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Stories That Sing


For Rita Dove, "A single, beautiful word can create history." The poem "Parsley," appearing in Ms. Dove's first book, "Museums," tells this story: In 1957, the Dominican dictator Trujillo ordered 20,000 black Haitians killed. He sent his men down to the cane field to listen to the workers say the Spanish for parsley, perejil. "Who says it lives," the general decided. Those who could not roll the "r," saying an "l" sound instead, were killed.

Ms. Dove has recently been named poet laureate, the highest honor that this country gives its poets. At 40, she's the youngest person to hold the position. She's the second woman and first black poet laureate. (The Baltimore poet Josephine Jacobsen also held the post when it was called "consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.")

Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Ms. Dove is the author of a novel, a collection of short stories and four books of poetry. "Thomas and Beulah" earned her the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has received other important awards, among them Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships and the prestigious Lavan Prize of the Academy of American Poets.

Ms. Dove's poems focus on historical events, such as the murder of the black Haitians. She studies those events from several angles to find things we don't usually see. Trujillo's action, for example, has both political and linguistic implications, showing the way language enters history.

Her best-known book, "Thomas and Beulah," traces the migration of rural southern blacks to the north, through two sequences of poems and a chronology following those poems. While the chronology tells us what happened in the Midwest from 1900 to 1960, the poems tell the inner lives of Thomas and Beulah, a black couple loosely based on Ms. Dove's grandparents.

Thomas rides on a Mississippi river boat to Akron, Ohio. His best friend drowns because of a drunken dare, leaving behind "a stinking circle of rags,/ the half-shell mandolin." Hearing this story from her grandmother, Ms. Dove wrote a sequence of 23 poems called "Mandolin." The instrument becomes a symbol of the music of her grandfather's life: "Two strings, one pierced cry./ So many ways to imitate the ringing in his ears." ("Variation on Pain").

As Ms. Dove worked on the Thomas sequence, the poem "Dusting" came to her. This poem, Ms. Dove said in an interview, was Thomas' wife demanding to have her story told. That story became the 21 poems of "Canary in Bloom," with the canary's trill standing for Beulah's music. In "Dusting," Beulah remembers a boy she knew, named Maurice. "That wonderful, romantic name," Ms. Dove explained, inspired the poem and the entire sequence.

"Often I enter a poem through a word . . . that compels me," Ms. Dove said. Language is what makes things begin to click in a poem, taking poets off in unexpected directions. Language shapes a poem as a potter's fingers shape clay, leaving an imprint, molding it. You try not to know what you're doing, she continued; self-consciousness kills the poem. You forget literary theories, only following what you need -- the word, its perceptions, its music.

Ms. Dove's poems are stories that sing, almost literally. They contain snatches of song, refer to musical instruments and create their effect in the melodic way music does. Here's Thomas playing: "The young ladies/saying He sure plays/that tater bug/ like the devil!/sighing their sighs and dimpling." ("Jiving") Here's Beulah humming while making a hat: "its double rose and feathers ashiver./ Extravagance redeems. O/intimate parasol/that teaches to walk/with grace along beauty's seam." ("Headdress")

In Ms. Dove's most recent book of poems, "Grace Notes," the overall focus is looser, with poems about slavery, family, Ms. Dove's own past, her present. Several of the poems look at motherhood and daughterhood; "Pastoral," a dreamy mother-child love poem, stands out. One of the best poems in the collection, "On The Road To Damascus," is a metaphor for the creative process. St. Paul speaks, "I had not counted on earth rearing,/honey streaming down a parched sky, . . ."

The title of "Grace Notes" implies music. These poems, though, don't jive so much as croon, making a soft sound, reminiscent of sounds heard at summer twilight. One poem, especially, suggests the role poetry plays in the history of language. "There is music, and then it stops;/the beautiful is always rising and falling./We call and the children sing back one more time." ("Horse And Tree")

Diane Scharper's collection of poetry, "The Laughing Ladies," will be published in July. She teaches writing at Towson State.

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