“This is love. And this is where I need to be.”
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.
Rita Dove reads “Parsley”
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.
Rita Dove reads “Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove”
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
not his eye, was merciless.
He remembered Katja the Russian
for every sitting,
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.
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
in their throats, taking notes.
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
classical drapery, then,
and Rasha at his feet.
Without passion. Not
but their gaze,