Having read so many novels recently written with the sensibility of a poet, I was curious to see what former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove would make of this cycle of 85 poems that together take the form of a novel. A biographical novel about a footnote to musical history: the mulatto violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower. Beethoven (who ought to know) called him a crazy genius ("gran pazzo") and was inspired to write him his most difficult violin sonata. But the two quarreled over a girl and, in a fit of pique, Beethoven rededicated the work now known as the KREUTZER SONATA.
So we have a real-life story, or at least some outlines for the writer to fill in. George's father was a self-styled African Prince brought to the Austro-Hungarian court as part, frankly, of a human menagerie; gifted in many languages, he seems to have had an instinctive nose for that touch of exotic wildness that would secure his place in European society. George's mother was a German woman of Polish descent. George himself, as a boy on the Esterhazy estate, comes to the notice of Joseph Haydn, who develops his musical talents to the point where he creates a sensation at his Paris debut at the age of 9, and thereafter gets adopted by the English court. He is 23 when he visits Vienna, enthralls Beethoven then maddens him, and returns in defeat to England; there, he will serve for 20 years as leader of the Prince Regent's orchestra, wander abroad, and return to die in a London suburb at the end of his eighth decade.
It is a rocket of a story with a long dying fall. Poetry doesn't narrate the upward trajectory -- for that you need the chronology and racy notes at the back -- so much as punctuate the ascent with starbursts of wonder: "I was nothing if not everything | when the music was in me. | I could be fierce, I could shred | the heads off flowers for breakfast | with my bare teeth, simply because | I deserved such loveliness." But poetry excels prose in its ability to meditate on those plotless later years. Some poems cry out in anger, as here in RAIN when George takes leave of the cultural cacophony of Vienna: "Because we're wading through wreckage, we're | not even listening to all the crash and clatter -- | chords wrenched from their moorings, smashed | etudes, arpeggios glistening as they heave and sink. | Ciphers, the lot of them. Their money, their perfumed stink." Others are almost unbearably poignant, as in HALF LIFE: I'm a shadow in sunlight, | unable to blush | or whiten in winter. | Beautiful monster, | where to next -- | when you can hear | the wind howl | behind you, the gate | creaking shut?"
This reference to George Bridgetower's race is of course of interest to Dove, who is of African descent herself. But despite the title, SONATA MULATTICA is about many sorts of ways of reducing a person's individuality, even while feting him for some extraordinary success. There is little difference between the prodigy George, his African showman of a father, or the real life negro busker Black Billy Waters, who makes several ribald appearances. Even the great Haydn chafes at being treated like a chattel. Here is George at 9, in recital with another child prodigy: "Two rag dolls set out for tea | in our smart red waistcoats, | we suffered their delight, | we did not fail our parts -- | not as boys nor rivals even | but men: broken, then improperly | mended; abandoned | far beyond the province | of the innocent."
I would mention three other things that poetry does extremely well. One is to play with form and style. Dove's range is extremely wide, taking in sonnet and rondeau, popular nursery rhymes and street songs, many types of free verse, some concrete poetry, and even a short verse play. The effect, as she skips from the 18th century to the 21st and back, is rather like what Peter Maxwell Davies does with popular music in his brilliant EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING, simultaneously capturing the period and anatomizing it. But poetry and music are indeed close; that is my second point. Poems like POLGREEN SIGHT-READING, in which the violinist, half by sheer intuition, struggles with Beethoven's manuscript are amazing evocations of the extraordinary in music: "I've been destined to travel these impossible | switchbacks, but it's as if I'm skating | on his heart, blood tracks | looping everywhere...". Finally, poetry can be intensely personal. One of the most moving poems of all is the last, THE END, WITH MAPQUEST, where Dove comes back to visit the very ordinary suburb where Bridgetower died, ending with a confession: "Do I care enough, George Augustus Bridgetower, | to miss you? I don't even know if I really like you. | I don't know if your playing was truly gorgeous | or if it was just you, the sheer miracle of all | that darkness swaying close enough to touch, | palm tree and Sambo and glistening tiger | running circles into golden oil. Ah, | Master B, little great man, tell me: | How does a shadow shine?"