Lives in Motion: Multiple Perspectives in Rita Dove's Poetry
In Rita Dove's poetry collections, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), and Thomas
and Beulah (1986), history is figured as a continuum of ostensibly discrete and quiescent events that, in actuality,
shudder against each other, thus quaking the solid ground of our present moment. For Dove, nothing about history
is static, stitched in place like the pages of a high school history textbook; nothing about it is placidly "objective,"
dependable and real. Dove envisions history as motion itself, something, like the stars, constantly in flux,
always coming toward or receding from those of us who inhabit the evanescent present.1 History, thus, necessarily
produces multiple perspectives, various vantage points from which the same event can be seen and interpreted in
vastly different ways. As a poet, Dove distrusts the complacency of Leopold Ranke's much-quoted remark that history
can show a past event "wie es eigentlich gewesen"-"as it actually was," as it actually
happened. She understands that historical accounts, whether written or oral, familial or public, are often undependable
narrations of what happened to whom, for what reason, and to what end.2 Those accounts contain the subtly encoded
conscious and unconscious prejudices of the author, for as Yuri Lotman succinctly explains in Universe of the
Mind, any "text is always created by someone for some purpose and events are presented in the text in
encoded form" (217).
What then is left for a poet like Dove, one who openly admits to the allure of an "ultimate-and ultimately
unanswerable" question regarding personal and communal origins: "How does where I come from determine
where I've ended up?"3 The answer lies in acknowledging one's essential connection to history's multiple perspectives
and encodings, its constant flux, its reverberations. For a poet enamored of the point of intersection of public
and private history, as Dove clearly is, the poet's primary task becomes to attend to (and thus "decode")
both the realm of public history, supposedly factual and objective, and that of private history, woven from the
subjective thread of familial and individual memory. Just as importantly, Dove then re-encodes these accounts,
using poetic imagination to infuse bare "fact" with the flash of insight and human emotion. In essence,
Dove takes a "fact" and imagines a universe for it to inhabit. The result is a poem itself deeply encoded,
as Lotman would have it, by the workings of poetic invention, a text which seeks a poetic "truth" neither
historical nor ahistorical, neither wholly true nor wholly invented.
That is why Dove's poems dealing with history show an equal interest in origins and in endings; that is, she's
as much concerned with how things began as with how events happened to end in, or lead to, the present. This mix
of concerns creates a compelling tension in which her poetry borrows from forms as disparate as the historical
novel and the mythological text. Here's how Lotman distinguishes between the orientation-and intentions-of these
Historical narrative and novels associated with it are subject to temporal and causal sequence and as such are
oriented towards the end. The main structural meaning is concentrated at the end of the text. The question "how
did it end?" is typical of our perception both of the historical episode and of the novel. Mythological texts
which tell of the act of creation and of legendary originators are oriented towards the beginning. We see this
. . . in the persistent question "where did it come from?". . . (240).
Dove balances these competing urges, seeking to examine both the origins of certain ideas or incidents and the
repercussions they exert on present events-a condition perhaps most evident in Thomas and Beulah but prevalent
in her other work as well. The poet's imagination continually moves backward from the present and forward from
the past. The action is reflexive and restless, born of the conviction that history is in flux and thus the poet
must move with it.
It's no wonder, then, that so many of Dove's poems dealing with historical subjects show the subjects themselves
in motion. Dove thus implies that life itself is choice in motion. "The Abduction," for example, recounts
the story of freed slave Solomon Northrup, who along with his "new friends Brown and Hamilton," travels
the circuit playing fiddle while the other two dance and collect pennies from the audience. Restless, but enlivened
by his freedom of travel, Northrup falls prey to the treachery of his new "friends" and awakens,
after a night of drinking wine, to find himself "in darkness and in chains," sold downriver into slavery.
Likewise, "Corduroy Road" uses historical fact to underscore the relative peril of any foray into the
wild and uncharted. That death attends every step of those who clear a "track two rods wide / From Prairie
du Chien to Fort Howard at Green Bay" elicits a startling revelation:
The symbol of motion is static, finite,
And kills by the coachload.
The most poignant of these poems is surely "The Transport of Slaves From Maryland to Mississippi."
Dove opens the poem with a one-sentence summary of its narrative content, which would, were her intentions purely
narrative, make the poem that follows almost unnecessary:
(On August 22, 1839, a wagonload of slaves broke their chains, killed two white men, and would have escaped,
had not a slave woman helped the Negro driver mount his horse and ride for help.)4
But Dove is interested not so much in the incident as in the emotions and attitudes involved, those things which
have come to shape accounts of "what actually happened." Accentuating multiple perspectives, she divides
the poem into three sections, based variously on historical fact or poetic invention. Dove recognizes the indeterminacy
of historical fact, much as Claude Lévi-Strauss does in The Savage Mind, and thus she includes in
her poem conflicting versions of the incident which illustrate the disturbing distance between historical accounts
of an event. Each of these is "biased," as Lévi-Strauss explains, "even when it claims not
to be," simply for the reason that it is impossible to answer the question, "Where did anything take
place?" Lévi-Strauss makes his point by suggesting:
Each episode . . . resolves itself into a multitude of individual psychic moments. Each of these moments is
the translation of unconscious development, and these resolve themselves into cerebral, hormonal, or nervous phenomena,
which themselves have reference to the physical or chemical order. Consequently, historical facts are no more given
than any other. It is the historian, or the agent of history, who constitutes them in abstraction. . . . (257)
As both poet and "agent of history," Dove imagines the first section spoken in the voice of the slave
woman who helped the driver. This section offers a compelling rationale for the woman's surprising behavior, as
the following shows:
The skin across his cheekbones
burst open like baked yams-
deliberate, the eyelids came apart-
his eyes were my eyes in a yellower face.
Death and salvation-one accommodates the other.
I am no brute. I got feelings.
He might have been a son of mine.
Denied her humanity by slavery, she nonetheless displays it through her compassionate actions, though she fatefully
dooms both her fellows and herself to further slavery. She sees in the driver's "yellower" face, its
color perhaps testifying to forced sex between master and slave, a version of her own fate, of her own victimization.
The other two sections of the poem suggest entirely different perspectives on the incident, perspectives more
in keeping with "traditional" historical texts and the presumed reaction of white victims. The second
section suggests that Dove, for the sake of contrast, is drawing from a found text-a more historically "objective"
account of the incident. The entire section, composed in elevated as opposed to spoken dialect, is enclosed in
quotation marks. The text details how the "Negro Gordon, barely escaping with his life" alerted the plantation
owners, led a search, and thus ended "this most shocking affray and murder." It's the final section,
however, that demonstrates clearly the intellectual distance separating the attitudes of the participants that
August day in 1839. Hearing the commotion, baggage man Petit rushes to the wagon, thinking, "Some nigger's
laid on another one's leg," and is surprised to see the slaves loose. Petit believes the slaves will fall
passive before the snap of his whip and screams, "Hold it!":
but not even the wenches stopped. To his right
Atkins dropped under a crown of clubs. They didn't
even flinch. Wait. You ain't supposed to act this way.
Tremors emanating from the kind of racial stereotyping evident in Petit's remarks confound communication between
the races to this day. One group "knows" another largely through the shifting ground of suspicion and
prejudice, denying in each other a shared humanity which the poem's slave woman tragically embodies. Through public
and historical fact long since fallen silent, Dove reconnects her readers to the past and amplifies its message
to the present.
Elsewhere in Yellow House, Dove's speaker herself becomes the traveler, the one whose quest for knowledge
of origins and endings demands that she set out to see things for herself. The result is a peripatetic poem, a
walking tour of the fractured world, during which the speaker ruminates on and then postulates reasons for the
unreasonable things she encounters. The best, "Sightseeing," concerns a speaker who has come upon a European
church and its inner courtyard of statues damaged during WW II. The villagers have chosen to leave the dismembered
statues exactly as they found them after the Allies departed. "Come here," the speaker asks the reader
at the poem's beginning, "I want to show you something":
What a consort
of broken dolls! Look, they were mounted
at the four corners of the third floor terrace
and the impact from the cobblestones
snapped off wings and other appendages.
The heads rolled the farthest.
Realizing the scene engenders strong but various reactions, the speaker plays upon that ambiguity to establish
a dialectic between the mongers of despair and belief, distrusting either extreme. The villagers who locked the
gates in the face of this "terrible sign" overlook what the speaker does not: that "good" indeed
did prevail over "evil" in the war, that civilization did indeed reestablish order over such chaos. To
the speaker, heavenly intervention, or heavenly retribution, seems hardly the point. To clarify these multiple
perspectives, the speaker first invokes Yeats' "The Second Coming" and then delineates the virtues of
both remembering and forgetting:
But all this palaver about symbols and
"the ceremony of innocence drowned" is-
as you and I know-civilization's way
of manufacturing hope. Let's look
at the facts. Forget they are children of angels
and they become childish monsters.
Remember, and an arm gracefully upraised
is raised not in anger but a mockery of gesture.
The hand will hold both of mine . . .
This careful balancing of opposites, her playfulness with history's multiple perspectives is characteristic
of Dove's work. It accounts for why what is viewed by the speaker instructively as the "vulgarity // of life
in exemplary size" can be merely "a bunch of smashed statues" in the eyes of two drunks who take
in the same scene at the poem's close.
The great distance between the levels of language cited above-the "smashed statues" and the "vulgarity
// of life in exemplary size"-emphasizes the role language has not only in expressing but also in ordering
our lives. We come to experience itself through language; we ponder and arrange and comprehend our lives through
language. In other words, meaning is not just reflected in language but also something produced by
it. Which is to say, we are forever confronting its enabling and limiting aspects. As a poet examining the intersection
of public and private history, Dove must necessarily pay attention to language, the shared medium through which
filter both public events and our private lives. It's not surprising that two of her most important poems focus
on language's ability to free or enchain us. The first of these, "Ö" from Yellow House, begins:
Shape the lips to an o, say a.
One word of Swedish has changed the whole
When I look up, the yellow house on the corner
is a galleon stranded in flowers.
The exotic sound and feel of the word on her lips, the sensual awareness of the Other, transforms and intoxicates
the speaker. It is almost as if, in that one word, she has also the world on her lips, lively as any lover's
kiss, erotic as only words can be. Freed by language and thus no longer place-bound, the speaker imagines a complementary
world where motion is possibility and distance collapses before the power of language. Where historical time subsides
in sea breezes, where the house on the corner might take off "over the marshland" and neither the speaker
nor her neighbor "would be amazed." In knowledge, in one word "so right // it trembles," the
speaker has found a way to alter her conception of her self and the possibilities her life might bring-transforming
equally the present and the future she imagines for herself:
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing's
like it used to be, not even the future.
But if language can thus liberate and unify, Dove alsoacknowledges its counter ability to subjugate and divide.
The haunting poem, "Parsley," from Museum, recounts the story of Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961),
dictator of the Dominican Republic, whom, Dove tells us in an endnote, "ordered 20,000 blacks killed because
they could not pronounce the letter 'r' in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley" (136). The terrible
associations of that one word counter the romantic exigency found in "Ö." Dove examines the abuses
of power and violence that stem from the idea of a dominant language, a so-called "pure" language that
demarcates the empowered from the disempowered. Surely Dove, as an African-American, is conversant with the tension
existing between a culture's dominant language and its dialects, and with the ways language is used to exclude
some from membership in the dominant culture.5 Although history is not language itself, history comes to us-and
thus we come to know it-through words, as Dove implies below:
. . . the word [parsley], or the Haitians' ability to pronounce it, was something that created history. But
history is also the way we perceive it, and we do perceive it through words. . . . And language does shape our
perceptions. . . . The way we perceive things is, of course, circumscribed by our ability to express those things.
(Rubin and Ingersoll 229)
Again Dove employs multiple perspectives to juxtapose differing ways to inhabit the historical reality of these
events; one lens is focused on experience in the "Cane Fields" and the other on the "Palace."
The poem's first section-a melodious villanelle-conveys the feelings of the field workers. Its horrific content
seems to "smash," as Robert McDowell asserts, "against the stark and beautiful container
of the form."6 Here's the opening movement:
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-
On the other hand, the poem's second section, a third-person narrative, traces the general's warped thought
processes in a language markedly different from that of the villanelle. The parrot, the green cane fields, the
rain, and other lyric elements of the first section reappear, but this time they're couched in flat, declarative
sentences that highlight the surreal quality of the general's stream of consciousness:
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
. . . he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
Who can I kill today. . . .
the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother's smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R's . . .
Soon the general's love for his dead mother, who could "roll an R like a queen," becomes linked with
his "love in death" and the sprig of parsley villagers wore to "honor the birth of a son."
In the name of the dominant language, in memory of his neurotic (and incestuous?) love for his mother, the general
orders the killings "for a single, beautiful word." Thus, the poem offers a meditation on history examined
through the powers and permutations of language.
The balancing of perspectives I've identified in Dove's work operates also within some of her most personal
narratives, as in "My Father's Telescope," where her father fails in his attempt to make the impossible
The oldest joke
in the world,
a chair on three legs. . . .
years of cupboards
and end tables, after
a plywood Santa
and seven elves
for the lawn in snow,
He's failed, and
Balance is so important to Dove it's no wonder she would focus on her father's efforts to level the chair's
three legs; instead of achieving balance, the chair simply "shrinks" beneath the father's saw.
The chair is an apt symbol for Dove's sense of historical perspective, the seeking of which is perhaps the world's
"oldest joke." History, like the chair, can't offer a solid and unmoving foundation; it shifts and lurches,
tossing the unwary unceremoniously on their backsides. Two of its legs-public and private history-are notoriously
unreliable and perhaps unmeasurable. The third, one's sense of self, much of which is necessarily intuitional and
invented, requires a balanced negotiation between the other two. History thus resides less in the physical event
than in memory and language-intangible things that hold but cannot be held. It can not literally be "made"
like a chair. History, if made at all, is made only in the living of it; thus we have no way of extracting ourselves
or history from the swirling events around us. We are, as Heidegger believed, intimately wrapped up in being-in-the-world,
inextricably tied to it through our relations with our fellows.
The father's Christmas present for himself and his son, a telescope, redeems him in the speaker's eyes, for
implicitly he comes to see that historical perspective demands a restless searching outside of the self. One needs
such a telescope to see what happened, what is, and, providently, what will be. The telescope also figures prominently
in "AntiFather," a poem in which the now mature speaker dares to contradict both the Big Bang theory
and her father's explanation that the stars are "far apart":
with years. . . .
speak to a child.
is silent. . . .
me and you,
woman to man,
outer space is
That physical and historical space outside the self should appear intimately connected to the self ought not
to surprise any reader of Dove's work. But the notion that the past is "silent" hardly seems to be the
case for Dove, especially given her notable achievements in imaginatively tracing the lives of her grandparents
in Thomas and Beulah. In fact, Thomas and Beulah can be seen as the culmination of Dove's poetic
interest in history as lives in motion, for she draws freely from both public and familial history, supplementing
these accounts, where the fabric of fact frays, with the whole cloth of poetic invention.
Thomas and Beulah, as the title implies, is foremost the story of two lives caught amidst the cascading
events of the early to mid-twentieth-century United States. Dove organizes the book in keeping with what by now
ought to be her familiar devotion to multiple perspectives, dividing it into two sections, each relating the life
and personal perspective of one of the title characters. If one should doubt the importance of these multiple perspectives,
Dove opens the book with the following invocation: "These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to
be read in sequence." Two sides of a single story, two angles which proceed ineluctably from the intersection
of lives in fact and happening; one story interwoven of two distinct threads. It is tempting to consider such an
arrangement dialogic, but to do so is to elevate form over substance. Thomas and Beulah don't so much speak to
each other as about each other, and their stories are told in the third person, refusing the intimacy (and
narrative complications) of first person. True enough, their versions of one event often diverge, and those differing
views, as we shall see, reveal much about one character's view of the other. Still, the dialogue is implicit, restrained,
However, these two lives are placed in dialogue with larger historical reality. To emphasize this dialogic historical
context, Dove appends a chronology that lists both familial and public events such as the births of children and
the 1963 Civil Rights march on Washington. In an aesthetic sense, it performs a necessary function, filling in
the gaps which the elliptical form of the poems often leaves unspoken. If there's a shortcoming to the book, it
lies in the reliance on slow accrual to gradually provide narrative facts omitted from individual poems. It's difficult
to discern, for example, in the poem "The Oriental Ballerina," that Beulah's blurred and nearly opaque
view of her bedroom results from glaucoma-unless one consults the next-to-last item in the chronology. In another,
largely historical sense, Dove has other intentions for the chronology: "It's a very eccentric chronology,
so you can see what was happening in the social structure of midwest America at the time this couple was growing
up" (Rubin and Ingersoll 236). Just how thoroughly Dove envisions history as lives in motion is made clear
in the book's first poem. When we meet Thomas in "The Event," he stands upon the deck of a riverboat
heading north from Tennessee. This initial "fact" of the book has its source in familial oral history,
handed down from one generation to the next like a precious heirloom, as Dove explains:
My grandmother had told me a story that had happened to my grandfather when he was young, coming up on a riverboat
to Akron, Ohio, my hometown. But that was all I had basically. And the story so fascinated me that I tried to write
stories about it. (Rubin and Ingersoll 235-36)
But this fact soon becomes insufficient. When family history evaporates, Dove discovers another wellspring to
feed her story: ". . . because I ran out of real fact, in order to keep going, I made up facts for this character,
Thomas." (Rubin and Ingersoll 236)
Through the workings of imagination, through "made up facts," Dove's grandfather becomes something
larger than the reality of his life. He becomes "this character, Thomas," embodying not only himself
but also others whose lives have gone unexamined and unrecounted. George Garrett summarizes the difficulty and
reward of thus imagining history:
To write imaginary history is to celebrate the human imagination. Not one's own. . . . The subject is the larger
imagination, the possibility of imagining lives and spirits of other human beings, living or dead, without assaulting
their essential and, anyway, ineffable mystery, to dream again in recapitulation the dream of Adam, knowing, as
he did until he awoke, that it is true; for Adam dreamed in innocence. We can only imagine that condition. (262)
This is especially true if one considers how Dove uses poetic invention to meld private and public history:
Thomas, in his trip upriver to the North, takes part in this century's huge exodus of blacks from America's Southern
states to those of the North.7 Heading out in hopes of work and the new life it might afford, Thomas partakes in
what has been called the "Great Migration," 1915-1960, during which nearly five million African-Americans
from the rural South migrated to the cities of the industrial North.8 The movement's root cause lies first in the
failure of blacks to receive "forty acres and a mule" promised after the Civil War, but as Stewart Tolnay
and E. M. Beck argue, by the beginning of the century more insidious causes were to blame. In addition
to the usually cited wage differentials and "expansion of employment opportunities in the North," and
the general disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, Tolnay and Beck point to a possible "reciprocal
relationship between black migration and racial violence, that is, that violence induced migration, which in turn
moderated the level of violence" (21).
Whatever the reason for his departure, Thomas' personal motives become part and parcel of historical fact. On
the riverboat, drunk from the heady effects of both possibility and cheap wine, Thomas sings to the accompaniment
of his "inseparable" friend Lem's mandolin. The scene is exotic with moonlight and "tarantulas"
among the boat's cargo of bananas, and one "boast" leads to another. Lem dives overboard for chestnuts
crowning a river delta island, but tragically
the island slipped
in the thickening stream.
Lem drowns, disappearing from the poem but not from Thomas' psyche. He looms large in Thomas' life, presiding
on numerous occasions like a revenant returning from death-all of which lends itself to Dove's strategy to build
the book's narrative in lyric pieces and thus by accrual. Thomas feels Lem's presence or hears his words when he
and Beulah buy a new car ("Nothing Down"); when, after working at the zeppelin factory, he sees the Goodyear
blimp "Akron" float over ("The Zeppelin Factory"); and when in a dream he imagines Lem "naked
and swollen / under the backyard tree" ("The Charm"). Lem evokes such strong presence in Thomas'
sensibility that when a stroke threatens to end his life, Thomas believes the pain was simply "Lem's knuckles
tapping his chest in passing" ("The Stroke").
If Dove is, as I've suggested, a poet who envisions history as lives in motion, it's curious that in the midst
of so much movement there is relatively little overt reference to great events in the Movement-black America's
movement for racial and social equality. In fact, Arnold Rampersad, noting that Dove writes "few poems about
racism today," argues that she "apparently declines to dwell on the links between past history and present
history."9 However, Dove's linking of past and present racial history is, as we've seen, implicit and understated.
Admittedly, Dove's work lacks the racial pungency of a poet like Amiri Baraka's, but much like Yusef Komunyakaa's
poems of racial history, her poems work implicitly to link past and present grievances. It is precisely in the
common and day-to-day experiences of African-Americans that Dove deals with racial bigotry, and often in subtle
terms. Dove shows a fondness for "small" history as opposed to "big historical events," choosing,
as she explains below, to
talk about things which no one will remember but which are just as important in shaping our concept of ourselves
and the world we live in as the biggies, so to speak. (Rubin and Ingersoll 232)
Take, for example, "Nothing Down," in which Thomas and Beulah venture south to Tennessee in a new
car, a "sky blue Chandler!", which ought to signal their success on the literal and figurative
road to achieving the American Dream. The automobile is, of course, the American symbol of freedom and mobility
(and social mobility as well). Instead, the car breaks down outside Murfreesboro and a jeering
. . . carload of white men
halloo past them on Route 231.
"You and your South!" she shouts
above the radiator hiss.
And then there's "Roast Possum," a delightful poem showing Thomas reading to his grandchildren from
the 1909 edition of the Werner Encyclopedia, telling tales of possum hunting, and embellishing the story of "Strolling
Jim," a horse "who could balance / a glass of water on his back / and trot the village square / without
spilling a drop." In the midst of this quaint domestic scene, Thomas considers telling the children another,
more disturbing item from the Werner;
He could have gone on to tell them
that the Werner admitted Negro children
to be intelligent, though briskness
clouded over at puberty, bringing
indirection and laziness.
Thomas says nothing of the above, choosing to continue his story of possum hunting, but Dove's poem says it
for him-his silence speaking more loudly than her words.
If, as Helen Vendler argues, Dove's is a poetry of the "disarticulated," it is in her presentation
of the inchoate and unspoken histories of these individuals that Dove gives them voice (51). It is almost painful
to witness Thomas and Beulah, two people clearly devoted to each other, continually misinterpret each other's behavior.
Even the intimate act of courting carries with it high stakes, a gamble in which one's acts or those of fate can
be misread for good or ill, as "Courtship" examines when Thomas sets aside his mandolin and
. . . wraps the yellow silk
still warm from his throat
around her shoulders. (He made
good money; he could buy another.)
A gnat flies
in his eye and she thinks
What follows reminds one, in both image and idea, of "Ö"; suddenly, the future's sail is taut
with the intoxicating breezes of possibility:
Then the parlor festooned
like a ship and Thomas
twirling his hat in his hands
wondering how did I get here.
Still, the distance between Thomas' and Beulah's perspectives on this scene proves chilling; it sighs like an
inarticulate gulf stretching between them. Beulah's version of these events, given in "Courtship, Diligence,"
takes the wind out of Thomas' solicitude:
She'd much prefer a pianola
and scent in a sky-colored flask.
Not that scarf, bright as butter.
Not his hands, cool as dimes.
Occasions such as these give Dove the opportunity to replay one of her favorite tunes: the unreliability of
fact, whether historical or familial-and thus the daunting task of interpreting static truth from events fraught
with multiple perspectives.
The restless motion that characterizes the human subjects of Dove's poems animates Beulah's yearning to break
free of her circumscribed roles of wife and mother. If Thomas continually yearns for a place to go fishing (see,
for instance, "Lightnin' Blues" and "One Volume Missing"), Beulah fretfully wishes to escape
to a more exotic location, namely, France. In "The Great Palaces of Versailles," she irons alterations
in the "backroom of Charlotte's Dress Shoppe" while musing on what she'd once read in the library:
how French ladies at court would tuck
their fans in a sleeve
and walk in the gardens for air. Swaying
among lilies, lifting shy layers of silk. . . .
The agent of her travel is, of course, not literal but literary, and unsatisfyingly brief as well. Such travel
requires a turn of mind, a "rehearsed deception," as the poem "Magic" refers to it. With concerted
practice in evasions of reality, she convinces herself that a picture of the Eiffel Tower in the Sunday paper amounts
to a "sign she would make it to Paris one day."
She makes it only as far as the backyard. In "Daystar" Beulah successfully creates space for herself,
"a little room for thinking," by toting a chair out back "behind the garage" while the children
nap. It is perhaps the most disconcerting of Dove's "travelogue" poems. On most days Beulah's trip offers
highlights as mundane as a "floating maple leaf" or a dead cricket; on others she closes her eyes to
see "her own vivid blood." Each day her flight ends with a violent crash:
She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared pouting from the top of the stairs. And just what was
mother doing out back with the field mice?
That coming and going, the frenetic fleeing of one moment into another is the very stuff of Dove's view of life.
The wish to still that ceaseless motion could well have been the impetus behind the mostly nostalgic and autobiographical
poems of her recent collection Grace Notes, a book replete with memories of childhood summers, her youthful
math proficiency, and the animated behavior of parents, sisters and brother, and assorted aunts. I say wish
because the book acknowledges the futility of that urge by its very celebration of the past. In the poem "Ozone,"
even the present lurches ineluctably into the past, into "history." One can detect both the momentary
longing for stasis and an equal awareness of its unavailability in the conditional "If only" which opens
the closing movement of the poem:
If only we could lose ourselves
in the wreckage of the moment! Forget
where we stand, dead center, and
look up, look up,
track a falling star . . .
now you see it
now you don't
"Daystar" aptly suggests the goal of much of Dove's poetry: to recognize, within the vagaries of personal
and communal history, our "own vivid blood." It is perhaps her best response to the "ultimately
unanswerable" human question of "where I come from." Dove acknowledges history's multiple perspectives
and encodings and its perpetual flux. If historical fact and family tale and even personal experience shudder with
indeterminacy, if history "as it actually was" must elude her, she settles for what might have happened,
how, and why-all from multiple vantage points. She searches equally for origins and endings and yet distrusts both.
In the end, if indeterminacy is our only claim, she answers the unreliability of history with the "truth"
of poetic imagination.
1. Lest anyone doubt Dove's devotion to historical subjects, witness her new verse play, The Darker Face
of the Earth (Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1994). A Story Line Press flier provides this synopsis: "Amalia,
a plantation's strongwilled white mistress, gives birth to a black son, much to the horror of her husband. The
child is auctioned into slavery. From that day, Amalia 'gets eviler by the hour' and takes to running the plantation
with an iron will. Twenty years later, as a challenge, she buys Augustus, a 'brightskinned' slave with a reputation
for rebelliousness. Augustus, filled with hate toward the white man who raped his black mother, cannot resist the
advances of Amalia-master and slave become lovers, unaware of their blood connection."
2. The idea that history is thus a construct has enjoyed notoriety for at least a couple of hundred years. Frank
Kermode, for example, argues in History and Value (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) that as early as 1789,
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, in his inaugural lecture at Jena, "distinguished between events and
their history" (109). He also cites Lionel Gossman's paraphrase of Schiller's remarks: "The historian's
perception is determined by his own situation, so that events are often torn out of the dense and complex web of
their contemporary relations in order to be set in a pattern constructed retrospectively by the historian"
(19). See Gossman, "History and Literature," in R. H. Canary and H. Kozicki, eds., The Writing of
History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding (1978), 3-39. In Universe of the Mind, Yuri Lotman
adds simply that the historian "predicts backwards" (236) from the present to the past historical moment,
that, in effect, "the historian reconstructs the events in the opposite direction" (237).
3. This remark appears in Dove's introduction to Selected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1993), xxi, in which
she hazards an answer to the question, "What made you want to be a writer?"
4. These cited poems originally appeared in The Yellow House on the Corner. All quotations from Dove's
poems, except for one sampling from Grace Notes, refer to Selected Poems.
5. For a sensible study of the forces of language and culture operating in current poetry by American minority
women, see Patricia Wallace's essay, "Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Work of Lorna Dee Cervantes,
Cathy Song, and Rita Dove," Mellus 18.3 (Fall 1993): 3-19. Discussing the interaction of "literary"
convention and imagination and "literal" fact in these poets' work, she summarizes the idea in these
terms: "We call what is distinct from the poet's power 'history' or 'the actual' or 'the real,' and it acts
as a gravitational field through and against which the poems move and have their life."
6. McDowell, p. 66. In a feisty and perceptive essay, McDowell compares Dove's "assembling vision"
and her devotion to history against what he calls the typical fare of most literary magazines. Those poems, he
argues, show that most young writers have been persuaded to "renounce realistic depiction and offer it up
to the province of prose," thereby promoting "subjectivity and imagination-as-image." McDowell concludes,
not without some justification, that this situation has "strangled a generation of poems" (61).
7. In a recent interview Dove explicitly connects Thomas and her family with this social movement: "I grew
up as a first-generation middle-class black child-which means that my grandparents were blue-collar workers who
moved north from the South in this century, during the Great Migration; and my parents were the first generation
to make it into the professional world. My father was a chemist; he's retired now. He was the first black chemist
in the rubber industry, which is the only industry in Akron, Ohio. My mom is a housewife . . ." (145).
See William Walsh, "Isn't Reality Magic?: An Interview with Rita Dove," The Kenyon Review 16 (Summer
8. Alferdteen Harrison cites this figure in the preface to Black Exodus: The Great Migration from
the American South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), vii. Other essays in the anthology address
issues such as the social and economic life of blacks, the call for black labor, and social change during the Great
9. Rampersad, p. 55. In remarks both provocative and enlightening, Rampersad astutely situates Dove within
the movement of twentieth-century African-American poets to a degree far beyond the intentions of my essay.
Dove, Rita. Grace Notes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
_____. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Garrett, George. "Dreaming with Adam: Notes on Imaginary
History." New Directions in Literary History. Ed. Ralph Cohen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1974. 24963.
Harrison, Alferdteen, ed. Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South. Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Lotman, Yuri. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Trans. Ann Shukman. Introduction by
Umberto Eco. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990 .
McDowell, Robert. "The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove." Callaloo 9 (Winter 1986): 6170.
Rampersad, Arnold. "The Poems of Rita Dove." Callaloo 9 (Winter 1986): 5260.
Rubin, Stan Sanvel, and Earl G. Ingersoll. "A Conversation with Rita Dove." Black American Literature
Forum 20 (Fall 1986): 22640.
Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck. "Rethinking the Role of Racial Violence in the Great Migration."
Black Exodus: The Great Migration and the American South. Ed. Alferdteen Harrison. Jackson: University Press
of Mississippi, 1991. 20-35.
Vendler, Helen. "In the Zoo of the New." New York Review of Books 23 Oct. 1986: 47-51.
Wallace, Patricia. "Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy
Song, and Rita Dove." Mellus 18 (Fall 1993): 3-19.
Walsh, William. "Isn't Reality Magic?: An Interview with Rita Dove." The Kenyon Review 16 (Summer
Kevin Stein is at work on a book about contemporary poetry.