here. This is a poem, the lady explains. By a German poet, Paul Celan.
The more the group leader tries to accommodate her, the more outrageous Zabriah becomes, climaxing with a mélange of sound, upstaging them all. There is little doubt that, given the opportunity, she would be a vigorous black presence in the canon: ‘Where Zabriah moves the walls bulge to receive her’ (p. 55).
The rhapsody, a free-form expression of high art, is, like the aria, hospitable to excess and absurdity, and thus is an appropriate form to celebrate the spirit which this low heroine requires to breach the citadel. Even Zabriah's cautious inching into the room is expressed as a musical entry: one voice overtaken by another which amplifies and elaborates. Likewise her shaky ragbag of knowledge gives her affinity with the Greek rhapsõdos, (one who stitches together lyric scraps). She is also comically associated with Promethean fire as she distributes matches (no creative fire to steal from this white ‘submarine’ of a shopping arcade); Zabriah, snatching the chance to perform, is an ‘ocean-liner […] ablaze and sinking’ (p. 57).
The exuberance of ‘Zabriah’ contrasts with the Joycean opening of ‘Aunt Carrie’ which concludes the collection. The railway station is the scene of a family's secrets, confrontations, and rifts. If it is epiphanic in the Joycean mode, then it symbolizes the relegation, the expulsion of Carrie from her family to an unlived existence. The structure of the narrative in which a daughter seeks the completion of the story which she glimpsed as a child, the mystery of the motives which drove her parents to abandon their relative, the Aunt Carrie of the title, is emotionally neat, perhaps too neat: the daughter can understand and forgive what the mother could not. But the premise that stories should be given from the different perspectives of the participants is more emotionally pressing. Aunt Carrie herself, reduced to aunthood so early in life, but nevertheless losing even that, feels it is a story that ‘if anyone asked me, I would tell everything as I felt and saw it from the beginning’ (p. 67). Incest is the musty secret in this family closet, but as Carrie conveys it to her niece, it becomes a story, ostensibly of sibling confusions and deprivations, but figuratively, of a brief domestic idyll. The sexual awakening that the older plain sister arouses in her young handsome over-studious brother is symbolized in the sheets on the clothes line on a windy day: the narrow grind of their life, in which both have heavy responsibility, becomes like ‘flying’. The sister's careful containment of the experience so that it does not damage her brother, is like her folding of the washing, characteristic of the way in which she folds away her own feelings for the good of the family, and later accepts banishment when the sin is discovered. The story as she narrates it comes fresh, like the sheets, like the sense of integrity with which it is told. The epiphany is not sordid or shameful. Aunt Carrie's story is of a brief happiness, long paid for, and the chance to tell it to a member of her family is like a fifth Sunday, a space given within the overall constraints the institution of the family has imposed upon her.
‘Aunt Carrie’ is a story of a black family, the constraints and elasticities of its transition from generation to generation, but the sequence of Fifth Sunday also shows black Americans in negotiation with other American cultural groups. The two-part alternating structure of ‘Damon and Vandalia’ expresses such an experience. The isolation of the two eponymous speakers is expressed in the fact that their thoughts are rendered successively, rather than antiphonally, as if to emphasize their inability to soften the ideological barriers that separate them. The speakers of the prior text, Andrew Marvell's ‘Clorinda and Damon’, are in dialogue: from opposing positions, but their witty repartee concludes in chiming unison. In contrast, Damon and Vandalia are locked into the mind-sets in which they have been raised; they meet across a gulf and fail to bridge it. Damon is a white Englishman in a homosexual relationship with Clark, a curator at the University of Texas; Vandalia is a black typist having an affair with Michael, a pipe-smoking college professor. The visits of the heterosexual urban couple to the homosexual couple in their desert retreat are the set for the build-up of sexual tension generated by the attraction of Damon and Vandalia, both doubly disorientated by the experience. The differences of their upbringing have left them with no common ground on which to proceed: their physical coupling seems unreal and may, in fact, not have taken place, but exist only in Vandalia's imagination. Vandalia's ritualistic proferring of gifts (a European convention she has learnt) poignantly underlines the distance and danger of the meeting. Her name, although that of a small town in Illinois, is a comic reminder of the fifth-century Vandals who swept through Europe destroying monuments and trampling down culture. She is to be feared, especially because she brings gifts. If Damon is Clark's trophy, she is the besieging invader out for spoils.
This is another short story based, like ‘Fifth Sunday’, on unforgiving schemata, although in this case the geometry is a series of elements which operate as abstract oppositions: upbringing, education, sexual orientation, race, class, age, location, are all very precisely factored as boundaries. The protagonists are attracted beyond those limits but are unable to cross them ideologically. Much of the power of the story stems from the sensory evocation of setting, of smell and touch as magnets attracting to new kinds of experience, as opposed to the painfully acquired habits of the known. Therefore the bamboo patch, the smell of limes become for Damon and Vandalia images of the exotic, of the desire for the unknown, whereas the birdcage made of silvered toothpicks that Vandalia brings as a gift is a construct as fragile and enclosing as the elaborate cultural work of their own identities. The patterning of this short fiction is about the construction of stereotypes, how they are developed and maintained; it necessarily therefore walks a narrow line between exhibiting limitation and an unconvincing flatness of presentation. In the case of Damon, the colonial and public-school childhood is unconvincing, but for both characters, the encounters within the foursome, rather than their memories are the most powerful passages. The focus upon the minutiae of social behaviour has something of the intensity, although not the voyeurism of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy: the four participants in the drama observe and interpret the smallest action of the others.
Encounters is perhaps too strong a term of relationship for these characters; the imagery of their proximity signifies their identity under threat: ice melting their frozen condition. But ice is a kind of safety: when Damon first hears Vandalia's voice he remains alone, clasping the ice bucket until his palms ‘ached from the cold’ (p. 30). The potential of this first meeting is fragile and unrealized, the difficulties focused by a tiny cultural artefact not yet metamorphosed into a different symbolic configuration, a ‘matchstick a long-stemmed unopened rose’ (p. 31). The location is a semiological theatre: both of nature ‘vegetative’, conducted between wet luxuriant bamboo and dry spiked cactus, and of culture, marked by matchboxes and icetrays, and of course, nature is as culturally defining as culture. This is most painfully evident in Damon's life-long desire for the purity of water in his remakings of himself. Like his Marvellian precursor who asks, ‘Might a soul bathe there and be clean?’8 he looks to water as a spiritual cleansing agent, but in his case the clarity he craves is that of anonymity. Clorinda and Damon find that the body and the spirit can join in sweetness; Damon and Vandalia carry a good deal of cultural baggage to impede such harmony.
‘The Vibraphone’ is both about the study of music and music as a form of possession, taking hold of the composer. This is the kind of possession which the poet Emily Dickinson imagined when she asked
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!
The story turns on a contrast between Jerry Murdon, an avant-garde pianist and radical interpreter of Bach, and Christie Phillips, a musicology student. Murdon has dropped from view and given up recording; after a chance sighting, out of curiosity, Christie follows him to his house in Tuscany and learns his story. Drawn to the over-reaching canon-blaspheming authority of Murdon's work, she wants to know more. She finds him in his electronic studio, reconstituting the organ prelude to the fifty-second Bach Cantata on a vibraphone. Murdon takes Bach apart, hacks out the guts of the structure, until it is ‘shaken and broken down nearly beyond recognition’ and then gives it an extempore bashing. This does, indeed, seem to be ‘Bolts of Melody’. To compose on the vibraphone is to be in absolute technical control, yet at the same time the sound is insistently physically consuming, an arterial thump of primal feeling:
He flipped a switch and the melodic line, amplified, wailed from massive quadrophonic speakers. He flipped another switch and the same melody, shaken and broken down nearly beyond recognition, rose from the floor. Another switch, another—and a roar of sound, grace notes proliferating like bacteria, chords like a dying train poured over her […] and beneath it all the characteristic undulation of the vibraphone, its relentless throb taking over her pulse.
Like some inverted Kurtz swallowed up in the depths of his exploration of the darkness of the human psyche, Murdon sardonically reveals the story of his possession to Christie, contemptuous of the diligence with which this Marlow, this fearful acolyte has tracked him down. Yet although Murdon is primary, the first term in the binary oppositions of his relationship with Christie, he is himself secondary in his most creative centre of being. He is the predator on the cadaver of Bach, dependent on the precursor's originary genius for his own extemporization. His ferocity stems from the necessity of directing an active, almost Oedipal stream of energy towards the father of European musical form; as a Black American making his way in the cultural idiom of the Bach repertoire, he has to stamp his presence upon it. In these respects, his own case is but the most exigeant form of the travails all artists suffer in encountering the canon. But, most wrenchingly, and more woundingly, he is second in love.
Possession of the vibraphone is the dead hand of the past asserting its ghostly sway. It had originally belonged to Daniel Rosenblatt, a young jazz musician who died suddenly of a rare virus. The vibraphone had been willed to Elizabeth, the woman that Murdon loves, by Rosenblatt's mother after her death. It is only then that Murdon learns anything of his predecessor's existence, learns that Rosenblatt had been Elizabeth's lover. It thus represents a chain of knowledge withheld and ultimately revealed. The dead lover, as in Joyce's ‘The Dead’, destroys the equanimity of the lover in possession. This is the narrative that Murdon passes on to Christie.
To be possessed by the vibraphone is also the blasting mark of genius. Condemned to secondhandness, but also condemned to creativity, Murdon, tempted, engulfed, forging forward, breaking barriers but finding always the precursor in possession, is held by the spell of the instrument, unable to shake free, pounded by it. He assails tradition with it iconoclastically, with its technological futurity, with all the forces of modernity which in one sense it represents, but as Rosenblatt's instrument, it is equally the past taking possession of the present, the sign of belatedness. Like the Ancient Mariner, Murdon obeys the compulsion to tell his tale. He imposes upon Christie a mocking parody of his own secondness in love when he reveals that he has told the story to others who have come before her; he tells it indiscriminately to anyone who turns up.
‘Vibraphone’ is metafictional in a curious way: there is both the deferral and delivery of the narrative in words, the love stories connected with the vibraphone. The verbal narrative, however, seem curiously predictable and unsatisfactory in repetition, but the playing of the vibraphone itself is the image of art as the churning and redistributing of passional elements: obsession, engulfment, and control wreaked upon the instrument: the irony is that this musical frenzy is conveyed in words. Verbal narrative is consistently downgraded, runs thin, throughout this story: readers have come for the story, and like Christie, can have the story they came for, whereas musical form is associated with the most compelling exactitude, a soaring and essential expression which transcends the human inadequacies of the artist.
There is, however, a further poignancy in the central contrast of ‘Vibraphone’ between pure musical sound welling up and the staleness of the written word. The double paradox at its heart strikes at primacy: first, the core of musical form is the score Bach has already written, and, secondly, more treacherously, Murdon's music is mediated through language. The idea that one's spirit is always given through an intermediary, through some alien instrument, words for music, is an eternal defeat of primacy, of self-presence. The paradisal garden is one the artist is forever excluded from, not first love, first creation, but an old tale retold, rearranged, as Christie has discovered by the time she is dismissed from the prim ‘starched’ garden:
The door closed. Christie turned and began walking slowly down the path. Behind her, the music started up again, that surging choking wail, a clamor against wasted innocence—she shivered looking over the garden—a search for the contentment lost long ago, without anyone knowing it.
Once again the words seem elegiac of a condition which the music refuses to accept. Language has acknowledged closure and relegation; but ‘the music started up again’ presses forward, is a ‘clamor against’ fallen belatedness. As the language solaces, the ‘surging, choking wail’ of the music disrupts that acceptance. The question of whether Jerry Murdon is a spent force, whether he has the self-delusions or the self-convictions of genius, is left unanswered, or unresolved in the negative and positive epithets which surround him: language hedging its bets. However, the vibraphone compositions as at once mechanical and directly expressive of the sexuality of the body are a more potent configuration, an extreme version of the Faustian pact of art: the power to possess, to know more than can be borne, and then in knowing, to expend the human.
The ‘surging, choking wail’ of ‘The Vibraphone’ is a more harassing sound than the ‘distant music’ of Joyce's ‘The Dead’.10 In both stories music, functioning as an analogue of verbal form, is endowed with a more intense artistic and emotional reach than words alone can attain. However, music and words do not come to a lyric accommodation in the close of ‘The Vibraphone’ as they do so memorably in the conclusion of ‘The Dead’. Insofar as music figures metafictionally in ‘The Vibraphone’ it chafes and ravages the boundaries of verbal narrative as trite, narrow, exhausted. The instrument seems to taunt and demean the human desire for a story; as if it were the very image of what Valerie Shaw has described as the impulse of the genre of short fiction, intent on ‘devising ways to escape its own condition’.11
But a desire to exceed the bounds of prose fiction is not the only keynote of Fifth Sunday which also includes ‘Second-Hand Man’, a tale in which the pleasure is in passing on a variant of an old story. In their readiness to extemporize on traditional and modern narrative patterns, the stories are more like an ensemble than a sequence.12 This freeing-up is the easy-going element, the formal latitude in the grouping of the stories. More exigeantly, form is also a cultural marker: geometry and music make salient the ideological constraints within which African-American individuals and communities struggle to make their lives. That Dove has found formal indicators of the intersection of the racial and the ideological is evident if the stories in Fifth Sunday are compared with ‘Sambo, or: The Last of the Gibson Girls’, 13 her first published short story, not included in the collection. ‘Sambo’ is about the ideological stresses that a black child undergoes when she is disappointed by being given a black rather than a white doll. The theme is too explicitly declared and worked out, and the story lacks the formal incisiveness and inventiveness of the Fifth Sunday ensemble.
Dove's locales, like Joyce's version of Dublin, are at times evoked in the naturalistic detail which shrinks and warps the possibilities of her protagonists, but her title, Fifth Sunday, is the sign that they do find some space to improvise and that, like Zabriah, they ‘bulge’ the frame. These are often constricted lives, but the world which Dove creates is not one of decay or paralysis. In the sense that Dove in Fifth Sunday has Dubliners in her sightlines, she moves with perfect confidence from this point of reference to her chosen artistic and cultural territory, revising Joyce's poetics to create, in the disturbing, contemporary image of the vibraphone, a world simultaneously passional and mechanistic.
Rita Dove is a poet whose art is one of verbal compression, a concise austere lyricism in which narrative is given glancing elliptical expression. For such a writer, a short story ensemble in which themes resonate in different narrative modes and in a variety of setting and situation, is an amplification rather than a contraction of formal possibility. Most notably, the formal music of Fifth Sunday is not only in the discipline, but in the expressive flourishes, the visual chords which vibrate and animate the precision with which people, objects, and locations are placed. In portraying the ideological parameters that culture exerts upon the individual existence, Dove combines both the abstract rigour and the expressionistic elaborations of musical form.
1.Fifth Sunday (Lexington, Kentucky: Callaloo Fiction Series, 1985). All page references to the eight stories in the collection are to this edition.
2. Stan Sanvel Rubin and Judith Kitchen, ‘"The Underside of the Story": A Conversation with Rita Dove’, in The Post-Confessionals, ed. by Earl G. Ingersoll, Judith Kitchen, and Stan Sanvel Rubin (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989), pp. 164-65.
5. Rubin and Kitchen, ‘The Underside of the Story’, p. 165.
6.Selected Poems, pp. 144-47.
7.Grace Notes (New York and London: Norton, 1989), p. 3.
10.The Essential James Joyce, ed. by Harry Levin (London: Penguin, 1971), p. 503.
11.The Short Story: A Critical Introduction (London and New York: Longman, 1983), p. 6.
12. The concept of ‘sequence’ is, of course, flexible, as J. Gerald Kennedy has argued in his excellent discussion of the term in his introduction to Modern American Short Story Sequences, ed. by J. Gerald Kennedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Kennedy emphasizes the ‘progressive and unfolding effects’ (p. vii) of the sequence and cites Dubliners as a characteristic example.
13.Story Quarterly, 14 (1982), pp. 43-47.
Malin Pereira (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Pereira, Malin. "Museum and Cosmopolitanism." In Rita Dove's Cosmopolitanism, pp. 74-90. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
[In the following essay, Pereira analyzes the poems in Museum as expressions of Dove's cosmopolitanism, pointing out that the verses cross race and class lines and emphasize the universality of experience.]
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Ingersoll, Earl G., ed. Conversations with Rita Dove. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003, 198 p.
Includes interviews conducted by Malin Pereira, Robert McDowell, Gretchen Johnsen, and Richard Peabody, among others.
Pereira, Malin. "‘When the pear blossoms / cast their pale faces on / the darker face of the earth’: Miscegenation, the Primal Scene, and the Incest Motif in Rita Dove's Work." African American Review 36, no. 2 (2002): 195-211.
Discusses The Darker Face of the Earth as embodying the "African American primal scene Dove's writing has anxiously repressed—and symptomatically expressed—throughout her oeuvre."
Additional coverage of Dove's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 46; Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 109; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 19; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 42, 68, 76, 97, 132; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 50, 81; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. MULT, POET; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 6; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 15; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.
Dove, Rita 1952–
Dove, Rita 1952–
(Rita Frances Dove)
PERSONAL: Born August 28, 1952, in Akron, OH; daughter of Ray A. (a chemist) and Elvira E. (Hord) Dove; married Fred Viebahn (a writer), March 23, 1979; children: Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn. Education: Miami University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1973; attended Universität Tübingen (West Germany), 1974–75; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1977.
CAREER: Arizona State University, Tempe, assistant professor, 1981–84, associate professor, 1984–87, professor of English, 1987–89; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, professor of English, 1989–93, Commonwealth Professor of English, 1993–. Writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute, 1982. National Endowment for the Arts, member of literature panel, 1984–86, chair of poetry grants panel, 1985. Commissioner, Schomburg Center for the Preservation of Black Culture, New York Public Library, 1987–; judge, Walt Whitman Award, Academy of American Poets, 1990, Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1991 and 1997, Ruth Lilly Prize, 1991, National Book Award (poetry), 1991 and 1998, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, 1992–; jury member, Amy Lowell fellowship, 1997, and Shelley Memorial Award, 1997. Library of Congress consultant in poetry, 1993–95, special consultant in poetry, 1999–2000, member of board of student achievement services, 2002–. Member, Afro-American studies visiting committee, Harvard University, and Council of Scholars, Library of Congress, 2002–. Has made numerous appearances on radio and television, including Today Show, Charlie Rose Show, Bill Moyers' Journal, A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, and National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
MEMBER: PEN, Associated Writing Programs (member of board of directors, 1985–88; president, 1986–87), Poetry Society of America, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, American Philosophical Society, Poets and Writers, Phi Beta Kappa (senator, 1994–2000), Phi Kappa Phi.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellow, 1974–75; grants from National Endowment for the Arts, 1978, and Ohio Arts Council, 1979; International Working Period for Authors fellow for West Germany, 1980; John Simon Guggenheim fellow, 1983; Peter I.B. Lavan Younger Poets Award, Academy of American Poets, 1986; Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1987, for Thomas and Beulah; General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, 1987; Bellagio (Italy) residency, Rockefeller Foundation, 1988; Ohio Governor's Award, 1988; Mellon fellow, National Humanities Center, 1988–89; Ohioana Award, 1991, for Grace Notes; Literary Lion Medal, New York Public Library, 1991; inducted into Ohio Women's Hall of Fame, 1991; appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, 1993–94 and 1994–95; Women of the Year Award, Glamour magazine, 1993; Great American Artist Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1993; Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa Lecturer, 1993; Distinguished Achievement medal, Miami University Alumni Association, 1994; Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement, 1994; Renaissance Forum Award for leadership in the literary arts, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1994; Carl Sandburg Award, International Platform Association, 1994; Fund for New American Plays grant, 1995; Heinz Award in arts and humanities, 1996; Charles Frankel Prize/National Humanities Medal, 1996; Sara Lee Frontrunner Award, 1997; Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, 1997; Levinson Prize, Poetry magazine, 1998; Frederick Nims Translation Award (with Fred Viebahn), Poetry, 1999; Library Lion Medal, New York Public Library, 2000; Twenty-five Books to Remember list, New York Public Library, and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 2000, both for On the Bus with Rosa Parks; Margaret Raynal Virginia Writer of Distinction, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, 2001; Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001; Emily Couric Leadership Award, 2003. Awarded honorary doctorates from Miami University, 1988, Knox College, 1989, Tuskegee University, 1994, University of Miami, 1994, Washington University—St. Louis, 1994, Case Western Reserve University, 1994, University of Akron, 1994, Arizona State University, 1995, Boston College, 1995, Dartmouth College, 1995, Spelman College, 1996, University of Pennsylvania, 1996, Notre Dame, 1997, Northeastern University, 1997, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, 1997, Columbia University, 1998, State University of New York—Brockport, 1999, Washington and Lee University, 1999, Howard University, 2001, Pratt Institute, 2001, and Skidmore College, 2004.
Ten Poems (chapbook), Penumbra Press (Lisbon, IA), 1977.
The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (poetry chapbook), Porch Publications (Phoenix, AZ), 1980.
The Yellow House on the Corner (poems; also see below), Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.
Mandolin (poetry chapbook), Ohio Review (Athens, OH), 1982.
Museum (poems; also see below), Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1983.
Fifth Sunday (short stories), University of Kentucky Press (Lexington, KY), 1985, 2nd edition, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
Thomas and Beulah (poems; also see below), Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1986.
The Other Side of the House (poems), photographs by Tamarra Kaida, Pyracantha Press (Tempe, AZ), 1988.
Grace Notes (poems), Norton (New York, NY), 1989.
Through the Ivory Gate (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1992.
Selected Poems (contains The Yellow House on the Corner, Museum, and Thomas and Beulah), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
Lady Freedom among Us, Janus Press (Burke, VT), 1993.
The Darker Face of the Earth: A Play (first produced at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1996; produced at Kennedy Center, 1997; produced in London, England, 1999), Story Line Press (Brownsville, OR), 1994, 3rd revised edition, 2000.
Mother Love: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
(Author of foreword) Multicultural Voices: Literature from the United States, Scott Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1995.
The Poet's World, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.
Evening Primrose (poetry chapbook), Tunheim-Santrizos (Minneapolis, MN), 1998.
On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) The Best American Poetry 2000, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
(Selector and author of introduction) Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work: Poems, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2000.
Conversations with Rita Dove, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.
American Smooth, (poems), Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Work represented in anthologies. Author of weekly column "Poet's Choice," in Washington Post Book World, 2000–02. Contributor of poems, stories, and essays to magazines, including Agni Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Nation, New Yorker, and Poetry. Member of editorial board, National Forum, 1984–89, Isis, and Ploughshares; associate editor, Callaloo, 1986–98; advisory editor, Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Callaloo, Georgia Review, Bellingham Review, International Quarterly, and Mid-American Review.
AUTHOR OF LYRICS
The House Slave, music by Alvin Singleton, first presented at Spelman College, 1990.
(With Linda Pastan) Under the Resurrection Palm, music by David Liptak, first presented by Eastman American Music series, 1993.
Umoja: Each One of Us Counts, music by Alvin Singleton, first presented in Atlanta, GA, 1996.
Singin' Sepia, music by Tania Leon (first presented in New York, NY), Continuum International Publishing (New York, NY), 1996.
Grace Notes, music by Bruce Adolphe, first presented in New York, NY, 1997.
The Pleasure's in Walking Through, music by Walter Ross, first presented in Charlottesville, VA, 1998.
Seven for Luck, music by John Williams, first presented in Tanglewood, MA, 1998.
Song for the Twentieth Century, music by John Williams, first presented in Washington, DC, as part of Stephen Spielberg's film The Unfinished Journey, 1999.
Thonas and Beulah, music by Amnon Wolman, first presented in Chicago, IL, 2001.
Rita Dove and Edward Hirsch Reading Their Poems, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1986.
Poets in Person: Rita Dove with Helen Vendler, Modern Poetry Association (Chicago, IL), 1991.
Grace Cavalieri Interviews United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1993.
Rita Dove Reading from Her Poetry, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1993.
A Handful of Inwardness: The World in the Poet, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1994.
Stepping Out: The Poet in the World, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1994.
Rita Dove Reading Her Poems in the Montpelier Room, May 4, 1995, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.
Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora: Panel Discussions and Readings Exploring the African Diaspora through the Eyes of Its Artists, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.
(With others) Sharing the Gifts: Readings by 1997–2000 Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky, 1999–2000 Special Poetry Consultants Rita Dove, Louise Glück, W.S. Merwin, 1999 Witter Bynner fellows David Gewanter, Campbell McGrath, Heather McHugh, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1999.
The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress—Favorite Poets, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1999.
(With others) Poetry and the American People, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Rita Dove, who served as poet laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, has been described as a quiet leader and as an artist who weaves African-American experience into the broader perspective of international culture. Dove's lyrical and accessible poetry reflects the author's interest in music and drama, as well as her commitment to social justice and her sensitivity to women's issues. As Dove explained in the Washington Post: "Obviously, as a black woman, I am concerned with race…. But certainly not every poem of mine mentions the fact of being black. They are poems about humanity, and sometimes humanity happens to be black. I cannot run from, I won't run from any kind of truth." According to Renee H. Shea in Women in the Arts, "Reflections on the spaces where public and private histories intersect are familiar terrain" in Dove's work. Shea added that in the poems, "every line, every image, is a testament to her gift for language, her wide-ranging and curious intellect, and her continuous research on life."
When she was appointed poet laureate in 1993, Dove was forty years old—the youngest poet ever to be elected to that honorary position. She was also the first poet laureate to see the appointment as a mandate to generate public interest in the literary arts. She traveled widely during her term, giving readings in a variety of venues from schools to hospitals. As the first African-American poet laureate, Dove noted in the Washington Post that her appointment was "significant in terms of the message it sends about the diversity of our culture and our literature."
Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952, Dove is the daughter of a research chemist who broke the color barrier in the tire industry. She grew up in a home full of books and was an avid reader who also enjoyed writing and staging plays. In 1970, she was named a presidential scholar, one of the top one hundred high school graduates in the country that year. She earned a national merit scholarship to Miami University in Ohio, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1973. After that, she received a Fulbright fellowship to attend the University of Tübin-gen in West Germany, and then completed a master of fine arts at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Although Dove published two chapbooks of poetry in 1977 and 1980, she made her formal literary debut in 1980 with the poetry collection The Yellow House on the Corner, which received praise for its sense of history combined with individual detail.
Dove's next volume, Museum, also received praise for its lyricism, its finely crafted use of language, and its detailed depiction of images drawn from her travels in Europe. Alvin Aubert of American Book Review, however, faulted the volume for an avoidance of personal issues and experiences, such as that of ethnicity. "I would like to know more about Rita Dove as a woman, including her ethnicity, and on her home ground," he asserted. Calvin Hernton of Parnassus, in contrast, praised the "universal" sensibility of the poems in Museum, which, he noted, "lack anything suggesting that they were written by a person of African, or African-American, artistic or cultural heritage."
Dove turned to prose fiction with the publication of Fifth Sunday, a short-story collection. Reviewers emphasized Dove's minimalist style and her interest in what a critic for Southern Humanities Review called "the fable-like aspects of middle class life." While considered promising, the volume generally received mixed reviews, with some critics finding the quality and detail of the writing uneven.
Dove is best known for her book of poems Thomas and Beulah, which garnered her the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The poems in this collection are loosely based on the lives of Dove's maternal grandparents and are arranged in two sequences: one devoted to Thomas, born in 1900 in Wartrace, Tennessee, and the other to Beulah, born in 1904 in Rockmart, Georgia. Thomas and Beulah is viewed as a departure from Dove's earlier works in both its accessibility and its chronological sequence that has, to use Dove's words, "the kind of sweep of a novel." On the book's cover is a snapshot of a black couple in Akron, Ohio, in the 1940s (actually depicting not the author's grandparents, but an aunt and uncle). New York Review of Books contributor Helen Vendler observed that "though the photograph, and the chronology of the lives of Thomas and Beulah appended to the sequence, might lead one to suspect that Dove is a poet of simple realism, this is far from the case. Dove has learned … how to make a biographical fact the buried base of an imagined edifice."
The poems in Grace Notes are largely autobiographical. Alfred Corn remarked in Poetry that "glimpses offered in this collection of middle-class Black life have spark and freshness to them inasmuch as this social category hasn't had poetic coverage up to now." In Parnassus, Helen Vendler described Dove's poems as "rarely without drama," adding, "I admire Dove's persistent probes into ordinary language of the black proletariat." Jan Clausen noted in the Women's Review of Books that Dove's "images are elegant mechanisms for capturing moods and moments which defy analysis or translation." In the Washington Post Book World, A.L. Nielsen felt that the poems "abound in the unforgettable details of family character." Nielsen added that Dove "is one of those rare poets who approach common experience with the same sincerity with which the objectivist poets of an earlier generation approached the things of our world."
A more recent work, the novel Through the Ivory Gate, tells the story of Virginia King, a gifted young black woman who takes a position as artist-in-residence at an elementary school in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. The story alternates between past and present as Virginia's return stirs up strong, sometimes painful memories of her childhood. Barbara Hoffert observed in the Library Journal that the "images are indelible, the emotions always heartfelt and fresh." In the New York Times Book Review, Geoff Ryman noted that Through the Ivory Gate "is mature in its telling of little stories—Virginia's recollections of life with a troupe of puppeteers, of visiting the rubber factory where her father worked, of neighborhood boys daubing a house so that it looked as if it had measles." He concluded, "The book aims to present the richness of a life and its connections to family and friends, culture, place, seasons, and self. In this it succeeds."
In 1993 Dove published Selected Poems, which contains three of her previously published volumes: The Yellow House on the Corner, Museum, and Thomas and Beulah. Assessing the collection for Women's Review of Books, Akasha (Gloria) Hull remarked that "In the guise of poet," Dove is transformed into "many types of women and men, and takes us readers into their consciousness, helping us to feel whatever it is we all share that makes those journeys possible."
Dove explores yet another genre with her first full-length play, The Darker Face of the Earth. "There's no reason to subscribe authors to particular genres," she commented in Black American Literature Forum, "I'm a writer, and I write in the form that most suits what I want to say." Depicting the events that ensue when a wealthy white woman named Amalia gives birth to a slave's child, The Darker Face of the Earth imbues the theme of slavery with high drama as well as the murderous elements reminiscent of the classical Greek drama Oedipus Rex. Hull, again writing for Women's Review of Books, commented that The Darker Face of the Earth "transfers the oedipal myth of patricide and maternal incest to antebellum South Carolina, and though we can guess the end from the very beginning, we read with continuing interest, sustained by Dove's poetic dialogue." The Darker Face of the Earth was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. In African American Review, Theodora Carlisle suggested that the work "draws on a transcendent power, a dynamic that is at once erotic, compassionate, and creative…. This reading is endowed with both compassion and clearheaded responsibility to face and recognize the horrors as well as the richness implicit in the past."
While Dove's forays into fiction and drama have been well received, many observers would agree with Vendler, who commented in the New Yorker that Dove is "primarily a poet" because her greatest concern is language itself. Dove returned to writing poetry with her volumes Mother Love and On the Bus with Rosa Parks, two works that "deepen a dialogue over what might be described as public history versus private," to quote Matthew Flamm in the New York Times Book Review. Dedicated to Dove's daughter, Aviva, Mother Love takes its unifying structure from the Greek mother-daughter myth of Demeter and Persephone. Vendler praised Dove's unsentimental portrayal of motherhood, emphasizing her often wry and sometimes startling tone. "Dove brings into close focus the pained relation between mothers and daughters," noted Vendler. Times Literary Supplement correspondent Sarah Maguire likewise affirmed, "Dove's handling of the variety of voices and styles woven through the book shows a wonderful control of register and music."
On the Bus with Rosa Parks is also partly inspired by Dove's daughter, for on one occasion the poet and her daughter actually found themselves on a bus trip with the celebrated civil rights heroine. To quote Brenda Shaughnessy in Publishers Weekly, "Dove's tenacious belief in personal responsibility for public affairs is echoed throughout her new book, most notably in the sections about Rosa Parks, wherein the poet examines the critical moment when the woman whose name is now synonymous with the civil rights movement stepped into history by sitting down." Shaughnessy added, "Dove is a master at transforming a public or historic element—re-envisioning a spectacle and unearthing the heartfelt, wildly original private thoughts such historic moments always contain." Library Journal correspondent Ellen Kaufman felt that Dove's audience "will relish the delicious combination of a young girl, a dry wit, and a mature soul" in On the Bus with Rosa Parks. In an American Visions review of the collection, Denolyn Carroll concluded, "Their lyrical quality raises [Dove's] poems to the level of masterpieces."
Dove told a Women in the Arts interviewer: "I've always been obsessed by the voices that are not normally heard. I think it comes from the women I knew as a child, the women in the kitchen who told the best stories. They knew how the world worked, about human nature, and they were wise, are wise. When you are marginalized in any way—race, gender, age, class—you must learn to listen and pay attention very carefully if you are going to survive, and—women have known this since time immemorial—you have to anticipate what is expected of you, what you can get away with, how far you can push yourself. That makes you an extremely sensitive human being. It's the lemonade you get out of the lemons."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Keller, Lynn, Forms of Expansion, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1997.
Novy, Marianne, editor, Transforming Shakespeare, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Pereira, Malin, Rita Dove's Cosmopolitanism, University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Steffen, Therese, Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove's Poetry, Fiction, and Drama, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Vendler, Helen Hennessy, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
African American Review, spring, 2000, Theodora Carlisle, "Reading the Scars: Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth," p. 135; summer, 2002, Malin Pereira, "'When the Pear Blossoms/Cast Their Pale Faces on/the Darker Face of the Earth': Miscegenation, the Primal Scene, and the Incest Motif in Rita Dove's Work," pp. 195-212.
American Book Review, July, 1985.
American Poetry Review, January, 1982, 36.
American Visions, April-May, 1994, p. 33; October, 1999, Denolyn Carroll, review of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, p. 34.
Belles Lettres, winter, 1993–94, pp. 38-41.
Black American Literature Forum, fall, 1986, pp. 227-240.
Booklist, February 1, 1981, p. 743; August, 1983; March 15, 1986, p. 1057; February 15, 1997.
Callaloo, winter, 1986; spring, 1991; winter, 1996.
Detroit Free Press, July 24, 1993, pp. 5A, 7A.
Georgia Review, summer, 1984; winter, 1986.
Kliatt, March, 1994, p. 25.
Library Journal, August, 1992; November 15, 1993, p. 81; March 1, 1994, p. 88; April 1, 1997; May 15, 1999, Ellen Kaufman, review of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, p. 99.
Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 1987, pp. 428-438.
New Yorker, May 15, 1995.
New York Review of Books, October 23, 1986.
New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992; April 11, 1999, Matthew Flamm, review of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, p. 24.
North American Review, March, 1986.
Parnassus, spring-summer-fall-winter, 1985; Volume 16, number 2, 1991.
Poetry, October, 1984; October, 1990, pp. 37-39; March, 1996, Ben Howard, review of Mother Love, p. 349.
Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1992; January 31, 1994, p. 83; April 12, 1999, Brenda Shaughnessy, "Rita Dove: Taking the Heat," p. 48; July 31, 2000, review of Best American Poetry 2000, p. 90.
Southern Humanities Review, winter, 1988, p. 87.
Times Literary Supplement, February 18, 1994; November 17, 1995, p. 29.
USA Weekend, March 25-27, 1994, p. 22.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1988, pp. 262-276.
Washington Post, April 17, 1987; May 19, 1993; November 7, 1997.
Washington Post Book World, April 8, 1990, p. 4; July 30, 1995, p. 8.
Women in the Arts, spring, 1999, Renee H. Shea, "Irresistible Beauty: The Poetry and Person of Rita Dove," pp. 6-9.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1990, pp. 12-13; May, 1994, p. 6; May, 1996.
Rita Dove Home Page, http://www.people.virginia.edu/∼rfd4b/ (June 28, 2003).
August 28, 1952
Poet Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio. She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1973, then spent the following year in Tübingen, Germany, as a Fulbright scholar. In 1975 she enrolled in the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she received her Master of Fine Arts degree two years later. In 1981 Dove joined the English department at Arizona State University, where she continued to teach creative writing until 1989. In that year she accepted a position at the University of Virginia, which named her Commonwealth Professor of English in 1992.
Dove's first volume of poems, Yellow House on the Corner, was published in 1980. It was followed in 1983 by Museum, which displays a more conscious awareness of the conventions of artistic and historical practice. Three years later, Dove published Thomas and Beulah (1986), two versions of the story of two ordinary African Americans. The volume, which loosely narrates the lives of Dove's grandparents, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1987. Thomas and Beulah was a turning point in Dove's career for more reasons than its award-winning status. Not coincidentally, its narrative style emerged just after Dove's first published foray into fiction, First Sunday (1985), a collection of stories. Dove also published one novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), the story of a black woman whose work as a puppeteer evokes painful childhood memories of disturbing cultural significance. What First Sunday and Through the Ivory Gate may lack in believable dialogue and depth of characterization is made up for in the echoes of Grace Notes (1989). In the poems in this collection, each moment is filled by the persistent ringing of carefully culled metaphor.
More public attention has fallen on Dove's career than on that of any other contemporary African-American poet. Recognized for her virtuoso technical ability, Dove represents a generation of poets trained in university writers' workshops who are sometimes chastised for their formal competence at the expense of emotional depth. Dove has distinguished herself in her capacity to filter complex historical and personal information through precise selections of poetic form. In this, she is most closely allied to black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, and Robert Hayden. Her unusual range of subject matter, thematically and geographically, has earned her a reputation as a black writer unafraid to set African-American culture within a global context. Dove's gifts as a poet were most fully acknowledged in 1993 when she was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, the first black writer and the youngest poet ever to have been so honored.
Dove has continued reaping honors, including the 1996 National Humanities Medal, the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2003 Emily Couric Leadership Award. She has also been awarded honorary doctorates from more than twenty colleges and universities across the United States. From 2000 to 2002, she wrote a weekly poetry column in the Washington Post. In 2004 Dove published American Smooth, a collection of poetry.
Ingersoll, Earl G, ed. Conversations with Rita Dove. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Rampersad, Arnold. "The Poems of Rita Dove." Callaloo 9, no. 1 (winter 1986): 52–60.
Taleb-Khyar, Mohamed B. "An Interview with Maryse Condé and Rita Dove." Callaloo 14, no. 2 (spring 1991): 347–366.
gina dent (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Born 28 August 1952, Akron, Ohio
Daughter of Ray and Elvira Hord Dove; married Fred Viebahn,1979; children: Aviva
As the second African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the only African American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove has acquired an eager following among critics and the general public alike. Dove was born and grew up in Akron, Ohio, and early distinguished herself as a scholar. She attended Miami University of Ohio as a National Merit Scholar and graduated with her B.A. summa cum laude. She subsequently received a Fulbright Fellowship, which she used to study at Germany's University of Tubingen. Returning to the U.S., she earned an M.F.A. from the well-known University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. Her other awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a General Electric Foundation award for Younger Writers, a National Book award, and several honorary doctorates. She has taught at Arizona State University and is currently on the faculty at the University of Virginia.
Dove's early publications include two chapbooks published soon after she graduated from the University of Iowa. Her first full-length poetry collection was The Yellow House on the Corner (1980); many of the poems in this book achieve their effects through precise imagery and detail. Like many first collections, The Yellow House on the Corner addresses a variety of subject matter, from personal coming-of-age narratives, to more political descriptions of historically significant events, including the American slave trade. In her second collection, Museum (1983), Dove continues this trend, relying on sensual imagery to examine such historical figures as Catherine of Alexandria, Catherine of Siena, and Boccaccio. To the extent that readers are familiar with the lives of the figures Dove evokes and the events to which she refers, her poems are generally accessible. Her language itself is direct and occasionally deceptively simple. Ironically, Dove has been criticized both for focusing too much on race and for failing to focus enough on race. And in a climate when confessionalism has become the easiest of targets, Dove has nevertheless been criticized for not revealing enough of her personal characteristics. These contradictory criticisms reveal Dove is comfortable working among several traditions, that she is familiar with both her African heritage and with the traditional Western literary and cultural canon. To the extent her poetry erupts from personal experience, the content of her poems, in other words, reveal the complicated nature of identity in the late 20th century.
Dove is probably most well known for Thomas and Beulah (1986). This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, consists of two sequences, one from either character's perspective, which together explore the individual lives of Thomas and Beulah, Dove's maternal grandparents, as well as their life together. Like many sequences, this book is most effectively read in its entirety. More decidedly narrative than some of Dove's work, Thomas and Beulah has the effect of multigenerational novels. It is nevertheless a work of its time, for the characters are more antiheroic than classically heroic, more disappointed than fulfilled, more ordinary than extraordinary. Yet the book also addresses many of the major events in America's 20th century, most especially World War II and its aftermath. Thomas is a man disappointed not to be a soldier and disappointed to be the father exclusively of daughters rather than sons, although he hopes to fulfill this longing with a son-in-law and grandson. Thomas' stroke in the driver's seat of his automobile and his subsequent death are among the most poignant scenes in the book. Beulah, on the other hand, longs for solitude, quiet. When her children are napping, she sits out behind her garage, relishing her time to herself. Together, the lives of Thomas and Beulah exemplify not only the details of racial struggles but also of gendered struggles during the middle of this century.
To some extent, Dove continued this attention to ordinary lives, and more specifically to her own experience in Grace Notes (1989). A recent collection is Mother Love (1995), dedicated to her daughter and relying on the myth of Demeter and Persephone; and her latest is On the Bus with Rosa Parks published in 1999. Throughout her work, Dove elevates ordinary experience to memorable event through her use of striking detail. She has yet to write a book of poetry that has not been well received.
Dove has also written in other genres. She has published one novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), and a play, The Darker Face of the Earth: A Verse Play in Fourteen Scenes (1994). Critics continue to treat her primarily as a poet, however, not only because the bulk of her work is in that genre, but also because even in her prose she attends to language with the precision of a poet.
Ten Poems (1977). The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (1980). Mandolin (1982). Fifth Sunday (1985). Selected Poems (1993). The Poet's World (1995).