by Luther Hughes | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, December 3, Rita Dove will read and discuss her work in conversation with Anastacia-Reneé at 7:30 pm PST. Tickets to this and future events can be purchased at the SAL website.
It’s funny. Lately, I’ve been thinking of how poetry can sometimes make me comfortably uncomfortable. What I mean is, there are some books I have read that I became familiar with being uncomfortable while reading. This is not to say that I wanted to put down the book, the poem, or the poet, nor is this to say that the feeling of being uncomfortable was tied to, necessarily, my own inhibitions or some weird notion of disrespect I might’ve somehow gleaned from the work. This is to say that when I come across work that makes me uncomfortable in the best way possible, I am intrigued and astonished by the feeling because the many marginalized identities I hold have historically positioned me in uncomfortable settings and conversations.
Or maybe “uncomfortable” is the wrong word here, but this is how I sometimes felt when reading Rita Dove’s latest collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse, which I found—you guessed it—comfortably uncomfortable. Now, friend, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t find Dove’s tone or content uncomfortable. It was not the trajectory of the book, nor the ways in which she interrogated history, race, and identity. What I found uncomfortable was the longevity in which she addressed these themes. In said length of interrogation, I realized that history sometimes makes me uncomfortable when it is reckoned with by brutal honesty. Or maybe it is more so that when Black history is reckoned with by Black writers for an extended period, I find myself restless, wanting to get out of dodge—wanting, ever so slightly, to remove myself from the recalling and telling.
I have to say, now, that I embarrassingly had not read an ample amount of Dove’s work before I was asked to write about Playlist for the Apocalypse. Over the past couple of weeks, I plunged deep into her work, reading a book a day—sometimes the same book over two days. Am I Doveographer now? No, not at all. I will say that after having spent most of my after-work hours reading and jotting down notes in the margin of her books, that Playlist for the Apocalypse is nothing to be played with; she really put her whole foot in these poems.
From book to book, Dove tends to carry over the following themes: social and political history, personal history, trauma, Blackness and Black history, motherhood, desire and longing, freedom or wanting to escape, mortality, and preservation—all of which fit nicely under the question, “Those years are gone— / What is there now” from the poem, “Upon Meeting Don L. in a Dream,” in her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner.
As I read each of her books, I began seeing the wonderful pattern Dove creates for her readers. She tends to, in different ways, section off personal histories from public history—that is political (politics, laws, historical figures, slavery, war, etc) and social (racism, sexism, art, media, norms, etc.). Sometimes the public history comes first and sometimes it comes last. However, never is a chance missed when Dove includes personal narrative and lyric in which we can then read in conversation with, for example, a poem that profiles a man at a juke joint or persona poems about slaves in transport. With doing this, I come to understand and be reminded that nobody’s life is siloed away from what is happening in the public sphere. And this, of course, rings truer for Black people and more so for Black women. This, too, I am rightfully reminded of when reading Dove’s books. In the book, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, a book I take to be about coming of age, knowledge, and community, she writes, “Women invented misery, but we don’t understand it.” From this, I don’t think the intent is to say, “misery was created by women,” but more so to play with the idea that because of our—the world’s—history of mistreating women, misery happens to women while something else happens to others. This, too, is illustrated in her earlier and Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Thomas and Beulah, a somewhat fictionalized telling of Dove’s grandparents that both celebrates life and meditates on love, death, and loneliness. I turn mostly to Beulah’s story here, who we learn becomes a woman who feels trapped and lonely in her life as a mother and wife. In “Daystar,” Dove writes:
She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.
So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children’s naps.
Sometimes there were things to watch—
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf. Other days
she stared until she was assured
when she closed her eyes
she’d see only her own vivid blood.
And how can I not think of my own mother here, who I am sure tried to sneak away briefly from the throes of motherhood, who, of course, felt lonely or trapped a few times in my upbringing. My thoughts turned to my mother again as I read Dove’s collection Mother Love. The title poem begins:
Who can forget the attitude of mothering?
Toss me a baby and without bothering
to blink I’ll catch her, sling him on a hip.
Any woman knows the remedy for grief
is being needed . . .
The speaker is a little snarky, right? And I love her for that because a mother, I believe, sometimes has to be a little snarky. Or better put, my mother is a little snarky herself, and I think that’s one of the reasons why she’s a good mother. The back-and-forth indentation of the lines highlight the tease and play the speaker has to have about mothering because it becomes obvious throughout the book that mothering is no easy task but can be a fulfilling one. And I believe Dove wholeheartedly.
The way Dove writes her poems, the way she tells these stories, makes me feel like I am at my grandfather’s house sitting on the couch listening to him tell stories that I may or may not recall when I am older, but that stay with me, nonetheless. Dove’s poems preserve history in this way. She has gathered decades of history within a single poem or a collection that acts as a museum for us to revisit over and over again. This brings me back to the line, “The years are gone / What is there now.”
Now there is Playlist for the Apocalypse.
In this “put-her-whole-foot-in-it” collection, Dove chronicles moments across time when people have been killed, challenged, terrorized, pushed up against the wall, and also loved, held, cared for, and desired. I often say that the best thing about poetry is the capability to remind us of what it means to be human and alive—and while I think the poems in this book do this, there is something offhand about the ways in which Dove successfully accomplishes this that makes me uneasy, pleasantly so.
The collection starts off with a prose poem about confinement and then moves into a section about distance and yearning—time passing or having passed, traveling, recollection—which feels like a proper beginning after the apocalyptic announcement of the book’s title. The section title, “Time’s Arrow,” also announces the importance of time, here, and why it’s important to start with it. In the first poem of this section, “Bellringer,” a persona poem in the voice of Henry Martin who was born in slavery and rang the bell at University of Virginia for over fifty years (thank you Notes section), Dove emphasizes how history impacts us over time and how that impact shapes our livelihoods. The poem operates as a “who I am” story in which we are introduced to Henry who says, “I was given a name, it came out of a book— / I don’t know which,” and then goes on to telling us about Henry’s life as a bellringer—listening to lectures, doing his job. The poem ends with time and legacy:
I am the clock’s keeper. I ring in their ears.
And every hour, down in that
shining, blistered republic,
someone will pause to whisper
Henry!—and for a moment
my name flies free.
What I love about this poem is the fact that it’s illustrating the importance of Black people and our histories, and how our histories are what holds and has held America together. The idea that Henry—we—are “the clock’s keeper,” means that it’s us that history is measured by, and it’s us who have agency over history. It’s a bold but beautiful statement. Furthermore, the ending monostich, “my name flies free,” enacts the freedom in this revelation and while the line itself is also “free” from the rest of the poem. Notice, too, the intentional phrase, “flies free,” instead of “have been freed,” which would take me back to slavery. Here, Dove is not attempting to erase slavery, but I think she is attempting to take ownership of that history by giving agency to Henry’s name.
In the section, “After Egypt,”—which comments on the history of the word “Ghetto” as it relates to one’s neighborhood, tying back to the 1500s when Jewish people were forced to move to the “Ghetto of Venice” (c’mon Notes!)—Dove further exemplifies the move to take ownership of our histories. And maybe, this is where my comforting uncomfortableness begins. I begin questioning the ways in which I was taught to look at my history in relation to others, but never taught what it meant to share histories, or even to reckon with how histories are shared amongst people. Is it true, then, that my history does not actually just belong to me? I do not know. The poem, “Aubade: The Constitutional” is a prime example of this interrogation, stating:
why, then, am I unhappy
when all around me
the human pageant whirrs?
This much I can do for my lost,
my sweet and damaged tribe:
Each morning I pace the tattered verge
of their Most Serene Republic,
patrol each canal’s fogged sibilance,
chanting a day unlike all others—
and then I count it, and the next,
God willing, and each day thereafter . . .
I know this poem is about Dove herself walking the street in Venice and trying to make sense of history of the space, but I think the beauty of the poem is how it can embody any place or any time I have walked a place and considered its history and my physical body placed amongst that history. This, too, is what I meant when I said the poems in this collection remind us of how to be alive, but offhandedly. Reading this poem, I realize that, yes, part of being human is this sort of historical and relative reckoning. I believe we cannot successfully be in a place without meditating on what has happened before us and what is happening around us. It, too, is what it means to be a poet, I think—to reckon with the lives of those who have come before us while inhabiting what was once theirs.
This reckoning is really highlighted toward the end this section with poems about the bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church and Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, Missouri, and more—poems that leave me uneasy after a while; I want to stop reading or I am tired of reading about the death of Black people. It’s a feeling I often have when Black people’s deaths are siphoned across media every day. The longevity in which Dove does this, does this reckoning, this recalling, is uncomfortable, but there is such a necessity to this. The history has to be told. Our history must be preserved.
This is a collection about preservation. And maybe that, too, is what makes me uncomfortable; we, as Black people—I, as a Black person—must somehow be preserved because throughout history, people have actively tried to erase me, us. I knew this and then I knew this. This is why the last section, “Little Book of Woe,” basically awes me. Throughout the entire collection, Dove recalls and talks back to history and the current times in which history has made us. In the last section, the overwhelming wave of mortality hits, and the “apocalypse” becomes less about the “end of humanity,” but more so about our personal end—our actual death, or the coming of it. The poems are about Dove’s diagnosis of Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, and they are relatable because of how she has ordered the collection; these final poems re-interrogate the meaning of time and history insomuch that it upends the opening idea of agency and authority and freedom. What does it mean when the end of our time is realized earlier than we had imagined? What is the relationship between freedom and death? What does it mean when our history comes to an end? Who has the authority to say, “Your time is up”?
Just questions, my dear ones, just questions, but when I think longer about those questions and my discomfort, when I re-read Dove’s words over and over, I am reminded that history is something to be cherished; what is comforting about being in discomfort is the ability to reflect on and recollect what has been preserved in our lives. And when doing that, when considering all the lives and histories that have been shared, that have settled themselves inside your body, among your street, within your homes, it does not, I guess, feel like true “discomfort,” but like relief. When the years are fed and gone and we are finally comfortable with our histories, then there is this:
Let the end come
as the best parts of living have come
unsought & undeserved
now that’s a good death
—Rita Dove, “Last Words”
Luther Hughes is the author of the debut poetry collection, A Shiver in the Leaves, forthcoming from BOA Editions in September 2022, and the chapbook Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the founder of Shade Literary Arts, a literary organization for queer writers of color, and co-hosts The Poet Salon podcast with Gabrielle Bates and Dujie Tahat. Recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and 92Y Discovery Poetry Prize. Luther was born and raised in Seattle, where he currently lives.