Rita Dove Recites Her Poem “Bellringer” at UVA’s Bicentennial Celebration


Bellringer, 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 its shelf. Well, I was born and that was 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 professor’s to farmers even duel-scarred students, sometimes, in grand 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
listened 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 my 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 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.

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