Poetry might be the least ostentatious of the arts. It’s a private affair conducted between a writer and a blank piece of paper. Michelangelo was said to seek out the hidden shape within the stone when he was creating a sculpture. What reserves of patience and focus do you need to find the hidden words within an 8 1/2″ x 11″ piece of emptiness? You’d have to be a page whisperer.
Out of her solitary communion with the page, Rita Dove has built a big, public career with an extravagant set of accomplishments and accolades. She arrived in Charlottesville to teach at the University of Virginia in 1989, with a Fulbright Scholarship and three books of poetry already under her belt. One of those books, Thomas and Beulah, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, and as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2004 to 2006. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton in 1996, and the National Medal of Arts by President Obama in 2011. Her complete list of honors and awards (and the inevitable obligations that accompany them) would easily fill this article. But even in the past 20 years, when the demands of her public role have been at their highest, she’s managed to continue to publish sustained, important, substantial works of poetry: On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), American Smooth (2004), and Sonata Mulattica (2009), along with a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, a novel, a play, a song cycle, and an anthology of poetry.
How can one successfully work both ends of a demanding, high profile career that is built on the quality of one’s most quiet and private moments? In a recent conversation, I had the chance to ask Dove. When we talked, she was in the throes of reading through 200 manuscripts—submissions to the UVA Creative Writing Program and candidates for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, an annual prize for which she serves as a jury member. “I do feel torn,” she said. “A lot of my life is taken up with trying to find the uninterrupted time to just forget all of that and let the world drop away. That means saying no sometimes to things that are absolutely worthy.”
She did not, ultimately, say no to filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley whose film Rita Dove: An American Poet premieres on January 31 at the Paramount in an event honoring her. But she did try. “It took some convincing. At first I said no. But we did meet, and I liked him. I liked what he was doing. I liked his eye. I liked the way he looked at the world. He had a real sensitivity to the artistic.”
Montes-Bradley, who hails from Argentina but has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, has had a long career as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker documenting the life and work of artists and public figures here and in Latin America. He confirmed that Dove set up a high hurdle: “She’s tough,” he said. “But you understand. She has to be cautious. I think what intrigued her was that my line of questioning was different than what she’s probably accustomed to. Not better or worse. Just different.”
The film pays Dove the compliment of exploring her life and her work on her own terms. Much of her poetry operates like a montage, especially the book-length works like Thomas and Beulah, about the lives of her grandparents, and Sonata Mulattica, about a forgotten black musician who was a protégé of Beethoven. These books are made up of what Tennyson called “short swallow-flights of song,” bursts of poetic exploration that build up, layer by layer, into a narrative. The film does something similar. It uses family photos and home movies to give us snapshots of a lived life. It weaves those together with archival footage, interviews with the author, and passages from her poetry, to achieve its own kind of cinematic lyricism—a visual poetry that pays homage to Dove’s own techniques.
Montes-Bradley calls the film a “biographical sketch” and said that, rather than trying to tell the whole history of her life, he tried to tell the story of “the making of the poet.”
“It’s always partial views, right?” said Montes-Bradley. “Glimpses into the inner fabric of a certain individual. You can’t go beyond just glimpses, flashes.”
“What I love about the film,” said Dove, “is that it manages to maintain some mystery. It resists the stamp of ‘this is Rita Dove.’ And his attention to the influence of music in my life—I am just extremely grateful for.”
Dove’s work adroitly plays big themes—race, history, death, art, reputation—against the smaller-scale textures of daily life—food, clothes, books, work, family. She is constantly burrowing, exploring, unraveling, and sussing out the ways in which the big and the small are really one and the same. And music is very often the go-between that mediates them.
In Thomas and Beulah, her grandfather, like her, is musical, and mired in the laborious demands of work. Music is his release.
“To him, work is a narrow grief/and music afterwards/is like a woman/reaching into his chest /to spread it around.”
In the poem “Gospel,” peppered with snatches of lyrics from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the music that came out of slavery and lifted the black church and the civil rights movement is “a humming ship of voices/big with all/the wrongs done/done them.”
“From a fortress/of animal misery/soars the chill/voice of the tenor, enraptured/with sacrifice.”
It’s as good an image of how her poetry works as any. Exploring the narrow griefs of work, home, family, or the broader griefs of history and race. And responding the only way a songbird can. With song.