Mini reviews of poetry collections written by one of my favorite contemporary American poets, Rita Dove.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove is perhaps most notable for her marriage of lyric and narrative traditions. Over the past four decades the poet has released nearly a dozen eclectic collections that break down the binary between past and present, infusing history with emotion and fact with passion. Even her autobiographical work often reads as a series of stories, vivid reconstructions of disparate memories. Few other poets have such a knack for compelling storytelling.
Dove’s third collection of poems, Thomas and Beulah, won her the 1987 Pulitzer, but it seems to me that she finally comes into her own as a poet with her fourth collection, Grace Notes, published in 1991. Less high concept than her third volume, which narrates the life history of fictionalized versions of her grandparents, her fourth centers on the thrills to be found in ordinary life and the fulfillment to be gained from reflecting on the trials of one’s past. The collection has a simplicity of structure that harmonizes rather melodically with her poems’ sharp imagery and clear-cut language.
Published twenty-one years after Dove finished serving as the U.S. poet laureate, her Collected Poems gathers together seven volumes of poetry written over the course of three decades: the compilation sketches the trajectory of the early and middle stages of Dove’s brilliant career as a poet, leaving out only her most recent work. The poems of Dove’s first two collections—The Yellow House on the Corner and Museum—read as a bit underdeveloped, but they still anticipate the aesthetic tendencies of the poet’s mature work. Throughout her career Dove has written accessible poems that balance narrative and crisp images as well as the historical and the personal; so have her collections consisted of interlocked sequences that center on a shared concept, be it Greek myth or midcentury Black activism. While Collected Poems doesn’t include Dove’s most recent work, such as Sonata Mulattica, it’s a great introduction to her work.