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Literary Treasures: Rita Dove Reads Her Poems at the Library of Congress, May 4, 1995

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The following is a guest post by Paramita Vadhahong, who completed a month-long internship in Literary Initiatives over the Hollins University January 2022 Term.

This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 80 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Rita Dove
Rita Dove. Photograph by Fred Viebahn

During my month-long internship in the Library’s Literary Initiatives office, I’ve had the privilege to listen to many recordings in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. I’m especially drawn to poems that use age-old myths and folklore to illuminate upon a feeling or conflict that resides within the contemporary reader.

One particular recording features Rita Dove reading from Mother Love, her poetry collection inspired by the myth of Demeter and Persephone, in the Library’s Montpelier Room on May 4, 1995. Dove retells the Greek myth across various voices and settings, mainly in sonnet form, her voice molding and shaping each word with an expressive and loving rhythm. Dove served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry from 1993-1995—the first African American appointed to the position.

In this recording, three particular poems stood out to me as exemplary pieces that tell a well-known story from different angles—in whichever time or place, Dove demonstrates that there will always be a concerned parent and a willful child and a lover who step too far into the picture.

In “Heroes” (at 6:37), Dove makes use of the delicate imagery of flowers and fields as well as the lasting touches of violence and regret, showing the reader that beauty and destruction are one and the same. In prefacing her reading of the poem, she states that, “Heroes are made by accident rather than being born to it.” The poem centers around the encounter between two flawed women: the speaker, who plucks the last poppy from someone else’s garden, and the old woman whose sense of purpose is destroyed alongside the garden.

Both are too overwhelmed by the stakes of being remembered by the world to treat each other right. After the speaker takes the flower, she offers the furious, distraught woman the promise of a story:

[…] The woman on the porch starts

screaming: you’ve plucked the last poppy
in her miserable garden, the one
that gave her the strength every morning

to rise! It’s too late for apologies
though you go through the motions, offering
trinkets and a juicy spot in the written history

she wouldn’t live to read, anyway.

The speaker and the woman on the porch are both concerned about their own vitality—in trying to steal another person’s legacy, the speaker herself becomes empty in the history of her own life: “Why / did you pick that idiot flower? / Because it was the last one / and you knew / it was going to die.” Dove understands that characters in mythology have to violate the rules of civilization in order to turn themselves into heroes, always at the expense of their own humanity. This, the poem seems to suggest, is why no heroes are born; the only true birthright of heroism is to take, never to be given.

The next poem, “Persephone, Falling” (at 8:44), references the part of the myth where Persephone breaks away from a group of maidens to pick up a narcissus flower, and the ground opens for Hades to snatch her from below. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, mourns the loss of her daughter so persistently that the flowers of the earth wilt away. Dove admits that she wasn’t aware she was writing these poems about her twelve-year-old daughter, but rather that it was her daughter who assumed Dove wrote them about her. This rings true to me, because many of Dove’s poems do sound like beautifully wrapped stories passed down from mother to daughter.

“Persephone, Falling” is most notable for its explicit connection to the cautionary tales which mothers often tell their daughters: “(Remember: go straight to school. / This is important, stop fooling around! / Don’t answer to strangers. Stick with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.) / This is how easily the pit / opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.” Dove succeeds in planting many nuanced ideas inside a compact poem: Is the mother right to instruct her daughter to keep to the path, to ward off any possibilities for discovery and adventure? Could powerful men like Hades be avoided or are they inevitable in the course of her young life? Would the daughter still be blamed if the pit opens and she hasn’t taken every precaution? What does it mean if she has taken every precaution and the pit opens anyway?

The appeal of Persephone’s myth comes from the dual passions of a mother’s love and a daughter’s will. Persephone’s decision to eat the pomegranate seeds, and consequently choosing to return to the underworld for the winter and fall seasons, strikes Dove as a sign that “the daughter was growing up.” I used to think that Persephone’s burgeoning independence was in conflict with the validity of Demeter’s grief, thereby turning the myth into separate narratives wherein Persephone was either the abducted bride or the liberated young woman. Dove reveals that these contradictory versions have to coexist for Demeter and Persephone to make sense.

In “Wiederkehr” (German for return) (at 23:24), Persephone praises her husband: “he never asked / if I would stay. Which is why, / when the choice appeared, / I reached for it.” She is well aware of the stakes of the underworld and her marriage, knowing that Hades needs her more than she needs him, that he never asks her to remain with him if she does not want to. The implication here is that, unlike her husband, Persephone’s mother does ask her to remain above ground. The cycle of Mother Love contains notes of betrayal as well as healing—the false hope that Persephone will always listen to Demeter, never plucking any more flowers that don’t belong to her lest something terrible happens, underlies the tension of growing up.

Both of the previous poems use flowers as markers of doom; we know, of course, that Demeter controls the fertility of the earth. A young girl who threads out of the path, untamed, may cause harm upon herself or others, but a mother’s grief can understandably take all the flowers of the world away. “Wiederkehr”’s portrayal of Hades and Persephone’s relationship—steadfast and faithful, yet decided on her terms—not only honors Persephone’s growth, but also calls to attention who else might be telling the story in each poem from the rest of the collection. The regretful, haunted tone of the narrator of “Heroes” demands the reader to question the weight of the narratives we tell about ourselves, and the cautionary framing of “Persephone, Falling” sounds like Demeter as she helplessly watches her daughter disappear into the pit.

Each poem, though penned by the same poet and focused on the same essential story, serves its own special truth. I believe that this is the most valuable message Rita Dove has instilled in this reading: the ability to listen to a chorus of voices and decide for yourself which one you want to accept as the story of your life.

Below is the full timestamped index of Rita Dove reading her poems:

  • “Heroes” (6:37)
  • “Persephone, Falling” (8:44)
  • “The Narcissus Flower” (10:13)
  • “Statistic” (11:54)
  • “Mother Love” (15:28)
  • “Breakfast of Champions” (17:24)
  • “Persephone in Hell (section I)” (19:53)
  • “Wiederkehr” (23:24)
  • “The Bistro Styx” (24:30)
  • “Demeter Mourning” (29:31)
  • “Afield” (31:39)
  • “Lost Brilliance” (32:46)
  • “Demeter, Waiting” (34:41)
  • “Lamentations” (35:43)
  • “Used”(36:32)
  • “Missing” (37:54)
  • “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades” (38:56)
  • “Her Island” (42:00)
  • “Evening primrose” (51:51)
  • “Incarnation in Phoenix” (53:54)
  • “The First Book” (56:24)
  • “Vacation” (57:53)