Rita Dove is an American poet who writes primarily in free verse, in both first- and third-person. She was the youngest person and the first African American to be appointed Poet Laureate Consultant by the Library of Congress. Profoundly inspirational Rita Dove poems will challenge the way you think, and help guide you through any life experience.
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Most Famous Rita Dove Poems
What did he do except lie
under a pear tree, wrapped in
a great cloak, and meditate
on the heavenly bodies?
Venerable, the good people of Baltimore
whispered, shocked and more than
a little afraid. After all it was said
he took to strong drink.
Why else would he stay out
under the stars all night
and why hadn’t he married?
But who would want him! Neither
Ethiopian nor English, neither
lucky nor crazy, a capacious bird
humming as he penned in his mind
another enflamed letter
to President Jefferson—he imagined
the reply, polite and rhetorical.
Those who had been to Philadelphia
reported the statue
of Benjamin Franklin
before the library
his very size and likeness.
A wife? No, thank you.
At dawn he milked
the cows, then went inside
and put on a pot to stew
while he slept. The clock
he whittled as a boy
still ran. Neighbors
woke him up
with warm bread and quilts.
At nightfall he took out
his rifle—a white-maned
figure stalking the darkened
breast of the Union—and
shot at the stars, and by chance
one went out. Had he killed?
I assure thee, my dear Sir!
Lowering his eyes to fields
sweet with the rot of spring, he could see
a government’s domed city
rising from the morass and spreading
in a spiral of lights….
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
In water-heavy nights behind grandmother’s porch
We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:
Linda’s face hung before us, pale as a pecan,
And it grew wise as she said:
‘A boy’s lips are soft,
As soft as baby’s skin.’
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance
I could hear streetlamps ping
Into miniature suns
Against a feathery sky.
Fifth Grade Autobiography
I was four in this photograph fishing
with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.
My grandfather sits to the far right
in a folding chair,
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas. Grandmother’s hips
bulge from the brush, she’s leaning
into the ice chest, sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
I am staring jealously at my brother;
the day before he rode his first horse, alone.
I was strapped in a basket
behind my grandfather.
He smelled of lemons. He’s died—
but I remember his hands.
Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb –
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!
If I don’t eat you quickly,
you’ll melt in my palm.
Pleasure seeker, if i let you
you’d liquefy everywhere.
Knotted smoke, dark punch
of earth and night and leaf,
for a taste of you
any woman would gladly
crumble to ruin.
Enough chatter: I am ready
to fall in love!
As if the lid stayed put on the marmalade.
As if you could get the last sip of champagne
out of the bottom of the fluted glass.
As if we weren’t all dying, as if we all weren’t
going to die some time, as if we knew for certain
when, or how. As if the baseball scores made sense
to the toddler. As if the dance steps mattered, or there’s a point
where they don’t. For instance wheelchair. Heart flutter.
Oxygen bottle mounted on the septuagenarian’s back
at the state ballroom competitions—that’s Manny,
still pumping the mambo with his delicious slip
of an instructor, hip hip hooray. Mambo, for instance,
if done right, gives you a chance to rest: one beat in four.
One chance in four, one chance in ten, a hundred, as if
we could understand what that means. Hooray. Keep
pumping. As if you could keep the lid on a secret
once the symptoms start to make sense. A second
instance, a respite. A third. Always that hope.
If we could just scrape that last little bit
out, if only it wouldn’t bottom out
before they can decode the message
sent to the cells. Of course it matters when, even though
(because?) we live in mystery. For instance
Beauty. Love. Honor. As if we didn’t like
secrets. Point where it hurts. Of course we’ll tell.
Heart To Heart
It’s neither red
It doesn’t melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can’t feel
It doesn’t have
a tip to spin on,
it isn’t even
just a thick clutch
I feel it inside
its cage sounding
a dull tattoo:
I want, I want—
but I can’t open it:
there’s no key.
I can’t wear it
on my sleeve,
or tell you from
the bottom of it
how I feel. Here,
it’s all yours, now—
but you’ll have
to take me,
After all, there’s no need
to say anything
at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares
like a tulip on a wedge wood plate
Anything can happen.
Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs
and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart
is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!
Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.
There are ways
to make of the moment
so the pleasure’s in
The Secret Garden
I was ill, lying on my bed of old papers,
when you came with white rabbits in your arms;
and the doves scattered upwards, flying to mothers,
and the snails sighed under their baggage of stone . . .
Now your tongue grows like celery between us:
Because of our love-cries, cabbage darkens in its nest;
the cauliflower thinks of her pale, plump children
and turns greenish-white in a light like the ocean’s.
I was sick, fainting in the smell of teabags,
when you came with tomatoes, a good poetry.
I am being wooed. I am being conquered
by a cliff of limestone that leaves chalk on my breasts.
I could pick anything and think of you—
This lamp, the wind-still rain, the glossy blue
My pen exudes, drying matte, upon the page.
I could choose any hero, any cause or age
And, sure as shooting arrows to the heart,
Astride a dappled mare, legs braced as far apart
As standing in silver stirrups will allow—
There you’ll be, with furrowed brow
And chain mail glinting, to set me free:
One eye smiling, the other firm upon the enemy.
This post-postmodern age is all business: compact disks
And faxes, a do-it-now-and-take-no-risks
Event. Today a hurricane is nudging up the coast,
Oddly male: Big Bad Floyd, who brings a host
Of daydreams: awkward reminiscences
Of teenage crushes on worthless boys
Whose only talent was to kiss you senseless.
They all had sissy names—Marcel, Percy, Dewey;
Were thin as licorice and as chewy,
Sweet with a dark and hollow center. Floyd’s
Cussing up a storm. You’re bunkered in your
Aerie, I’m perched in mine
(Twin desks, computers, hardwood floors):
We’re content, but fall short of the Divine.
Still, it’s embarrassing, this happiness—
Who’s satisfied simply with what’s good for us,
When has the ordinary ever been news?
And yet, because nothing else will do
To keep me from melancholy (call it blues),
I fill this stolen time with you.
On her 36th birthday, Thomas had shown her
her first swimming pool. It had been
his favorite color, exactly—just
so much of it, the swimmers’ white arms jutting
into the chevrons of high society.
She had rolled up her window
and told him to drive on, fast.
Now this act of mercy: four daughters
dragging her to their husbands’ company picnic,
white families on one side and them
on the other, unpacking the same
squeeze bottles of Heinz, the same
waxy beef patties and Salem potato chip bags.
So he was dead for the first time
on Fourth of July—ten years ago
had been harder, waiting for something to happen,
and ten years before that, the girls
like young horses eyeing the track.
Last August she stood alone for hours
in front of the T.V. set
as a crow’s wing moved slowly through
the white streets of government.
That brave swimming
scared her, like Joanna saying
Mother, we’re Afro-Americans now!
What did she know about Africa?
Were there lakes like this one
with a rowboat pushed under the pier ?
Or Thomas’ Great Mississippi
with its sullen silks? (There was
the Nile but the Nile belonged
to God.) Where she came from
was the past, 12 miles into town
where nobody had locked their back door,
and Goodyear hadn’t begun to dream of a park
under the company symbol, a white foot
sprouting two small wings
Lest the wolves loose their whistles
and shopkeepers inquire,
keep moving, though your knees flush
red as two chapped apples,
keep moving, head up,
past the beggar’s cold cup,
past the kiosk’s
trumpet tales of
odyssey and heartbreak-
until, turning a corner, you stand,
by a window of canaries
bright as a thousand
turn toward leather as the trees
blush, scatter a last
few bright, weary wisps across
the great bruised heart of the South.
The spirit cup drifts
down the pond’s moon-sparked highway.
Far laughter, shadows.
Love or poison? Your turn. Drink
to the star-drenched latitudes
Lady Freedom Among Us
Don’t lower your eyes
or stare straight ahead to where
you think you ought to be going
don’t mutter oh no
not another one
get a job fly a kite
go bury a bone
with her oldfashioned sandals
with her leaden skirts
with her stained cheeks and whiskers and
heaped up trinkets
she has risen among us in blunt reproach
she has fitted her hair under a hand-me-down cap
and spruced it up with feathers and stars
slung over her shoulder she bears
the rainbowed layers of charity and murmurs
all of you even the least of you
don’t cross to the other side of the square
don’t think another item to fit on a
consider her drenched gaze her shining brow
she who has brought mercy back into the streets
and will not retire politely to the potter’s field
having assumed the thick skin of this town
its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear
she rests in her weathered plumage
don’t think you can ever forget her
don’t even try
she’s not going to budge
no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is each of us
Just when hope withers, the visa is granted.
The door opens to a street like in the movies,
clean of people, of cats; except it is your street
you are leaving. A visa has been granted,
‘provisionally’-a fretful word.
The windows you have closed behind
you are turning pink, doing what they do
every dawn. Here it’s gray. The door
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase,
the saddest object in the world.
Well, the world’s open. And now through
the windshield the sky begins to blush
as you did when your mother told you
what it took to be a woman in this life.