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Rita Dove: a Chorus of Voices

By Steven Ratiner / May 26, 1993

FROM this slight and solitary woman, what a chorus of voices - bold, sly, anguished, determined - and each one is spotlighted briefly on the darkened stage of story or poem. It's almost as if Rita Dove, poet and novelist, is at the height of her craft when she is giving voice to the collection of presences that have, subtly or dramatically, shaped her life. Even during conversation, characters from her memory or art appear and disappear, adding their particular slant to an anecdote, spicing the talk with

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echoes from the past.

Recently named the next poet laureate of the United States, Ms. Dove is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. In 1987, her collection "Thomas and Beulah" made her one of the youngest winners ever of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The book encapsulates the history of the 20th-century African-American migration to the North by focusing on her grandparents and the family they created in Ohio. In "Grace Notes," the poems are perhaps more intimate but still resonate with the voices of friends and family, still captivate us with her startling sense of the particular. Her recent novel, "Through the Ivory Gate," explores the way the chords of memory and imagination are blended in the composition of a life.

Music is a motif that runs throughout Rita Dove's writing, coming to represent the pure realm of spirit at the core of our experience. Her verse, by turns, wails like a jazz riff, soars like a gospel choir, and simmers with a classical elegance. She reminds us of the communal power we inherit along with our spoken language and the beauty of the voices that are, perhaps now, singing within us as well.

* * *

Steven Ratiner: One of the central features in your poetry and fiction is the power of history and memory. Where does that drive to tell the story originate in your life?

Rita Dove: Well, it begins really with two things: One of them, that I wasn't represented in history ... either as a female or as a black person. And also the sense that ordinary people are not represented in history, that history gives you the tale of heroes, basically.... You are right, it is certainly something that has not only fascinated me, I'd almost say haunted me all these years. Also because I think that history is a very powerful weapon. If you can edit someone out of history then the next gen eration, the one who doesn't have a memory [of certain events] anymore, won't have anything to go on. And cultural memory is remarkably short in our day and age because communities are disintegrating, so there is no oral or communal sense of carrying on a tradition.

As a poet, are you a carrier of history?

A carrier of history of a particular sort. I think that in "Thomas and Beulah" what I was hoping to hand down [to the next generation] was a sense of two very normal people living through a period of incredible change in the United States.... But also I am interested in recovering a sense that we, as individual human beings, can connect to the universe.

What I love in your writing is your astounding sense of the particular, as if we were living through the experiences. Some provide us with a small glimpse of a black America we'd otherwise never see.

Well, that is just marvelous, because I think if we can, as human beings, enter those worlds even for an instant, then it makes it a little more difficult to hate someone else because they are different, to treat them badly or to kill them.

Your poems portray the lived experience of history. Two examples from "Grace Notes" come to mind: "Summit Beach" seems to bring back the figure of your grandmother Beulah again, and "Crab Boil" centers on a girl I took to be a young Rita Dove.

In each poem, a small personal experience is depicted center stage with just a hint of the larger historical forces churning in the background. The phrase "the Negro beach" is enough to conjure the racial climate in the 1920's. But Beulah seems hardly aware of this when she "climbed Papa's shed and stepped off/ the tin roof into the blue,/ with her parasol and invisible wings." If not the tide of history, there must be something else that supports this woman, gives her the confidence to take that brave s tep.