Rita Dove’s 1989 collection Grace Notes contains stories worth hearing. Plumbing her own life and the lives of her family, Dove compiles intimate insights into the world around (and inside) her, and the result is a powerful volume of personal observations and beautiful verse.
I’m partial to narrative poetry, or at least poems that masquerade as real life. It’s why I can spend hours with Maya Angelou or Billy Collins, but take my Keats and Shelley by the tablespoon. I like it all (heck, my next two weeks of this year’s adventure in poetry will be spent with the Victorians), but can only read so many poems about birds and vases before wishing for a story or the tangible reality of hearth and home.
Grace Notes captures the rich voice of Rita Dove, balancing big ideas with the melted butter on the top of a bowl of Quaker Oats.
Dove can tell a story. With rich details, well chosen to reveal the truth of the matter, the opening poems of this collection are alive with characters so real they might be sitting in the room where we’re reading Grace Notes.
In “Fifth Grade Autobiography” Dove describes a picture, and a man who gets more and more real as her lines fill the page.
I was four in this photograph fishing
with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.
My grandfather sits to the far right
in a folding chair,
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas. Grandmother’s hips
bulge from the brush, she’s leaning
into the ice chest, sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
I am staring jealously at my brother;
the day before he rode his first horse, alone.
I was strapped in a basket
behind my grandfather.
He smelled of lemons. He’s died—
but I remember his hands.”
“Uncle Millet” expands that family with a charming rogue Dove describes as…
Sure, he was no good. And I wasn’t
allowed over when he pulled into town.
But I memorized the stories, imagining
Canada full of men who’d use
a knife to defend their right to say:
Man, she was butter
just waiting to melt.”
Dove captures her younger self poetically, and in a way that encourages us to see her stories through her child’s eyes. There is mischief there and longing, nostalgia and a sense that the woman she would become owed much to the child she had been.
But Dove’s poetry extends beyond family. As Grace Notes whirls into its second and third sections, her poems nod toward both history and greater humanity, personal emotion and our collective experience.
She takes readers through childhood and beyond in “Horse and Tree.”
Everybody who’s anybody longs to be a tree—
or ride one, hair blown to froth.
That’s why horses were invented, and saddles
tooled with singular stars.
This is why we braid their harsh manes
as if they were children, why children
might fear a carousel at first for the way
it insists that life is round. No,
we reply, there is music and then it stops;
the beautiful is always rising and falling.
We call and the children sing back one more time.
In the tree the luminous sap ascends.”
Tree climbing transformed into the wooden horses of a carousel, changed again as our perspective enlarges and Dove reminds us that we are not just the children, but the ones calling to the children, adults aware of the starting and stopping of music, the regular rise and fall of those imitation horses, and the ascension of “luminous sap” in all its incarnations. Dove is a marvelous guide through the human condition, a cartographer of emotion able to help us place ourselves on this emerging map.
Dove provides specific examples as she develops this poetic picture. Her image of Billie Holiday in “Canary” not only captures as much of the enigmatic performer as Dove wants, but connects the singer to readers in the imperative of the final line.
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
“Canary” brings the cadences of Holiday’s off tempo jazz to print, hardly strictly biographical, completely accurate in the feelings it inspires.
In “Ars Poetica” Dove seems to speak of herself as a poet, writing:
What I want is this poem to be small,
a ghost town
on the larger map of wills.
Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:
a traveling x-marks-the-spot.”
Throughout Grace Notes Rita Dove soars, dives, and rips her poetic talons into the flesh of the world like that hawk she pencils in in “Ars Poetica.”
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Places & Stories by Kim Stafford.