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Rita Dove

1952–

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952. A poet and writer, she was a high school Presidential Scholar and graduated with a BA in English from Miami University of Ohio in 1973. She then studied German poetry as a Fulbright scholar at Universität Tübingen before getting an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. 

Her books of poetry include Collected Poems 1974-2004 (W.W. Norton, 2016), recipient of the 2017 NAACP Image Award, the 2017 Library of Virginia Award and a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award; Sonata Mulattica (W. W. Norton, 2009), winner of the Hurston Wright Legacy Award; On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W. W. Norton, 1999), named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986), which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

In addition to poetry, Dove has published a book of short stories, the novel Through the Ivory Gate (Pantheon, 1992), and numerous essays. She also edited The Best American Poetry 2000 (Scribner, 2000), The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Penguin, 2011), and the New York Times Magazine's weekly poetry column from 2018-2019. 

Dove's work traverses a wide range of landscapes, applying an unflinching eye upon historical and political events. In American Smooth, she reflects on her experiences with ballroom dancing. Says Emily Nussbaum of the collection, "For Dove, dance is an implicit parallel to poetry. [...] Each is an expression of grace performed within limits; each an art weighted by history but malleable enough to form something utterly new." Regarded as her most ambitious work to date, Sonata Mulattica is a poetic treatise on the life of nineteenth-century, biracial violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower and his friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven.

Dove served as poet laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, and as poet laureate of Virginia from 2004 to 2006. Among her many honors are the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, the 1996 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, the 2003 Emily Couric Leadership Award, the 2006 Common Wealth Award, the 2007 Chubb Fellowship at Yale University, the 2008 Library of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2009 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2009 International Capri Award, and the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, the 2019 North Star Award from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, as well as twenty-eight honorary doctorates, among them from Yale University in 2014 and Harvard University in 2018. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. President Bill Clinton bestowed upon her the 1996 National Humanities Medal, and President Barack Obama presented her with the 2011 National Medal of Arts, making her the only poet who has received both medals. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2005 to 2011. In 2019, she received the Wallace Stevens Award, given annually by the Academy of American Poets to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.

Dove is a trained classical cellist and gambist. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where she has been teaching since 1989. 


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Collected Poems 1974–2004 (W. W. Norton, 2016)
Sonata Mulattica (W. W. Norton, 2009)
American Smooth (W. W. Norton, 2004)
On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W. W. Norton, 1999)
Mother Love (W. W. Norton, 1995)
Selected Poems (Pantheon, 1993)
Grace Notes (W. W. Norton, 1989)
Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986)
Museum (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1983)
The Yellow House on the Corner (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980)

Fiction

Through the Ivory Gate (Pantheon, 1992)
Fifth Sunday (University of Kentucky Press, 1985)

Drama

The Darker Face of the Earth: A Verse Play (Storyline Press, 1994); completely revised second edition, 1996; corrected edition with study guide, 2000. 
 

 

Rita Dove
Photo credit: Fred Viebahn

By This Poet

24

The Bistro Styx

She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her.  What's this,

I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that's when I saw she was dressed all in gray,
from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl

down to the graphite signature of her shoes.
"Sorry I'm late," she panted, though
she wasn't, sliding into the chair, her cape

tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel.
We kissed.  Then I leaned back to peruse
my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole.



"How's business?" I asked, and hazarded
a motherly smile to keep from crying out:
Are you content to conduct your life
as a cliché and, what's worse,

an anachronism, the brooding artist's demimonde?
Near the rue Princesse they had opened 
a gallery cum souvenir shop which featured
fuzzy off-color Monets next to his acrylics, no doubt,

plus beared African drums and the occasional miniature
gargoyle from Notre Dame the Great Artist had
carved at breakfast with a pocket knife.

"Tourists love us.  The Parisians, of course"--
she blushed--"are amused, though not without
a certain admiration . . ."
                           The Chateaubriand



arrived on a bone-white plate, smug and absolute
in its fragrant crust, a black plug steaming
like the heart plucked from the chest of a worthy enemy;
one touch with her fork sent pink juices streaming.

"Admiration for what?"  Wine, a bloody
Pinot Noir, brought color to her cheeks.  "Why,
the aplomb with which we've managed
to support our Art"--meaning he'd convinced

her to pose nude for his appalling canvases,
faintly futuristic landscapes strewn
with carwrecks and bodies being chewed

by rabid cocker spaniels.  "I'd like to come by
the studio," I ventured, "and see the new stuff."
"Yes, if you wish . . ."  A delicate rebuff



before the warning: "He dresses all
in black now.  Me, he drapes in blues and carmine--
and even though I think it's kinda cute,
in company I tend toward more muted shades."

She paused and had the grace
to drop her eyes.  She did look ravishing,
spookily insubstantial, a lipstick ghost on tissue,
or as if one stood on a fifth-floor terrace

peering through a fringe of rain at Paris'
dreaming chimney pots, each sooty issue
wobbling skyward in an ecstatic oracular spiral.

"And he never thinks of food.  I wish
I didn't have to plead with him to eat. . . ."  Fruit
and cheese appeared, arrayed on leaf-green dishes.



I stuck with café crème.  "This Camembert's
so ripe," she joked, "it's practically grown hair,"
mucking a golden glob complete with parsley sprig
onto a heel of bread.  Nothing seemed to fill

her up: She swallowed, sliced into a pear,
speared each tear-shaped lavaliere
and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth.
Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted

vines and sun poured down out of the south.
"But are you happy?"  Fearing, I whispered it
quickly.  "What?  You know, Mother"--

she bit into the starry rose of a fig--
"one really should try the fruit here."
I've lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.

Adolescence II

Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.
Sweat prickles behind my knees, the baby-breasts are alert.
Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles quiver in pale strips.

Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round
As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.
They bring the scent of licorice. One sits in the washbowl,

One on the bathtub edge; one leans against the door.
"Can you feel it yet?" they whisper.
I don't know what to say, again. They chuckle,

Patting their sleek bodies with their hands.
"Well, maybe next time." And they rise,
Glittering like pools of ink under moonlight,

And vanish. I clutch at the ragged holes
They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.
Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue.

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