Rita Dove

Rita Dove

“This is love. And this is where I need to be.”

Rita Dove
Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 1994

At the time of the 1994 conference, Rita Dove had just been named Poet Laureate of the United States, and had recently published a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), which accompanied her acclaimed books of poetry: The Yellow House on the Corner (1980); Museum (1983); Grace Notes (1989); and Thomas and Beulah (1986), which earned her a Pulitzer Prize. Other books now include Mother Love (1995), On the Bus With Rosa Parks (1999), American Smooth (2004), Sonata Mulattica (2009), and Collected Poems: 1974-2004 (2016), a National Book Award finalist, as well as Fifth Sunday (1985), a collection of short stories, The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), a play, and The Poet’s World (1995), a book of essays. Dove served as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2004 to 2006, and has received countless awards and honors, such as a Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, a Library of Virginia’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, and a National Humanities Medal presented to her by President Bill Clinton. In 2011, President Barack Obama also presented her with a National Medal of Arts, making her the only poet to have received both distinctions. Dove was also awarded a Furious Flower Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. Dove has been the editor of two anthologies, The Best American Poetry 2000 (2000) and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011), and was named Poetry Editor of The New York Times Magazine in 2018.

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1. The Cane Fields

There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.   
Out of the swamp the cane appears

to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General   
searches for a word; he is all the world   
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as rain punches through   
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—
out of the swamp, the cane appears

and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.   
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining   
out of the swamp. The cane appears

in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.   
And we lie down. For every drop of blood   
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.

2. The Palace

The word the general’s chosen is parsley.   
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave   
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming   
four-star blossoms. The general

pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without   
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders   
Who can I kill today. And for a moment   
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled

all the way from Australia in an ivory   
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising   
spring. Ever since the morning   
his mother collapsed in the kitchen   
while baking skull-shaped candies   
for the Day of the Dead, the general   
has hated sweets. He orders pastries   
brought up for the bird; they arrive

dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.   
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;   
he sees his boots the first day in battle   
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing   
the soldier said, and died. Now

the general sees the fields of sugar   
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.   
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth   
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears   
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:   
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows   
his mother was no stupid woman; she   
could roll an R like a queen. Even   
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room   
the bright feathers arch in a parody   
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death. 
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs   
men of his village wore in their capes   
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed

for a single, beautiful word.

Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove

the boa constrictor
coiled counterwise its
heavy love. How
the spectators gawked, exhaling
beer and sour herring sighs.
When the tent lights dimmed,
Rasha went back to her trailer and plucked
a chicken for dinner
The canvas,
not his eye, was merciless.
He remembered Katja the Russian
aristocrat, late
for every sitting,
still fleeing
the October Revolution -
how she clutched her sides
and said not
one word. Whereas Agosta
(the doorbell rang)
was always on time, lip curled
as he spoke in wonder of women
Trailing Schad paced the length of his studio
and stopped at the wall,
at a blank space. Behind him
the clang and hum of Hardenbergstrasse, its
automobiles and organ grinders.
Quarter to five.
His eyes traveled
to the plaster scrollwork
on the ceiling. Did that
hold back heaven?
He could not leave his skin - once
he'd painted himself in a new one,
silk green, worn
like a shirt.
He thought
of Rasha, so far from Madagascar,
turning slowly in place as

backstage to offer him
the consummate bloom of their lust.

Schad would place him
on a throne, a white sheet tucked
over his loins, the black suit jacket
thrown off like a cloak.
Agosta had told him
of the medical students
at the Charite
that chill arena
where he perched on
a cot, his torso
exposed, its crests and fins
a colony of birds trying
to get out . . .
and the students
lumps caught
in their throats, taking notes.
Ah, Rasha's
foot on the stair.
She moved slowly, as if she carried
the snake around her body

she brought fresh eggs into
the studio, flecked and
warm as breath
Agosta in
classical drapery, then,
and Rasha at his feet.
Without passion. Not
the canvas
but their gaze,
so calm,
was merciless.