My Mother Enters the Work Force
Note this is one of four Frida Kahlo paintings described in the poem below.
Sonnet in Primary Colors
This is for the woman with one black wing
perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect
among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant,
who painted herself a present--
wildflowers entwining the plaster corset
her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.
Each night she lay down in pain and rose
to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead,
Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead.
And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting
like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego's
love a skull in the circular window
of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.
Note this is another one of the Frida Kahlo paintings
described in the poem above.
If I could just touch your ankle , he whispers, there
on the outside, above the bone-- leans closer,
breath of lime and peppers--I know I could
make love to you . She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn't quite
sure what he meant. He was good
with words, words that went straight to the liver.
Was she falling for him out of sheer boredom--
cooped up in this anything-but-humble dive, stone
gargoyles leering and brocade drapes licked with fire?
Her ankle burns where he described it. She sighs
just as her mother aboveground stumbles, is caught
by the dredlock--bereft in an instant--
while the Great Man drives home his desire.
My Mother Enters the Work Force
The path to ABC Business School
was paid for by a lucky sign:
Alterations, Qualified Seamstress Inquire Within.
Tested on Sleeves, hers
never puckered -- puffed or sleek,
Leg o' or Raglan --
they barely needed the damp cloth
to steam them perfect.
Those were the afternoons. Evenings
she took in piecework, the treadle machine
with its locomotive whir
traveling the lit path of the needle
through quicksand taffeta
or velvet deep as a forest.
And now and now sang the treadle,
I know, I know....
And then it was day again, all morning
at the office machines, their clack and chatter
another journey -- rougher,
that would go on forever
until she could break a hundred words
with no errors -- ah, and then
no more postponed groceries,
and that blue pair of shoes!
At the dinner table, before the baked eggplant, you tell the story of your friend, Ira, how he kept a three-foot piranha in his basement. "It was this long," you say, extending your arms, "And it was striped, with silver scales and blue shadows." The man with purple eyes lifts his eyebrows; you laugh at his joke about the lady in the sausage suit, your toes find his under the table, and he is yours. Evening expires in a yawn of stars. But on the walk home, when he pulls you into the hedges, and the black tongues of leaves flutter, and those boogey-man eyes glitter, there won't be time for coming back with lies, with lies.
The Fish in the Stone
The fish in the stone
would like to fall
back into the sea.
He is weary
of analysis, the small
He is weary of waiting
in the open,
his profile stamped
by a white light.
In the ocean the silence
moves and moves
and so much is unnecessary!
Patient, he drifts
until the moment comes
to cast his
The fish in the stone
knows to fail is
to do the living
He knows why the ant
engineers a gangster's
and perfectly amber.
He knows why the scientist
in secret delight
strokes the fern's
The conspiracy's to make us thin. Size threes
are all the rage, and skirts ballooning above twinkling knees
are every man-chld's preadolescent dream.
Tabla rasa. No slate's that clean--
we've earned the navels sunk in grief
when the last child emptied us of their brief
interior light. Our muscles say We have been used.
Have you ever tried silk sheets? I did,
persuaded by postnatal dread
and a Macy's clerk to bargain for more zip.
We couldn't hang on, slipped
to the floor and by morning the quilts
had slid off, too. Enough of guilt--
It's hard work staying cool.
Everything's a metaphor, some wise
guy said, and his woman nodded, wisely.
Why was this such a discovery
to him? Why did history
happen only on the outside?
She'd watched an embryo track an arc
across her swollen belly from the inside
and knew she'd best
think knee , not tumor or burrowing mole , lest
it emerge a monster. Each craving marks
the soul: splashed white upon a temple the dish
of ice cream, coveted, broken in a wink,
or the pickle duplicated just behind the ear. Every wish
will find its symbol , the woman thinks.
Out where crows dip to their kill
under the clouds' languid white oars
she wanders, hand pocketed, hair combed tight
so she won't feel the breeze quickening--
as if she were trying to get back to him,
find the breach in the green
that would let her slip through,
then tug meadow over the wound like a sheet.
I've walked there, too: he can't give
you up, so you give in until you can't live
without him. Like these blossoms, white sores
burst upon earth's ignorant flesh, at first sight
everything is innocence--
then it's itch, scratch, putrescense.
I miss that corridor drenched in shadow,
sweat of centuries steeped into stone.
After the plunge, after my shrieks
diminished and his oars sighed
up to the smoking shore,
the bulwark's gray pallor soothed me.
Even the columns seemed kind, their murky sheen
like the lustrious skin of a roving eye.
I used to stand at the top of the stair
where the carpet flung down
its extravagant heart. Flames
teased the lake into glimmering licks.
I could pretend to be above the earth
rather than underground: a Venetian
palazzo or misty chalet tucked into
an Alp, that mixture of comfort
and gloom . . . nothing was simpler
to imagine. But it was more difficult
each evening to descend: all that marble
flayed with the red plush of priviledge
I traveled on, slow nautilus
unwinding in terrified splendor
to where he knew to meet me--
my consort, my match,
though much older and sadder.
In time, I lost the capacity
for resolve. It was as if
I had been traveling all these years
without a body,
until his hands found me--
and then there was just
the two of us forever:
one who wounded,
and one who served.
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
an idoit's. Any fear, any
memory will do; and if you've
got a heart at all, someday
it will kill you.
A flower in a weedy field
make it a poppy. You pick it.
Because it begins to wilt
you run to the nearest house
to ask for a jar of water.
The woman on the porch starts
screaming: you've picked the last poppy
in her miserable garden, the one
that gives her the strength every morning
to rise! It's too late for apologies
though you go through the motions, offering
trinkets and a juicy spot in the written history
she wouldn't live to read, anyway
So you strike her, she hits
her head on a white boulder,
and there's nothing to be done
but break the stone into gravel
to prop up the flower in the stolen jar
you have to take along,
because you're a fugitive now
and you can't leave clues.
Although the story's starting to unravel,
the villagers stirring as your heart
pounds into your throat. O why
did you pick that idiot flower?
Because it was the last one
and you knew
it was going to die.
Political (for Breyten Breytenbach )
There was a man spent seven years in hell's
no moon or starlight, shadows singing
their way to slaughter. We give him honorary status.
There's a way to study freedom but few have found
it; you must talk yourself to death and then beyond,
destroy time, then refashion it. Even Demeter keeps digging
towards that darkest miracle,
the hope of finding her child unmolested.
This man did something ill advised, for good
(I mean he went about it wrong.)
And paid in shit, the world is shit and shit
can make us grown. It is becoming the season
she was taken from us. Our wail starts up
of its own accord, is mistaken for song.
This is how it happened.
Spring wore on my nerves--
all that wheezing and dripping
while others in galoshes
reaped compost and seemed
enamored most of the time.
Why should I be select?
I got tired of tearing myself down.
Let someone else have
the throne of blues for a while,
let someone else suffer mosquitoes.
As my mama always said:
half a happinnes is better
than noe at all.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MS. DOVE
On April 8, 1997, The Book Report welcomed RITA DOVE, Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, for a free-wheeling conversation about the importance of poetry in our lives. Interviewing Ms. Dove was Jesse Kornbluth (BookpgJK). Our online host was BookpgXena.
Bookpg JK: Good evening, a great pleasure to have our youngest Poet Laureate with us.
Rita Dove: It's great to be here.
Bookpg JK: During National Poetry Month, when Allen Ginsberg dies, poetry is suddenly front page news. Is that ironic to you?
Rita Dove: I wouldn't say "ironic." I'd say serendipitous. What is more ironic is that Allen Ginsberg's importance was in its twilight for so many years that it took his death to bring it to the front page. He electrified an entire world! And he continues to do so! There are generations who stumble across HOWL! and find it speaks to them. Yet it takes a tragedy to make people notice.
Bookpg JK: It seems to me that there is a Big Topic here... Ginsberg, as you said in an interview, was a master of the first person singluar -- like O'Hara and Whitman and Mayakovski. This is a voice that you've said isn't completely natural to you. And yet, as Poet Laureate, your public persona --- your first person singular --- was the only voice most people could recognize. How was the experience of being Poet Laureate?
Rita Dove: Much more gratifying than I anticipated. I was apprehensive. I feared I'd be dodging labels all the time. I feared every time I talked about poetry, it would be filtered through the lens of race, sex, and age. What I discovered was that there were people all over the country who were hungry for poetry and were eager to embrace the multitude of voices that can be heard through poetry... and that these different voices were not exclusionary; they just embraced the richness of the country. What I meant by Ginsberg being a master of the first person was that his first personal singular wasn't selfish. The voice came from one man, but it also came from everyone who had a similar experience. This is what I wanted to convey as Poet Laureate. Labels only keep us from specificity.
Bookpg JK: You talk of selflessness. That seems to be the case with you as well. You've said it was almost impossible to write when you were Poet Laureate. It was really an act of patriotism.
Rita Dove: I feel that there are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints. For years, I had heard about the lack of interest in literature in the U.S. and I had complained about the lack of respect artists got here. In my heart, I failed to understand how people could fail to be moved by art. When I was asked, I said, "Well, the time for complaining is up." And I had been taught by my parents and grandparents to pay my dues.
Bookpg JK: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as Poet Laureate?
Rita Dove: I can't name one incident.
Bookpg JK: What effect did being Poet Laureate have on your writing?
Rita Dove: Being Poet Laureate made me realize I was capable of a larger voice. It's too early to tell, but I realize there is a more public utterance I can make as a poet. For many years, I thought a poem was a whisper overheard, not an aria heard. I have come to realize there is also a poem I can write that has a larger presence. When I wrote "Lady Freedom" (which was written for the 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol), I felt that larger voice. I knew I'd be reading the poem at the celebration and that the statue, which had been cleaned and refurbished, would be put back on the dome, and that gave me a larger sense of the event.
Question: When you're reading for your own pleasure, do you read poetry or prose? And who do you read?
Rita Dove: I read everything. Reading is a pleasurable experience for me. I'm very eclectic. Right now I just finished Jamaica Kincaid's AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER. Just getting around to SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW and Derek Wolcott. And some German satire from the 20's and 30's.
Question: Why do you think so many people are intimidated by poetry? Do you think something can be done to solve that problem?
Rita Dove: The first thing that could be done is to bring poetry into our children's lives at an early age --- without pressure.
Bookpg JK: Some would say that already happens --- and it's called rap. Do you agree?
Rita Dove: Rap is only one end of a whole spectrum of verbal play and virtuosity. Rap is geared for aural pleasure. I'm also talking about many-layered poems you may have to read several times. I believe even 5-year-olds can get something from a Shakespearean sonnet... as long as you DON'T tell them, "This is really hard."
Question: I would like to know about your creative process. Are you very disciplined?
Rita Dove: I'd like to think so. I have a high guilt quotient. A poem can go through as many as 50 or 60 drafts. It can take from a day to two years --- or longer. I carry a notebook with me everywhere. I write down lines that come to me... words that sound good...overheard conversation...anything that takes me out of daily existence. But that's only the first step. Then some of those jottings make it onto paper. I work on more than one poem a month. I keep the drafts of each poem in color-coded folders (I don't want to think about the poems in terms of themes... I just say, "This feels green") and when I come back to write --- and I try to write every day -- I pick up the folders according to how I feel about that color that day.
Question: Do you just write poetry? Have you written any novels? Any desire to?
Rita Dove: I have written one novel, published in 1992, called UNDER THE IVORY GATE. I write short stories and I wrote a play, which was produced this summer.
Question: As a grandparent, I truly appreciate your efforts to bring good literature to children and was impressed by your recommendations for The Western Canon, Jr. Have your efforts proved as successful as you had hoped?
Rita Dove: Yes. They have exceeded my hopes. I'm talking person-to-person... and from the responses I've received, I see a resurgence of interest in poetry. That is immensely exciting. I am less optimistic about the prospects for the arts when it comes to federal funding. It seems Congress is diametrically opposed to the general trend. People seem more excited about the arts --- and they keep taking the money away!
Bookpg JK: Your successor, Robert Hass, has used his term to raise hell. He has kicked the government about the environment, and pretty much said that you can't sell poetry to people who are poor, hungry, and disillusioned. I'm thinking of your poem THE GORGE, which addresses some of these issues. In retrospect, do you wish you had been more "political" or outspoken?
Rita Dove: I think I WAS political and outspoken. I did it a different way. I took Washington kids into the Library of Congress to read their poems and to be recorded for the Archives. They lived around the corner --- and they'd never been there. I brought Crow Indian children to Washington. They told their Congressmen what poetry meant to them. They forced their Congressmen to listen to them. I had an evening of poetry and jazz to join those audiences. When I was Poet Laureate, the Congress was just beginning to kick up a fuss. And I fought that. I wanted to have some kind of evening at the White House to honor "the art of the story" (and that could include quiltmakers) but the bureaucracy was so tough, it just never happened.
Question: If poets have been divided into camps, as some say they have, would you be able to put yourself into any one of them? Do you think that there are no camps at all?
Rita Dove: There are camps. But I can't put myself in one. I hope I can't.
Bookpg JK: Of the many wonderful things about you, that may be the best --- your refusal to be bound by history, gender, race, circumstance. You really write in the most "universal" and "detached" voice. There's no ax. Where does that come from? Was that something you had to work for... or is this simply a matter of character?
Rita Dove: I can't tell you if I was born like this. I do know that, as a child, I knew that being out of control or biased doesn't serve your cause well. As a child, I was told by my mother and father, "Don't assume anything. Look at the situation as clearly as you can... then do the best you can with what you know." The point was not to rely on friends or circumstances. I also think that reading Shakespeare's plays when I was young was extremely important. He had the ability to make utter strangers come alive. That expanded my sense of what differences there can be in a human being.
Question: Who are your favorite poets? And who has been an influence on your work?
Rita Dove: I wonder why people always want to know that. My favorite poets may not be your bread and butter. Also, I have more favorite poems than favorite poets...Langston Hughes: A THEME FOR ENGLISH B... Cavafy's MARC ANTHONY LEAVING ALEXANDRA... I don't know why, but those poems change my life every time I read them. My early influences were Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Heine... and Mother Goose. For each stage of life, there are groups of poets --- the list is too long!
Question: Do you believe that there are "gifted" poets... those that are born with the insight, intuitiveness to grasp thoughts, emotions, feelings, and convey those qualities, and state of being via the written form as expressed through poetry?
Rita Dove: I believe that people may have a predisposition for artistic creativity. It doesn't mean they're going to make it. Hemingway said, "More writers fail from lack of character than lack of talent." I think children have talent and insight, but it gets beaten out of them. It's interesting that people never assume that a basketball player or pianist doesn't have to practice --- we know they do. Same for writers.
Question: I heard Philip Levine and Mark Doty (two of my favorites) read their own poetry. I was completely amazed at the difference in my response to their work when read by the poets. Have you had any feedback of this type from people who hear you read your poetry?
Rita Dove: Yes. Especially when I was Poet Laureate and read to audiences that weren't accustomed to hearing poets, I'd get, "I didn't know poets could be that way."
Bookpg JK: We did. And we are so grateful that you have joined us. Please return to cyberspace any time you like.
Rita Dove: Thank you. I will.
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