If you find memoirs more immediate than contemporary poetry, novels more compelling, history more vivid, then you haven't read Rita Dove. A former poet laureate of the United States, Dove is at the height of her powers in On the Bus with Rosa Parks
. Her range is extraordinary. The opening "Cameos" sequence reads like a compressed colloquial epic of one hard-up but lively family--Lucille with her "bright and bitter" eyes, her wandering husband, Joe, their bookish son and seven daughters ("their / names fantastic, myriad / as the points of a chandelier"). There are magnificent occasional pieces--"Incarnation in Phoenix" on breastfeeding a newborn ("I'm not ready for this motherhood stuff"); "Against Self-Pity" ("pure misery a luxury /one never learns to enjoy"); "The First Book" ("Dig in: / You'll never reach bottom"). "Rosa," the centerpiece of the title sequence, reads almost like haiku as Dove captures Rosa Parks's historic act of refusal in 12 taut lines.
And then there are poems that stand alone for their unique electrifying strangeness: "The Venus of Willendorf," in which Dove ponders the ancient sacred mystery of man's worship of the female body, and "Lady Freedom Among Us," in which Freedom is incarnated as a bag lady--"she who has brought mercy back into the streets / and will not retire politely to the potter's field."
Of the many notes that Dove hits in this volume, the most welcome is pure unadulterated delight, as in "Dawn Revisited": "Imagine you wake up / with a second chance..." Imagine: Dove has done the hard part. All we have to do is open this splendid volume, sit back, and enjoy the ride. --David Laskin
From Publishers Weekly
Dove's brillianceAas with all great writersAis inextricable from her formal gifts: her poems effortlessly suggest grand narratives and American myths, yet ground themselves tersely in localities, characters, practicalities and particulars. This seventh collection leads off with a Dove specialty, the historical sequence: her "Cameos" lend broad, social relevance to an intermittently abandoned Depression-era wife and her family. As in Alice Munro's fiction, slight notations of near-undetectable actions are keys to deep emotional transformation: "Now she just/ enjoys, and excess/ hardens on her like/ a shell./ She sheens." In subsequent poems such as "Testimonial" and "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967," Dove revisits precocious origins ("I was pirouette and flourish,/ I was filigree and flame") and traces, with her characteristically strong enjambments, an emerging sexuality: "how her body felt/ tender and fierce, all at once." And as with the Pulitzer Prize-winning sonnets of Thomas and Beulah (no sonnets this time out), the reader follows the poet's imagined rituals and movementsA"each night the bed creaking/ cast onto the waves/ each dawn rose flaunting/ their loose tongues of flame"Aonly to come squarely back to earth in the title section: "Not even my own grandmother would pity me;/ instead she'd suck her teeth at the sorry sight/ of some Negro actually looking for misery.// Well. I'd go home if I knew where to get off." Readers will find that this is the place.
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