Poet laureate is also a novelist

Monday Book Reviews

March 14, 1994|By D. R. Fair

SELECTED POEMS. By Rita Dove. Random House. 210 pages, paperback. $12.

THROUGH THE IVORY GATE. By Rita Dove. Random House. 278 pages, paperback. $11.

MAYBE I don't understand the concept of "selected poems." I went through the table of contents of "Selected Poems," by U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove (the first African American and, at 41, youngest to be named to the position), and I was confused. I saw the poems from "The Yellow House on the Corner," her first collection published in 1980. I saw the poems from "Museum," published in 1983. Then I saw "Thomas and Beulah," published in 1986.

But nothing from "Grace Notes," my favorite, published in 1989. And I read Ms. Dove's introduction to "Selected Poems." No mention there of "Grace Notes." Maybe it had to do with the publishers? "Grace Notes" was published by Norton, this collection by Random House. Maybe Random couldn't get the (( rights. Maybe Ms. Dove thought it was too soon for these poems to be included in a "selection."

My least favorite poems here are from "Museum." I have a hard time connecting to the voice or the images. It's like being a second grader and getting dragged through an art museum on a field trip and having no idea why the preppy tour guide is so excited about all this stuff. All the 7-year-old sees are pictures of people she doesn't know and people frozen in stone.

The poems in "The Yellow House on the Corner" are a bit more touchable. They replay an ancestry -- a heritage -- and the reader is present as the speaker comes to embrace that heritage, all aspects of it, good and bad. You can feel and hear the anger, confusion and frustration, as well as the joy, pride and satisfaction.

The poems in "Thomas and Beulah" are the most engaging of the collection. They would also be the hardest to separate. Even Ms. Dove states in the foreword that these poems should stay together, for they chronicle the relationship of a couple loosely based on Ms. Dove's grandparents.

Ms. Dove's second book released during her time as the nation's official poet is a jewel. "Through the Ivory Gate," her first novel, is clear evidence that Ms. Dove can easily transpose her more elegant and finely tuned skills of poetry to the larger landscape of fiction. Each chapter smoothly overlaps the next without a hint of a stumble. The main character, Virginia King, is real, almost familiar, and you immediately care about her and are interested in how she fares in her unplanned return home.

Although Virginia is a young African-American actress living in America during the early 1970s, her race is not the focus here. In fact, I found myself unaware of this throughout the book. Skillfully, Ms. Dove is able to maintain the undercurrent of memory as the novel's driving force. The reader is compelled to find out what memories Virginia has to confront, if she will confront them and how she reckons with memory's ". . . reputation for being compassionately inaccurate."

As in some of her most effective poems, Ms. Dove's language is lyrical. The images command attention but are at the same time gentle and suggestive. Of the two books, I found "Through the Ivory Gate" the more powerful representation of what Ms. Dove is able to do with language and form.

D.R. Fair is a poet living in Pittsburgh.

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