Rita Dove and the Art of History
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Rita Dove and the Art of History

Rita Dove’s expression of history is the most diverse in form and range of subject in contemporary American poetry. Her poem entitled “Lady Freedom Among Us” is a witty reminder that the statue representing freedom atop the Capitol building in Washington is, for all its classical signifying, closest to African American historical experience. Freedom is resonant not only with escape from the bondage of slavery, but also, in the “Lady” allusion to Billie Holiday, with the struggle for artistic expression in a racist society. This sassy colloquial poem is not, however, dragged down by the past. It was written to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Capitol and the restoration and return of the statue to the Capitol dome in 1993 while Dove was Poet Laureate. Freedom, among “Us,” punning on the United States, must be acknowledged and safeguarded: “don’t lower your eyes” (1); “she’s not going to budge.” (28) The prefix “Lady” reaffirms African-American history as fundamental to the history of the American nation.

Dove’s artistic enterprise in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah (1986) is historical recovery. The poem focuses large-scale cultural change through the familial and intimate. It captures the lives of her grandparents who, in the early years of the twentieth from the poverty of the rural South to the industrialized cities of the North, an economic movement given pictorial expression in Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, The Migration Series, first displayed collectively in 1940 41. Dove said of the migration, “It’s the first time that blacks in this country had any chance, however stifled, of pursuing ‘the American dream.’”1 The poem, formally innovative in its “two sides of the story,” “Mandolin” from Thomas’s perspective and “Canary in Bloom” from Beulah’s, exhibits Dove’s ability, in her own words, to weave lyrics as “discrete moments” like “beads on a necklace” that taken together create the “sweep of time.”2 The symbolic motifs are musical: the cheap popular instrument and the canary in its cage are threaded into a structure of repetition and enhancement that evokes formal classical structures as well as the looser laying down of phrases in African-American patterns. The motifs link lyrics in diverse modes including blues, jazz, and soul idioms. Music, the mandolin, embodies Thomas’s life: it is expressive first of his friend, Lem, and their carefree moments as a musical duo in the South. In high spirits, on a Mississippi riverboat, they travel towards their new life in the North. There is a lurch of fortune: Lem, responding to Thomas’s dare, is accidentally drowned; the shape of the mandolin now signifies Thomas as a “half-shell” survivor. In Akron, Ohio, Thomas becomes the folksy charmer, a caricature of Southern minstrelsy: [End Page 760]

  The young ladies saying He sure plays that tater bug like the devil!

sighing their sighs and dimpling

(“Jiving” 17–22)

As a married man, Thomas becomes “a sweet tenor /in the gospel choir.” (‘Compendium” 2–3) The mandolin, negl–ected, is nevertheless part of the domestic scene:

In the parlor, with streamers, a bug on a nail.

(“Compendium” 9–10)

Such brief references cannot do justice to the compositional subtlety of the poem, but are a reminder of how much cultural history is compressed in the sequence. The poem reconstructs the struggles of Dove’s grandparents, concerned with the “essence”3 rather than the factual precision of their lives (the poet makes up the details relating to Lem, the key symbolic figure). In foregrounding “these nobodies in the course of history,”4 the poet gives the story of the major cultural upheavals of migration, the Depression and war years, the civil rights movement, through the fate of individuals. In the poem “Variation on Pain” the “ridged sound” of the mandolin recalls the “Tennessee ridge” of the first poem, “The Event” where Thomas and Lem were raised: geography and history become integrated; the mandolin is like the portable emblem of the South, both as scar tissue and as internalised strength. Dove’s belief in the power of the quotidian detail to deliver the history of...