Festival Poet Rita Dove: An Appreciation

by Claire Keyes
This is the third in a series of stories on poets to be featured at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Rita Dove's events at the festival.

It’s easy to become addicted to Rita Dove’s poetry. She draws us in with her clear, direct approach. Once involved, we become ensnared in the allusiveness and subtlety of her diction and imagery. Seemingly straight-forward poems like “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” unfold into complex and subtle mysteries.               

I have been a stranger in a strange land

Life's spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it. 
Emily Dickinson

It wasn't bliss. What was bliss   
but the ordinary life? She'd spend hours   
in patter, moving through whole days   
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite   
housekeeping in a charmed world.   
And yet there was always   

more of the same, all that happiness,   
the aimless Being There.   
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,   
lingered to look through a pond's restive mirror.   
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,   
pretending he could organize   
what was clearly someone else's chaos.   

That's when she found the tree,   
the dark, crabbed branches   
bearing up such speechless bounty,   
she knew without being told   
this was forbidden. It wasn't   
a question of ownership—   
who could lay claim to   
such maddening perfection?   

And there was no voice in her head,   
no whispered intelligence lurking   
in the leaves—just an ache that grew   
until she knew she'd already lost everything   
except desire, the red heft of it   
warming her outstretched palm. 

“I have been a stranger in a strange land” inhabits its dichotomies with quiet aplomb. I’m drawn to the title which I recognize as a Biblical quotation. Moses named his son “Gershom” which translates as “a stranger in a strange land.” Or a sojourner in a foreign land—Moses’ destiny. The Biblical reference initiates one set of expectations; perhaps a poem about the African-American experience? Not a stretch for Rita Dove. But why does she bundle this quote with a sentence by Emily Dickinson?

The Dickinson quote seems to take precedence in the poem because its key word “exquisite” appears in the first stanza. Oh, a poem about Dickinson. Fine. “She’d spend hours in patter, moving through whole days/ touching. . . .”  Emily Dickinson pattering? I think of this as chit-chat, meaningless palaver; not Dickinson’s modus operandi. I have to read the rest of the poem to figure this out.

The language is direct and fairly clear. The female in the poem (not E. D.) is an outdoors person who wanders from “bush to arbor.” In stanza two another person appears, a male imagined as “off cataloging the universe.” The speaker’s attitude towards this male is disparagement of his self-importance, “pretending he could organize/ what was clearly someone else’s chaos.” She also disparages her own “happiness; the aimless Being There.” Discontent is the condition of this woman: with her life, with her mate. Something’s got to give.

And it does: “That’s when she found the tree.” Stanza three opens up the poem for me and I begin putting it together: woman, man, tree = Garden of Eden. But Dove never says this. She employs the familiar Bible story, but never names Adam and Eve.  Too simple. She complicates the myth, giving us a tree with “dark, crabbed branches. . . .”   Crabbed? I picture misshapen branches, not long and slender, but tight and compact: “bearing speechless bounty.” Rita Dove’s Eve has no Lord around to direct her behavior: “she knew without being told/ this was forbidden.”

The fourth and final stanza is the clincher. Dove disposes of Satan: “there was . . . no whispered intelligence lurking in the leaves.” Her Eve secures the forbidden fruit of her own volition: “the red heft of it/ warming her outstretched palm.” She wanted that fruit and her wanting is an “ache” that we all know. Dove terms it “desire.” To desire is human. For this activation of desire, Eve is willing to lose “everything.” Thus Eve emerges as the stranger in a strange land, a restless soul navigating a world that yields its bounty to her desire and initiative.

And this brings us back to the Emily Dickinson quote. “Life’s spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.” Rita Dove’s “I have been a stranger in a strange land” enacts this premise.

Claire Keyes is the author of The Question of Rapture, a collection of poems.  Professor emerita at Salem State University, where she taught English for thirty years, she has also written The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich, (University of Georgia Press). Her new book of poems, What Diamonds Can Do will appear in March 2015. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Calyx, The Valparaiso Review, and The Women’s Review of Books, among others.  She is a resident of Marblehead, Massachusetts.