Showing posts with label Rita Dove. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rita Dove. Show all posts

Monday, April 9, 2012

“Insomnia Etiquette” by Rita Dove. - Slate Magazine

“Insomnia Etiquette" by Rita Dove

 I know a little something about watching silly old movies late at night while making my through a half dozen sloppily made drinks; there is that smug satisfaction, that blurry clinging to a vague present tense that informs you that only this minute matters, that this giving into cravings, impulses and desires matters that the ridiculous black and white dramas on the television actually account for something you must pay attention to blasted though you may be.

 I am not saying that Rita Dove's protagonist in her poem "Insomnia Etiquette" has a drinking problem like the one that nearly put me under. Still, the good poet does get that feeling of what it's like to be in the middle of a numbed out mood, dealing with a series of bad days or years or taking the pause before coming to terms with some life complications that will be there in the morning when the fog has lifted, and the headache begins. I am saying that Rita Dove knows something about how  I've felt and at times recall too vividly when the memory works overtime.

Dove has a wonderful way of chipping away at the verbal excess that other poets might be tempted to smother a theme with and thereby kill the idea with a chronic reworking of cliches and tropes about drinking and heroic isolation; rather her language is spare, but not spinal, such as Charles Bukowski's tends to be. She lets the mood thrive, as it were, to define the character's fluid movement, enjoying the very fact that they are in a liquid orbit, temporarily liberated from gravity and regret. Everything else in her life is a series of emotions, confrontations, and decisions that Come Later.

 And I am thrilled that the poem is brief, with this lyric of half-verbalized contemplation refusing to devolve into a wallow or try to make something more of itself by transforming into an absurdly overwrought rant against unfair chances and bad choices. Our hero is behind enemy lines, inside the experience, aware of what comes after the escape into numbness. It is mock-heroic. One raises a glass to their waning awareness of their own absurdity and then returns to the mood's muddled center.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Rita Dove's Rage Against Complacency

Context is indispensable in literary interpretation, but not every poem written requires the digging in order to grasp the larger things a poet is getting at. Rita Dove's poem "Blues in Half Tones, 3/4 Time"is a good example of this. The context is from the black experience, but she doesn't depend on every reader's knowledge of black history and it's struggle for civil rights in order for them to comprehend and respond to her more generalized theme: nay-saying and apathy are killers of the soul and ambition. Her particulars happen to be black, elements with which she creates art, but the poem is written skillfully enough for readers of different cultural origins to relate to her themes and understated assertions. Meaning, as such , is not locked up in an identity-specific criteria.

Dove sounds like she's talking about equivocation here, in the voice of someone responding to another's remarks or complaints about the wrongs that exist in life, both on the personal and global levels. The responding voice admits the unfairness of the wrongs that have been done, but offers a solution that equals the that one may as well make the best with the imperfect situation they're in.

From nothing comes nothing,
don't you know that by now?
Not a thing for you, sweet thing,
not a wing nor a prayer,
though you got half
by birthright,
itching under the skin.

Much of the troubles seem to be automatic, by the color of skin and the blood that courses through the veins; a hard fate one is born into and which one must accept as inevitable and unchangeable; only then can real decisions be made and real actions be taken to find or create some happiness.

The speaker seems a chronic, make-no-waves
placater, someone who would be considered a realist by some because of a refusal to be absorbed by the illusion and ideology of false hope (and who will not foster in others), and a defeatist by others who accepts what few comforts he or she has under the economic and political heel of a white majority. It's a voice, a constant voice in neighborly patois that encourages conformity, a studied complacency, a kind of defeatist small talk that has the unexamined sway of religious belief. There is no hope, no empowering on this earth:

I'm not for sale because I'm free.
(So they say. They say
the play's the thing, too,
but we know that don't play.)
Everyone's a ticket
or a stub, so it might as well
cost you, my dear.

It's the thinking that has it that no one gets out of this life alive, and that no one is exempt from the
dictated stations and pains of the class one is born into. There is no heaven on earth, and salvation and reward awaits in someplace other than this existence. This is the classic "slave morality" Nietzsche railed against in his tracts and rants against formalized Christianity . Dove, of course, brings this to street level, to a conversation had in market, over a backyard fence, over cigarettes and beers on the porch.It's an insidious device that keeps the powerless without means not by great machinations of determinedly evil powers (though there was and is great evil in the world)but because the victims themselves have adapted to their circumstances and made their powerlessness a virtue, a moral imperative.

Dove's poem is skillfully rendered sketch of a kind of flawed thinking that is as deep in its mal-forming tendencies as any real disease. But it's not just on the epic scale that the chatter concerns itself with. Even the smallest matters, such as finding what I take to be a wallet or purse at the end, are seen as evidence of hubris, and an invitation to the wrath of moronic, piggish gods:

But are you sure you lost it?
Did you check the back seat?
What a bitch. Gee, that sucks.
Well, you know what they say.
What's gone's gone.
No use crying.
(There's a moral somewhere.)
A self-preserving relativism transformed into a laziness that is so uncommitted to chancing anything original or self assertive that the speaker cannot (or will not) even dare to attach a cliche moral to an already hackneyed reaction to another's incidental misfortune. You understand clearly why it is a young person, writer or otherwise, would want to leave the neighborhood and all it's nay-saying constraints at the earliest opportunity.

There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same. --Norman Mailer

Rita Dove doubtlessly concurs with Mailer on this point, whatever their differences on other matters might be. A fine, delicately attack on the conformist mentality