Although Rita Dove has won most of the honors available to an American poet — she was the second African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her 1986 collection “Thomas and Beulah,” and she served as U.S. poet laureate from 1993-1995 — she is less read and discussed, at least among younger readers, than she deserves to be. “Collected Poems 1974-2004,” which contains almost all of Rita Dove’s poetry, should change that and give posterity’s short memory a much-needed jolt. This is an absolutely astounding body of work.
The range of Dove's subjects and concerns is almost shockingly vast, as is the variety of instruments in her poetic toolkit. She writes about history, myth, memory, politics, love, domesticity and much more, casting her poems in modes that are alternately, or sometimes simultaneously, accessible, experimental, academic and quotidian. Few contemporary poets are this capacious, this capable, this serious and this pleasurable to read.
The gorgeous, aphoristic lyric “Primer for the Nuclear Age,” from Dove’s 1983 book “Museum.” is a brief ars poetica — a poem about the art of poetry — and as good a place as any in this hefty book of mostly short, concise, and precise lyric poems to glimpse her moral vision and poetic control in action:
At the edge of the mariner’s
map is written: “Beyond
this point lie Monsters."
Someone left the light on
in the pantry—there's
a skull in there on the shelf
that talks. Blue eyes
in the air, blue as
any idiot’s. Any fear, any
memory will do; and if you've
got a heart at all, someday
it will kill you.
That talking skull in the pantry, an open-ended figure for the emotional shadows in the corners of every life (“Any fear, any / memory will do”), is typical of Dove’s approach to morality and the kinds of wisdom and knowledge poetry can impart in whispers and implications. Dove’s world is often ghostly, though many of her ghosts are friendly; but even when the poems do seem to make simple, overt statements, they do it slantwise, like Emily Dickinson, concealing as much as they reveal. Your heart “will kill you” — yes, by fear or love or compassion, we are all eventually felled by feeling.
But there’s much to celebrate along the way. Dove came into her full powers with “Thomas and Beulah,” the book for which she is most famous, an impressionistic and episodic account of the lives of her maternal grandparents. It’s anything but a straightforward retelling of two lives, with the first half focused on Thomas and the second half, Beulah. Dove’s characters are subtle and true-feeling, portrayed with sweeping figures for how inner realities play out in day-to-day life. Of Thomas, she writes,
To him, work is a narrow grief
and the music afterwards
is like a woman
reaching into his chest
to spread it around.
And she’s ever able to spin beautiful metaphor and simile, the old-fashioned stuff of poetry. In the same poem, she says Thomas “used to sleep like a glass of water / held up in the hand of a very young girl.” We know that exact kind of delicate, uneasy sleep but wouldn’t have thought to say it like that.
Thomas and Beulah’s lives wind their ways toward each other, join and then end, though we’re not always quite clear on what’s happening — this uncertainly was a trend in the poetry of the 1980s. As a whole, the book attests to the idea that lives are not stories with plots and meanings. They are filled with memorable, and remembered, moments, but more that are unexceptional and forgotten.
As in the novels of Toni Morrison, much of the action in Dove’s poetry is subterranean, as though the poems have their roots in the deep soil of history and old language and are constantly drawing from those sources, no matter their explicit topics. Dove writes about subjects near at hand — her family’s past, her own experiences of love and motherhood. Yet the harshest facts and joys — of African Americans’ struggles, as well as all human struggles — are ever-present beneath and between her lines.
Like the best of her contemporaries — Mark Doty and Jorie Graham come to mind for different reasons — Dove gives us the world we know and simultaneously goes beyond it, as in the gorgeous poem “Pastoral” from “Grace Notes” (1989), a book about the death of a parent and new motherhood. Here's how she describes her nursing daughter:
Like an otter, but warm,
she latched onto the shadowy tip
and I watched, diminished
by those amazing gulps. Finished
she let her head loll, eyes
unfocused and large: milk-drunk.
I liked afterwards best, lying
outside on a quilt, her new skin
spread out like meringue. I felt then
what a young man must feel
with his first love asleep on his breast:
desire, and the freedom to imagine it.
Great poetry should include the world, transmit the sensations of being alive, while also imagining its way beyond experience. For Dove, much of life happens in the specific details — “those amazing gulps” — her poems render so vividly, but as much of it is lived in the shadowy realm where we have “the freedom to imagine it.”
Poets, like everything else, go in and out of fashion, but the best ones, like Dove, always have news to report. Dove came to prominence in the '80s and '90s, but she's not a poet of the past. This retrospective volume, which contains all but her most recent collection of poetry, is ample evidence that she still has plenty to tell us. Her poems give equal weight to the inner and outer lives, to the unfolding of consciousness from one moment to the next and to history, which is encoded in language like DNA. The lyric beauty of Dove's poems makes them unforgettable; their deep knowledge of history and its ongoing consequences makes them permanent.
Teicher is a poet and critic and the editor of "Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz."
"Collected Poems 1974-2004"
WW. Norton: 448 pp., $39.95