Lunch Poems – Rita Dove 12/07/17


– Would like to thank
the University library, for hosting this event here in the beautiful Morrison library. I invite you all to sign
up on our mailing list, which is over on the librarian’s desk, we have a really lovely pen for you to sign up with two it has a choice of four different colors, today, also on our website,
lunchpoems.berkely.edu, you can view this reading
and our past readings on YouTube where we have
our very own channel, and if you are interested
in staying connected to poetry, particularly
over the long winter break, I would encourage you to perhaps binge watch some U.S. Poet Laureates, Natasha Tretheway is there, Kay Ryan, Robert Hass, and the current
laureate, Tracy K Smith. So please do check out our channel. In our spring portion of our program, we will welcome on February
1st, another laureate, Tucson’s poet laureate TC Tolbert, so please do come back and join us. This afternoon we have a special treat, a welcome from UC
Berkeley’s 11th chancellor, Carol Christ, she began
her academic career at… Christ, and I knew I was going to say it. I practiced and practiced and practiced. But thank you for forgiving me. She began her academic career at, as a faculty member in
the English department, teaching, you guessed it, poetry. She has served as provost of
the Berkeley campus twice, and is president of Smith College, please welcome Chancellor Christ. (applause) – Thank you Giovanni, it is so wonderful to see this room of
people who love poetry, and I have never been to an event here, where there are people literally hanging from the balconies, so that says a lot about Rita Dove, and says a lot about this community’s love for poetry. I thought there was no better way that I could say a few
words of both welcome and introduction than to
read a poem by Rita Dove, and this is a poem I think
that has particular meaning to this community at this moment, we’ve spent a lot of time this semester thinking about DACA, thinking
about immigration status, thinking about unauthorized students, and also thinking about visa restrictions. And this poem is a poem called Exit, it is very short, it is only, it is not really a formal sonnet, but it is 14 lines long, and it has what I think of is the characteristics of Rita Dove’s poetry, it is passionate about social justice,
about women’s issues, it is extraordinarily moving, emotionally, and it has a kind of sharpness of imagery. And oh, kind of connections among images that I think is really beautiful. So, Exit. Just when hope withers,
the visa is granted. The door opens to a
street like in the movies, clean of people, of cats,
except it is your street. You are leaving. A visa has been granted
provisionally, a fretful word. The windows you have closed behind you were turning pink, doing
what they do every dawn, here’s the gray, the door
to the taxi cab waits. This suitcase, the saddest
object in the world. Well, the world’s open, and
now through the windshield the sky begins to blush, as you did, when your mother told you what it took to be a woman in this life. So please, it’s so
wonderful to have you here, and now you’re going to get
a really formal introduction with all the rewards and honors. (applause) Thank you Chancellor Christ, and thank you all for
coming, maybe especially our peanut gallery Sacramento
Waldorf high school, thank you for coming all the way down. (applause) I’m Geoffrey G. O’brien the
director of Lunch Poems, and we’re incredibly honored to have, to my mind one of the most important poets of the last forty or so years, actually, Rita Dove here today, and I’m going to briefly introduce Ms. Dove
by reaching all the way back to early work for three reasons, the first is that a
huge collected spanning 30 years from 74 to
2004 came out last year, it’s here for purchase from Moe’s books, and Ms. Dove is going to be kind enough to sign books after her reading. The second reason is totally sentimental, I still have these first
edition paperbacks, from the mid 80’s which, the
great critic Helen Vendler taught me out of in my freshman year. So for that reason I wanted to, but the third is to reach
back to the early work, is to affect a really
modest active retrieval. And I think that retrieval,
the poetic form of it, the poetic action of retrieval has been really crucial to Rita Dove and her work over those many years. Ezra Pound’s dictum most of us know that the poem must include history, but I think for Rita Dove it’s not simply the history must be restored
to or included in the poem, but that persons need to
be restored to history, so that they don’t turn into abstractions, lazy abstractions,
manipulatable abstractions. And Rita Dove returns quotidian action, historical sense and personality and the psychic life of
a family to that history, again and again and again. I really value that enough that I’m also going to read but I’m going to read one stanza and one line. To show you an example
of retrieval in action. It’s from a poem called Dusting. The second stanza reads this way. Under her hands scrolls and crests gleam, darker still, what was his name, that silly boy at the
fair with the rifle booth, and his kiss in the clear bulb with one bright fish rippling wound. The final line of that
poem answers the question, what was the name of that boy. It’s just Maurice, it’s a single word, a name a line and a stanza, and that’s an active
retrieval at a distance in that poem, and I think it constitutes what Rita Dove is always doing, whether she’s engaging
the western canyon of art, or her own family, she’s
erasing the coding of time on things, she’s getting rid of the dust that everything including
names and persons can gleam. Please help me welcoming Rita Dove. (applause) – Thank you, thank you,
thank you very much. It does the heart good to be among books and people who love them, so, thank you all for coming
in the middle of the day, for me it’s the beginning of the day, I’m nocturnal but that’s alright. And hi guys, good to see you. You’ll keep me honest up there. So I think that what
I’d really love to do, these introductions were so wonderful and I thank the chancellor, thank you, and thank you Geoffrey for
your beautiful introduction, it’s slightly I always
feel slightly nonplussed, like who was that person
who wrote those things? I’d like to start with a
poem from Thomas and Beulah, the book that Geoffrey referenced, it is a story of a marriage. A story I guess you could say, of two very ordinary people,
based on my grandparents, but not really them. And in this poem, the wife, Beulah, is doing what anyone who has been a parent of very young children does
at some point in their life, you need to get away from said children. Just for an instant, just for an instant, to retain your sanity. Day star. She wandered the little room for thinking. But she saw diapers, steaming on the line. A doll, slumped behind the door. So she lugged a chair behind the garage. To sit out the children’s naps. Sometimes there were things to watch, the pinched armor of a vanished cricket, a floating maple leaf, other days she stared until she was
assured when she closed her eyes she’d see only her own vivid blood. She had an hour, at best,
before Liza appeared pouting from the top of the stairs, and just what was mother doing out back with the field of mice? Why, building a palace. Later that night when Thomas rolled over, and lurched into her,
she would open her eyes and think of the place
that was hers for an hour, where she was nothing, pure nothing in the middle of the day. (applause) Thank you, you don’t, thank you. You don’t have to, don’t do that. (laughs) But thank you, no, it’s really wonderful to hear your appreciation, but I grew up in libraries
where you could not make noise. (laughs) In fact, let me do this poem because it is a love song to librarians and in truth, I did grow up in the Branch
Library around my house, in Akron, Ohio, it was
Maple Valley Branch Library, and this poem’s called that. Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967. For a 15 year old there was plenty to do. Browse the magazines, skip
into the adult section to see what vast tristesse
was born of rush hour traffic, décolletés and the
plague of too much money. There was so much to discover, how to layout a road,
the language of flowers, and the place of women
in the tribe of Moost. There were equations,
elegant as a French twist, fractal geometries unwinding maple leaf. I could follow, step by step, the slow disclosure of
a pineapple jello mold. Or take the bath of Harold’s purple crayon through the bedroom window, and onto a lavender spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any
aisle and smell wisdom. Put a hand out to touch the
rough curve of bound leather, the harsh parchment of dreams. As for the improbable librarian with her salt and paprika upsweep, her British accent and sweater clip, mom of a kid I knew from school, I’d go up to her desk and ask for help on bareback rodeo, or binary codes, phonics, Gestalt theory, lead poisoning in the late Roman empire. The play of light in Dutch
renaissance painting, I would claim to be researching
pre Columbian pottery, or Chinese foot binding, but all I wanted to know was tell me what
you’ve read that keeps that half smile afloat above the collar of your impeccable blouse. So I read Gone with the
Wind, because it was big, and haiku because they were small. I studied history for
it’s rhapsody of dates, lingered over cubist art
for the way it showed all sides of a guitar at once. All the time in the world was there, and sometimes, all the
world on a single page. As much as I could hold on
my plastic card’s imprint, I took greedily, six books,
six volumes of bliss. The stuff we humans are made of, words and size and silence. Ink and whips, Brahma and cosine. Corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels, I carried it home, passed five
blocks of aluminum siding, and the old garage where
on it’s boarded up doors, someone had scrawled,
I can eat an elephant, if I take small bites. Yes, I said, to no one in particular, that’s what I’m going to do. Of course I have a list and
I’m changing it immediately, it happens every time. The almost a sonnet that
Chancellor Christ read comes from a book called Mother Love. Which is based loosely on the, or maybe not so loosely on the
Persephone and Demeter myth. It’s every parent’s nightmare, and this poem is from the
daughter’s point of view, as she goes out and is kidnapped by the god of the underworld. The Narcissus Flower. I remember my foot in
it’s frivolous slipper, a frightened bird, not the earth unzipped, but the way I could see my own fingers and hear myself scream as
the blossom incinerated. And though nothing could
chasten the plunge, this man adamant as a knife easing into the humblest crevice, I found myself at the center of a calm
so pure, it was hate. The mystery is you can eat fear before fear eats you, you can live beyond
dying, and become a queen whom nothing surprises. This poem is based on a horrific incident unfortunately not too
uncommon in our world, though this one was many years ago. In the Dominican Republic,
when the dictator at the time Raphael Trujillo, ordered 20,000 Haitian blacks killed. They worked side by
side with the Dominicans in the cane field and the only way he could distinguish between the Haitians and the Dominicans was to have them pronounce a word with the word, with the letter R in
it, because the Haitians did not roll their R like in Spanish, they had a more French pronunciation. Parsley. The cane fields. There is a parrot imitating
spring in the palace, it’s 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. 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, practicing 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 shoulder 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. I’ll bring us out of
this hole in a minute. I’m going to move over to some new poems, because they’re always, people ask me what my favorite poem of mine is, and it’s always, you know,
like children you don’t, you never say, but it’s
always the one I think that I’m working on now, that I’m cursing and you know… Happy to see sometimes. So a few new poems, this one was actually prompted by my, our daughter, who when she was four, yeah, three and four, used to
walk around the house. Singing to herself, nobody
loves me but the spring cricket. I didn’t know what a spring cricket was, why it was a spring, or summer, or fall, and she completely ignored us whenever we tried to find
out about this cricket who obviously loved her more than we did. But so I started writing some poems spoken by the spring cricket. The spring cricket considers
the question of negritude. I was playing my tunes all by myself, I didn’t know anybody
else who could play along, sure the tunes were sad, but sweet too, and wouldn’t come until the day gave out. You know that way the sky has of dangling her last bright wisps? That’s when the ache would bloom inside until I couldn’t wait, I knelt down to scrape myself clean
and didn’t are who heard. Then came the shouts and whistles, the roundup into jars,
the clamber of legs. Now there were others, tumbled, clouded. I didn’t know their names,
we were a musical lantern, children slept to our rasping sighs. And if now and then one of us shook free and sang as he climbed to the brim, he would always fall again. Which made them laugh
and clap their hands. At least then we knew what pleased them. And where the brink was. The spring cricket repudiates
his parable of negritude, hell, we just climbed. Reached the lip and fell back, slipped and started up
again, climbed to be climbing sang to be singing, it’s just what we do. No one bothered to analyze our blues, until everybody involved
was strung out or dead. To solve everything that was happening while it was happening, would’ve
taken some serious opium. Seriously, all wisdom is afterthought, a sort of helpless relief,
so don’t go thinking none of this grief belongs to you, even if you don’t know
how it feels to fall, you can get my drift,
and I who live it daily, have heard that perfect word enough to know just when to
use it, as in, oh hell, hell no, no, this is hell. My family gathers during, the larger family, gathers during the, what we call the picnic holidays, the ones that you know, fourth of July, Memorial Day, the ones
where you do barbecues, and though we all most of
us live in the Midwest, the family from the past
came up from the south, and they came all up in
during the great migration, so as soon as we all get together, we just, we change we’re
not westerners anymore. Family Reunion. 30 seconds into the barbecue, my Cleveland cousins have
everyone speaking southern. Broadened vowels and dropped consonants, whoops and caws, it’s
more osmosis than magic, a sliding thrall back to a time when working the tire factories meant entire neighborhoods
coming up from Georgia or Tennessee, accents helplessly intact. While their children,
inflections flattened to match the field they
thought they were playing on, knew it without asking when it was safe to roll out or draw
just as it’s understood, potluck means resurrecting
the foods we’ve abandoned along the way for the
sake of sleeker thighs. I look over the yard to the porch, with it’s battalion of aunts, the wavering ranks of uncles at the grill, everywhere else, hoards
of progeny are swirling, and my cousins yacking on as if they were waist deep in quicksand, but
like the books recommend, aren’t moving until
someone hauls them free. Who are all these children? Who had them and with whom? Through the general coffee tones, the shame genetics cut a creamy swath. Cherokees burnt umbered transposed under the generous lips, a glance, flares gray above the
crushed nose we label anonymous African, it’s all here, the beautiful geometry of Mendel’s peas, and their grim logic, and though we remain clearly divided on the merits of Okra, there’s still time to
demolish the cheese grits and tear into slow cooked ribs so tender we agree they’re
worth the extra pound or two our men folk swear
will always bring them home. Pity the poor soul who
lives a life without butter. Those pinched knees and tennis shoulders, and hatchety smiles. I think… I’m going to read you two more. Oh, maybe three, we’ll see, I know we have to get out of here. Let me, I really would like to read this, because it is one of the most recent poems that I’ve written, and I as you know, teach at the University of Virginia, which was Thomas
Jefferson’s dream college. Those who built it were slaves. And this particular man,
his name was Henry Martin, was born into slavery at Monticello, on the day that Thomas Jefferson died, which was ironically
enough, July fourth, 1826. He was responsible for ringing
the bell in the rotunda, at the university, to ring
for people to go to classes, and he did this for over 40 years. Bell Ringer. I was given a name, it came out of a book. I don’t know which, I’ve been told the great man could recite every title in order on it’s shelf, well, I was born and that’s a good thing, although I arrived on
the day of his passing, a day on which our country
fell into mourning. This I heard over and over, from professors to farmers,
even dual scarred students. Sometimes in grant company, remarked upon in third person a pretty way of saying, more than two men in a room
means the third can be ignored, as I was when they spoke of my birth and Mr. Jefferson’s death in one breath, voices dusted with wonderment, faint sunlight quivering
on a hidden breeze. I listen in on the
lectures whenever I can, holding still until I
disappear beyond third person. And what I hear sounds right enough, it eases my mind, I know my appearance frightens some of the
boys, the high cheeks and freckles and not quite negro eyes, flaring gray as storm
washed skies back home, it shames them to be reminded. So much for book learning,
I nod as if to say, uncle Henry, at your service, then continue on my way through
darkness to start the day. This is my place, stone rookery perched above the citadels of knowledge, alone with the bats and my bell, keeping time, up here molten glory brims until my head’s rinsed clear. I am no longer a dreadful coincidence, nor a debt crossed off
in a dead man’s ledger, I am not summoned, dismissed,
I am the clock’s keeper. I ring in their ears. And every hour, down in that shining, blistered republic, someone
will pause to whisper, Henry. And for a moment, my name flies free. How are we doing, do I have time for… I will read two more poems,
these are debts to students. Who keep teaching me through the years, the first one comes about
because my students have, I always give them a wild card, a personalized writing assignment that drives them crazy, it’s
guaranteed to drive them crazy, it’s designed that way
and so they said to me, well you need one, too. Fair enough. So in this poem the only, the directive, I gave myself was that
every line has to begin with the same letter, so in other words, one line begins with only O’s, the next line every word
begins with only P’s, you’ll hear it as it goes along. And the only other
thing I’ll say about it, is that over the years
I’ve, my husband and I do ballroom dancing and we love it, but I also realize that it’s a very painful sport at times. Ode to my right knee. Oh, obstreperous one, ornery
outside of ordinary protocols. Paramilitary probie par, excellence, every evidence you yield yells. No noise too tough to tackle, tears springing such sudden salt
when walking wrenches, haranguer, hag, hanger on, how much more maddening insidious imperfection? Membranes matter of factly corroding, crazed cartilage calmly chipping away as another arduous ambulation begins, bone bruising bone, leathery Lothario, lone laboring gladiator
grappling, groveling for favor, fair weather
forecaster, fickle friend, jive jiggy joint, kindly keep kicking. And I will end with this,
and I thank you all again so much for coming, thank you Giovanni for arranging all of this, it’s been, it just feels good in here, thank you. This poem is also, I
owe this to a student, who once he left… His MFA program, everything,
he started an online magazine called Q, which specialized
in the prose poem, and so he asked me for a prose poem, which he said, to his knowledge, I’d only written one,
he had researched it, and I said I’m not sure I believe in them, but I will write one for you. Prose in a small space. It’s supposed to be prose if
it runs on and on, isn’t it? All those words, too many to fall into rank and files stumbling bare ass drunk onto the field reporting
for duty, yes sir, spilling out as shamelessly as the glut from a mega billion
dollar chemical facility, just the amount of glittering effluvium it takes to transport a
little girl across a room. Beige carpet thick under her oxfords, curtains lousy with spring. Is that the scent of
daffodils drifting in? Daffodils don’t smell,
but prose doesn’t care. Prose likes to hear itself talk, prose is development and denouement, anticipation hovering near the canapes, lust rampant in the
antipasta, for example, a silver fork fingered sadly
as the heroine crumples a linen napkin in her
lap to keep from crying out at the sight of Lord
Campion’s regal brow, inclined tenderly toward
the wealthy young widow. Prose applauds such
syntactical dalliances. Then is it poetry if it’s confined? Trembling along it’s axis,
a flagpole come alive in high wind, flapping it’s
radiant sleeve for attention, over here it’s me, while the white spaces, air, field, early morning
silence before the school bell. Shape themselves around
that one bright seizure, and if that’s so, what do we have here, a dream or three paragraphs? We have white space too, is this music? As for all the words left out, banging at the gates,
we could let them in, but where we go with our
orders, our stuttering pride? Thank you. Thank you very much.

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