American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets Rita Dove (1952- )

About the Poet

The first black and youngest author to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Rita Frances Dove considers herself the heir of Phillis Wheatley, slave poet of the colonial era. A complex intellectual, Dove has edited Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, and TriQuarterly and served at Harvard on the Afro-American Studies Visiting Committee while producing some of the twentieth century's most controlled, viscerally satisfying imagery. She has earned praise for concrete immediacy. Her low-key, high intensity poems are distillations brewed by night until predawn from private imaginings and wordplay at her one-room cabin outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Her finished verse spirials out of everyday images and shards of sound, thought, and long-nurtured memory.

Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952. She discovered her gift for word manipulation in early childhood. Dove intended to make the most of her talents. After earning a National Merit Scholarship and ranking among the nation's top 100 high school seniors in 1970, she accepted a Presidential Scholarship and a tour of the White House. Although she was a Phi Beta Kappa inductee and stellar graduate of Miami University, she disappointed her parents by taking creative writing workshops while pretending to study law. After a change of heart in her junior year, she also dismayed teachers by embracing poetry as a career goal. She completed her education on a Fulbright/Hays Scholarship at the University of Tübingen. While she was a teaching fellow at the Writer's Workshop of the University of Iowa, she earned an M.F.A. in creative writing and issued a first volume, Ten Poems (1977).

In 1979, Dove married novelist Fred Viebahn, father of their daughter, Aviva Chantal, and translator of German editions of Dove's verse. Blending political undercurrent into personal memoir, she began submitting to national poetry journals and published The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (1980) and a poetic slave memoir entitled The Yellow House on the Corner (1980). While teaching at the University of Arizona, she composed Museum (1983), a hymn to history and culture that moved toward a more mature expression beyond the limitations of personal experience. The height of this collection is "Parsley," a depiction of Rafael Trujillo's slaughter of 20,000 Caribbean blacks on the basis of their pronunciation of perejil, the Spanish word for parsley.

Dove reached literary maturity with a dramatic coup, Thomas and Beulah (1986), a forty-four-poem tribute to her Southern-born maternal grandparents. The work reads like a novel. Dove based the intimate glimpses on the stories of her grandmother Georgianna, who brightened widowhood by reliving romance and marriage in shared memories. The book won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first awarded to a black female since Gwendolyn Brooks' prize in 1950.

Dove followed with The Other Side of the House (1988) and Grace Notes (1989); juxtaposed with short fiction in Fifth Sunday (1985); a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992); the one-act play The Siberian Village (1991); and a verse drama, The Darker Face of the Earth (1994). Among her honoraria are appointments as juror for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for poetry, the 1985 chair of poetry grants for the National Endowment for the Arts, and many honorary doctorates.

Chief Works

With "Geometry," Dove employs a lyric three-line stanza to express delight in writing verse. She derives the title from a brother's recommendation that she visualize shapes while working out geometric proofs. Selecting robust verbs for a series on remodeling, she re-creates the poet's work as knocking out walls, removing windows, and forcing the ceiling up. To characterize the whole process, she retreats from activity with a satisfied sigh. The walls, made clear, free the odor of carnations, a funeral flower that takes its name from the Latin for flesh because the blossom gives off an odor like a decaying corpse. Thus, her energetic removal of restraints is also a reprieve from dismal reminders of mortality.

To meld into a conclusion, Dove breaks the last line of stanza II and hurries on to stanza III with joy in being "out in the open." The invitation to look beyond confinement grows out of magical realism. For example, like cartoon shapes, the uptilted windows, tinged with sunlight, change into butterflies, a complex image of optimism and flight. Unconstrained in the act of composing poetry, Dove moves toward truths that await proving.

"Adolescents — I," the beginning of a gemlike triad numbered I — III, presents teenage girls in secret conference. Dove describes the sight with symbol — the daring conspirators kneel behind "grandmother's porch," a reference to the rigid, elevated outlines of the previous society. Teased by grass at ground level, they speak a child's immature truism — "a boy's lips are soft." As though looking toward the roles of wife and mother that await them, they characterize the feeling of a kiss with a prophetic, gently sibilant simile, "as soft as baby's skin." The meager light of a firefly precedes the lighting of street lamps, both small wattages that begin the illumination of a "feathery" adolescent awareness.

At the head of Dove's accomplishments, Thomas and Beulah (1986) is a major contribution to her family's lore. Dove has acknowledged in interviews that her ambitious work moved from a series of snapshots for a family album to more imaginative characterization. Among the changes necessary for her poetry was an alteration of Grandmother Georgianna's name to Beulah, which suits the meter. Dove concludes the series with a chronology of events that stand out in an otherwise unremarkable family history.

The action accounts for the lasting marriage of two endearing nobodies: Tennessee-born Thomas wed to Beulah, a Georgia native whose family settled in Akron, Ohio, after they joined the Great Migration of Southern blacks to industrial centers of the Midwest. Their historical union spans from December 1924 to Thomas's death at the end of July 1963. The significant and not-so-significant events that coincide with their private achievements and crises together underweave Dove's appraisal of a commonplace couple who influenced her first decade of life.

Dove presents both points of view — male and female — and instructs the reader to peruse them in sequence. Opening on Thomas, the poet follows the pre-feminist thinking of the era by allowing the husband to dominate. She dots his share of the text with details that characterize a fictionalized version of her half-Cherokee grandfather. In the poem, he is an Appalachian mountaineer short on prosperity, but long on good looks and musical talent. Gifts to his intended are simple, yet as intimate as a scarf, "the yellow silk / still warm from his throat / around her shoulders." Gently probing the foundations of a family, Dove depicts his fluttering heart as "slowly opening" to domesticity. As though convincing himself of worthiness, he promises, "I'll give her a good life."

Dove allows history to drift in and out of understated scenes. In an up mood, Beulah selects the color of their "sky blue Chandler" for a family visit back to Tennessee; in 1943, a personal and national decline overwhelms Thomas as he departs a movie theater under a veil of despair. Like a doting parent, in "Aurora Borealis," the poet breaks through the character's subconscious. With stodgy, clipped finality, the authoritarian voice commands, "Thomas, go home." By halting on "home," Dove implies that the husband's answer to qualms and self-doubt is found in the solidity and comfort of his marriage to Beulah.

Beulah's mental landscape meanders far from that traversed by Thomas. As though unaware of the greater cosmos, in "Sunday Greens," Beulah seasons her cooking with hambone during the spare Depression years when precious little meat clung to spare frames. In flitting daydreams, she eludes fragrance of beebalm pomade by linking it to a distant cityscape. Looking out to the world, she fixes on "Turkish minarets against / a sky wrenched blue."

Dove's strongest feminist commentary derives from the housewife's private burden in "Dusting," the poet's most analyzed, anthologized poem. Keeping physically and mentally busy, Beulah challenges a nagging despair with fantasy. While hands combat the "grainstorms" with a gray dustrag, her mind flies free of housewifery to ponder the name of a boy who kissed her at the fair. Was it Michael? As though polishing her life, she rubs the furniture to a bright shine. Too late, an answer comes to her — Maurice, an exotic not-Thomas kind of name. In subsequent entries, Dove pursues her grandmother's emotional displacement. The grit of "Dusting" returns in the form of "Nightmare," a twenty-four-line torment that ends with a memory of her mother's cry — "you'll ruin us" — for opening an umbrella indoors, a violation of folkways.

The verse cycle closes with "The Oriental Ballerina," a shifting, iridescent picture story centering on the dancing figurine that spins and dips atop a jewelry box more suited to budding women than old ladies. Beulah, aged and widowed, lies in a ghost-ridden room and perceives the dancer as a Chinese woman on the opposite side of the globe, where "they do everything upside down." Her association of classical ballet with Asia rather than France, where it began, suggests that her knowledge of culture is limited.

With the skill of a pointillist painter, Dove daubs the remains of her grandmother's memories on a verbal canvas with too-candid flashes — "papered in vulgar flowers," "background the color of grease," and a disheartening reminder that the veneer of Beulah's existence can never rise above "cracked imitation walnut." The details anchor the room in a humdrum, working-class environment. Obviously, Beulah has few treasures to feed her fantasy.

The aged speaker is left husbandless and bedfast beside crumpled, camphor-soaked tissues and an invalid's straw poking out of the glass like an accusing finger. Beyond Beulah's idealism of a petite dancer atwirl on her toes, the poet remarks, "the rest is shadow." Yet, bright rays against dull walls explode the invalid's limited view into reflected patterns. Like theatrical light tricks, a dazzling transformation spatters the dismal room with "shabby tutus." The sun-fed illusion becomes the poet's blessing on a failing grandparent whose memory retains all that is left of a marriage. Still capable of fleeing place and body, Beulah thrives on the active fantasy that sustained her from early marriage through widowhood to the receding boundaries of her life.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Contrast the gentle tone of Dove's "Adolescence — I" with Gwendolyn Brooks's ironic "We Real Cool." Comment on the cost of adolescent coming-to-knowledge.

2. Apply the term "lyric narrative" to Thomas and Beulah. Determine which segments are most lyric and which are earthbound in straightforward narration.

3. Compare Dove's historical, female-centered scenarios with those of poets Anne Sexton, Cathy Song, and Lorna Dee Cervantes or of fiction writers Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Marquez, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Laura Esquivel.

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