Rita Doves best poems mix her four primary voices – the international, the personal, the artistic, and the marginalized. Her best cross the lines and create an interplay between the voices that brings new insights into the poem.
My favorite international poem is “Ö”, the closing poem from Yellow House on the Corner. Here, Dove’s use of imagery and metaphor is stunning, but the poem hinges on the relationships and confusions between past, present, and future. It opens with the past, discussing a Swedish pronunciation of the a in island. Because Dove is an American, Swedish shows past ancestry. She quickly goes into a personal reflection on the present, then the neighborhood’s view of the present, then how that view will not change into the future – so the view of the present is the view of the future and only the past may be lost, but bits of the past continue. This transitional line is one of the more beautiful in the poem, “the present extends its glass forehead to sea,” and serves to solidify the sea imagery she plays with throughout. She then closes the poem, which opens with a reflection on international influences on American society, with a startlingly personal and poignant ars poetic element, “Sometimes / a word is found so right it trembles / at the slightest explanation. / You start out with one thing, end / up with another, and nothing’s / like it used to be, not even the future.” This stanza explains the entire poem: the opening stanza’s island, the sea imagery that takes the middle of the poem hostage, and the personal return at the end.
The marginalized voice: here Dove primarily discusses gender and race, but also talks about being a child (“To Bed”) and being a tourist (“The Sahara Bus Trip”). Her entire third book, Thomas and Beulah, speaks in this voice. There are many strong poems in here, but the one that stood out was “The Satisfaction Coal Company,” where Thomas works sweeping the namesake twice a week, but also takes home the coal he sweeps up. This poem talks about being black -- leafing through Jet, being carefully observed by cops, and riding busses -- and also solidifies the character of Thomas. “Satisfaction” is the key to unlocking his character and his section. The way he moves, the way his neighbors wave “brightly,” the care he takes in his part-time job, the way children love helping him, and the line, “like now / when people ask him what he’s thinking / and he says I’m listening,” give such a detailed portrait of Thomas that he is real, he is apparent.
Dove’s use of voices is masterful not for their nature, but for the way she combines them, for the way she uses one to cast light on another which in turn explains a third and nothing’s like it used to seem. She has always been one of my favorites, but I loved sitting down and reading her first three books these last couple of weeks. I really fell in love with her on a few new levels -- including the physical. She is a very attractive woman.