Just When Hope Withers

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

I was apprehensive. I feared every time I talked about poetry, it would be filtered through the lens of race, sex, and age.

Rita Dove

Found Sonnet: The Wig

by Rita Dove

100% human hair, natural; Yaki synthetic, Brazilian blend,
Malaysian, Kanekalon, Peruvian Virgin, Pure Indian;
iron-friendly, heat-resistant; bounce, volume, featherweight,
Short ’n’ Sassy, Swirls & Twirls, Smooth & Sleek and Sleek & Straight,

Wet and Wavy, Futura fibre, weave-a-wig or Shake-n-Go;
classic, trendy, micro-kink; frosted pixie, tight cornrow;
full, three-quarter, half, stretch cap, drawstring, ear tabs, combs;
chignon, headband, clip-in bangs; easy extensions and ponytail domes—

long or bobbed, hand-tied, layered, deep twist bulk, prestyled updo,
Remi closure, Swiss lace front, invisible L part, J part, U;
feathered, fringed, extended neck; tousled, spiky, loose cascades,
sideswept, flipped ends, corkscrews, spirals, Rasta dreads, Ghana braids;

Passion Wave, Silk Straight, Faux Mohawk, Nubian locks, Noble Curl:
Cleopatra, Vintage Vixen, Empress, Hera, Party Girl.

Published in New Yorker, 2016.


Exit

by Rita Dove

Just when hope withers, the visa is granted.
The door opens to a street like in the movies,
clean of people, of cats; except it is your street
you are leaving. A visa has been granted,
“provisionally”—a fretful word.
The windows you have closed behind
you are turning pink, doing what they do
every dawn. Here it’s gray. The door
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase,
the saddest object in the world.
Well, the world’s open. And now through
the windshield the sky begins to blush
as you did when your mother told you
what it took to be a woman in this life.

 

Go Ahead, See Where It Goes

Dove
Rita Dove

“There are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.”

Rita Dove

Demeter’s Prayer to Hades

by Rita Dove

This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
To understand each desire and its edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change. No faith comes without cost,
no one believes without dying.
Now for the first time
the trail you have planted,
what ground opened to waste,
though you dreamed a wealth
of flowers.
  .                 . There are no curses, only mirrors
hold up to the souls of gods and mortals.
And so I give up this fate, too.
Believe in yourself,
go ahead – see where it gets you.


I got shivers when I read for the first time Rita Dove’s poem titled Sonnet, which I have shared below.   It cut into me, the words laceratingly familiar as I read them.  Does that ever happen to you with poetry? The hair on the back of your ,neck goes up after the second line, you suddenly feel naked before the author’s words, as if they had burst in on you in a dressing room at Macy’s by accident, witnessing all your humanness and then had the audacity to write a poem about it.

My friend Liz described to me her thrill in hearing Auden lecture in person at the University of Minnesota and the lightning bolt that experience created in her mind. She had been trained in college to think that poetry was something academics interpreted and then they told you what to think. Auden declared, use your own brain, let poetry speak to you in your own voice and make of it what you will. (A bit ironic coming from a retired Presbyterian minister who was already ordained at the time, since wasn’t the reformation about not needing an elite group of academics to interpret what you find sacred?) But we all learn through parables in our lives at our own pace and at the proper time.

Rita Dove’s sonnet, Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ cements in my mind my feeling that these sonnets about Persephone are not solely about parenting in the traditional sense, except the parenting we all do of ourselves.  The truth is, we never truly parent our children, we live by example. Our children have their own minds, their own filters, their own experiences. We pretend we help them grow when in reality we feed and clothe and shelter them and what they learn of love and life they learn by watching us how we parent ourselves. If we parent ourselves with wisdom, forgiveness and compassion they likely will be influenced by the example. If we parent with excessive anxiety, then do not be surprised if they follow suit. I learned as much from my parents humbly admitting their mistakes than from the 98% of their lives they lived in prosperity. If we parent ourself with consistent recklessness, stupidity and anger, they will either by seduced by its ugliness or become orphans to find their own way.  So like Dove says – “believe in yourself – see where it goes.”  Parent yourself in ways, you will be honored if your children follow suit, and if nothing else, “one learns to walk by walking.”


Sonnet

by Rita Dove

Nothing can console me.  You may bring silk
to make skin sigh, dispense yellow roses
in the matter of ripened dignitaries.
You can tell me repeatedly
I am unbearable (and I know this):
still, nothing turns the gold into corn
nothing is sweet to the tooth crushing in.

I’ll not ask for the impossible
One learns to walk by walking.
In time I will forget this empty brimming.
I may laugh again at
a bird, perhaps, chucking the nest –
but it will not be happiness,
for I have known that.

This Is Important, Stop Fooling Around!

Rita Dove
Rita Dove (1952 –

The poetry that sustains me is when I feel that, for a minute, the clouds have parted and I’ve seen ecstasy or something.

Rita Dove

Persephone, Falling

by Rita Dove

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.

No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.


There are several well-reasoned analysis of this poem which say that it is about parenting and cautioning children about the dangers of strangers, with Hades in his carriage from the underworld a pretty grandiose stranger. But that is not what this poem speaks to me.  I find in her words an artist’s admission to the lure of poetry and writing. The splendid terribleness of having to let go and fall and fall into your own pit of your imagination. And then find in that falling the beautiful truth of whatever it is that you are going to write about and the courage to share.

The goddess Persephone is a crazy metaphor to begin with in shaping this sonnet.  She is the goddess of the plant kingdom and prosperity of the harvest.  Yet she is kidnapped by Hades into the underworld to be his wife, bringing famine to the world as nothing can grow where no light reaches. There is not a true poet alive who feels they have any choice but to write even if they starve in some ways for it. Their purpose in life has been kidnapped in search of the right words, to write words, to impart the intangible in a way that they themselves and possibly their readers can grasp ecstasy for a moment.

Artists, teachers, clergy and everyone else who peddles in matters of the soul eventually have to give themselves wholly over to the pursuit of their vocation, even if it means entrapment in a place that does not always serve their best interest.  It is not a choice that can be made halfway. You either commit and succeed or are reticent and fail. Hades’ Pitch, the sonnet below, I think is a continuation of this admission, that in finding her artistic voice, she had to accept the lure of fire and darkness that comes with commitment, passion and desire.  A poet experiences unpleasantness, the process of writing comes easy to some, but for most is hard work and not everything they are going to write is going to be about subjects that want to visit or revisit. Great art sometimes is about scars or leaves them in its creation. Fisherman have callouses on their hands. Writers have callouses on their reputations, for half the critics will evaluate you for your best work and the other half judge you only by your worst.

I love the quote from Audre Lorde below and believe it to be true of all great artists like Rita Dove as well; “that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.”  What are you teaching or creating today to continue being?  

Audre Lorde

I am Black, Woman, and Poet—fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is a part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’

Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.

Last spring, under a National Endowment to the Arts Grand, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.

At the City University of New York, I teach young people.


Hades’ Pitch

by Rita Dove 

 

If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—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 above ground stumbles, is caught
by the fetlock—bereft in an instant—
while the Great Man drives home his desire.