Issue 243, Spring 2023
I first encountered Rita Dove in Essence magazine, where I learned that she’d won the 1987 Pulitzer for her book Thomas and Beulah (1986)—the first Black poet to be so awarded since Gwendolyn Brooks nearly four decades before. As a Black high schooler in Kansas who wrote poetry, or tried to, I distinctly remember wondering why no one had come to my door to inform me personally of this achievement—though I suppose the magazine, which then published poetry in its pages, had in fact done as much.
Thomas and Beulah was a revelation. Written in lines musical, freighted, and precise, Dove’s sequence of poems about her grandparents’ marriage is shadowed by the Great Migration, World War II, and the civil rights movement. That book’s grand theme—the intimacy of history—courses through Dove’s oeuvre, starting with her debut, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), and 1983’s Museum, a powerful collection that includes a poem called “Parsley,” which tells of the Dominican Republic leader Rafael Trujillo’s mass murder of Haitians on the pretext of “a single, beautiful word.” Dove’s ability to evoke a deadly dictator with irony and complexity is reminiscent of Milton’s sympathy for the devil in Paradise Lost or W. H. Auden’s damning “Epitaph on a Tyrant.”
Dove’s first four books of poetry appeared at three-year intervals, a pace that slowed only slightly with Mother Love (1995) and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). Both refract her experiences of parenthood—she and her husband, the writer Fred Viebahn, have a daughter, Aviva—and of serving as the United States poet laureate, a role she occupied from 1993 to 1995, and which she transformed from what was once simply called the consultant in poetry into the prominent position it is today. Those early volumes, intertwined much as Lucille Clifton’s are, add up to an everyday epic that tells of the ways that public history is created through private lives—especially Black ones, which is still a revolutionary idea. Along the way, Dove finds kin in a variety of figures: an unnamed “House Slave,” sideshow performers in Berlin, Billie Holiday and Hattie McDaniel, Persephone and Demeter, a trickster “Spring Cricket.” She has also written several proper epics, including the symphonic Sonata Mulattica (2009), about the violinist George Bridgetower, the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and, in Dove’s reimagining, a nexus from which to examine music, memory, racism, and underappreciated talent. As she writes of Holiday: “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
In her poetry—and in her work as a playwright, novelist, short story writer, and editor—Dove considers what it means to be far from home as well as to feel at home. Her places are many: her native Akron, Ohio, but also Germany, where she studied as a Fulbright Scholar and where Viebahn is from, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she’s taught for more than three decades. Our conversations, peppered with Dove’s knowing laughter, took place over three consecutive days, the first of them in the Library of Congress’s Poetry Room, which serves as the laureate’s office. It was a full-circle moment for Dove, who was that evening to receive the library’s 2022 lifetime achievement Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. At the ceremony, she read from the elegant, pointed poems in her most recent book, Playlist for the Apocalypse (2021), in which she first revealed having multiple sclerosis to her readers. Her sense of humor, never enough commented on, was in full force—as was her training both as an opera singer and, more recently, a ballroom dancer. Her carriage, as ever, was impeccable, her work woven through with jazz, with the pleasures and silences of language.
Given that she and her husband are both famous night owls who often work till dawn, our midday meetings, early for her, were particularly generous. We spent our next two days at the dining room table of her Charlottesville home, where, in 1998, a devastating fire destroyed many of her papers, which she had gathered in her attic with the intention of later placing in a university archive. It seems important to note that our discussion of memory and personal history took place in a town where Confederate monuments and violent racist marches have jeopardized our faith in the power of those very things.