Almost three centuries ago, in his youthful “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope perceptively observed: “True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, / As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.” He here supplements the traditional comparisons—which he certainly also knew well—between the sister arts of poetry and painting, and between poetry and music, and he then goes on to praise the “nameless Grace . . . beyond the reach of art” that constitutes the highest achievement in all aesthetic activity. The best practitioners make the difficult look easy, the deviant look normal. Everyone learns to walk and talk; dancers walk, and poets talk, better than the rest of us.
So how come there aren’t more dancing poets? The title of Rita Dove’s new volume promises a little more than the contents deliver, but one should be grateful for what lies within. Her earlier Grace Notes (1989) showed Dove’s interest in those delicacies of thought, feeling, and expression that decoration adds to artistic enterprises. American Smooth continues its author’s commitment to integrating the ornamental, the nominally “superfluous,” into the weight of serious subject matter. As a kind of epigraph, she quotes two definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (of “American” and “smooth”), before producing her own titular definition: “American Smooth” is “a form of ballroom dancing derived from the traditional Standard dances (e.g., Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango), in which the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression.” Dove is taking (understandable) liberties here, but that’s what a creative artist does. As anyone knows who has been put through his or her paces in ballroom instruction, there’s only minimal room for improvisation in the waltz and fox-trot, but as with sonnet writing, strict limits sometimes make for innovative, liberating gestures. Dove’s take on dancing has consequences for, and parallels in, her poetry.
Plenty of poets have been Sunday painters or even serious ones. Many poets have had experience with music, as composers, librettists, or talented amateur performers. And there have been still more poets who have enjoyed looking at pictures and listening to music. But dance is of the body, and it’s hard to think of many poets comfortable enough in their own bodies to sway them to music or even to watch others in action. A dancing poet is rarer these days than a dancing bear. Poets, like Pope above, have traditionally found dance useful as a metaphor if not a practice. Shakespeare’s Florizel (in The Winter’s Tale) courts Perdita in rhythms that approximate his subject: “When you do dance, I wish you / A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do / Nothing but that, move still, still, so, / And own no other particular.” And T. S. Eliot, whom it is difficult to imagine cutting a rug, alludes to dance throughout Four Quartets as a symbol of grace, harmony, and integrity, reminding us (in “The Dry Salvages”) of the oneness born of participation in a nonsemantic art: “you are the music / While the music lasts.” More recently, in first-person reminiscences, we have the late Donald Justice’s poignant “Dance Lessons of the Thirties,” a recollection of the “little lost Bohemias of the suburbs” and those “brave ladies” who taught him the fox-trot in the makeshift dance studio of their living room. And then, of course, every poetry teacher’s favorite dance poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” which uses an iambic trimeter line to hammer out Theodore Roethke’s memory of his father’s drunken lurchings.
At last, in twirls Rita Dove, who actually dances as well as thinks about dancing. Any reader of this volume who happens also to be a dancer (as I am) will suffer some disappointment at not finding more dancing in the poems. The volume seems to be a loose collection, a miscellany in five parts. Only nine poems concern dancing, although music figures in many others. One entire section, called “Not Welcome Here,” deals, through the first-person recollections of men in action, with the 369th Regiment of African-American soldiers (specifically the musicians in the regiment) who fought in World War I. Another, “Twelve Chairs,” is a series of inscriptions carved on the backs of chairs in the federal courthouse in Sacramento. Most of the other poems are first-person lyrics, although real and literary characters (Hattie McDaniel and Salome) also appear. It is the reader’s job to find a thread that weaves the whole into something greater than a random assemblage. And, it turns out, one exists: the book’s leitmotif is the way all identity (personal, cultural, historical) depends on the relationship between received forms and personal improvisation, between command, expectation, and historical pressure (in the case of the black soldiers) and response, performance, and outcome. And, as a corollary, the way any artist (a poet, a dancer, even a soldier) must train him- or herself to make the difficult look easy. Perhaps Horace was right when he said that poets are born, not made, and perhaps there are born dancers. Most of us, however, train ourselves and get put through our paces—in the schoolroom at our desks, or on the dance floor—in order to accomplish insouciant feats without sweating. The nonchalance of Byron (“I am like a Tiger: if I miss the first spring, I go growling back to my Jungle again, but if I do hit, it is crushing”) and Nijinsky (“I merely leap and pause”) is what everyone aspires to but few, if any, ever achieve.
In Dove’s case, it was a specific hardship that led to her current dancing obsession and to the subsequent use of dance in her writing. In 1998 her house was struck by lightning and entire collections of art, manuscripts, files, and photos were lost. A while later, some neighbors insisted on taking the poet and her husband, Fred Viebahn, out dancing. They got hooked. American Smooth records the results of countless hours—and money—spent and lessons taken. “Fox Trot Fridays” was the first poem to come from the experience. Is it coincidental that the fox-trot is the first, the basic dance that a person, or a couple, must learn before moving to more complicated patterns? Or that it is the quintessential smooth American dance? Probably not. In seventeen lines (eight couplets and a single concluding line—a technique Dove has always liked and perhaps inherited from Robert Penn Warren, who used it extensively) and only two sentences, the lyric starts in gratitude (“Thank the stars there’s a day / each week to tuck in // the grief, lift your pearls, and / stride brush stride // quick-quick with a / heel-ball-toe.”). The fox-trot—”smooth” and “easy”—joins the couple “rib to rib,” as though Adam and Eve have been reunited under the mellow tones of Nat King Cole and are returned to Eden, “with no heartbreak in sight—”
- just the sweep of Paradise
- and the space of a song
- to count all the wonders in it.
This first dance poem in the book led me to ask two questions—one specific, the other general—about writing about dance and about assembling a volume of poems. The first was about rhythm: How does a poet replicate the distinctive measure of a specific dance? Roethke famously used iambic trimeter, faithful to the “threeness” of the waltz, even though a dactylic foot, with its heavier first beat and two lighter subsequent ones, would more appropriately mimic the rise and fall of the waltz than an iambic line. Dove nowhere replicates an actual dance rhythm, but she often comes close. Here she tries for an analogy to the fox-trot’s “slow-slow-quick-quick” or “slow-quick-quick-slow” timing in short lines that open and sweep along with the breeziness of ordinary speech, in the preponderance of monosyllabic words (the first of only five two-syllable words doesn’t appear until line 8, and “Paradise,” the poem’s longest word, comes, appropriately, near the end), and in the delicate assonantal rhymes (“stride,” “stride,” “smile,” “time,” “sight,” “Paradise”) that keep things moving. Other poems follow similar analogical patterns. In “Bolero,” for example, Dove uses a three-line stanza in which the first, long line precedes two shorter ones, in the same way that the first long, dramatic sweep of this slow, sexy dance readies a dancing couple for the two collecting steps that follow. “Rhumba,” one of the book’s longest poems, doesn’t so much mimic the rhythm of the slow-quick-quick-slow, basic Latin dance as remind us visually of a pair of dancers. The poem combines two separate voices, two typefaces; we must read, hear, and see it in the same way we would register a couple on the dance floor as a whole greater than the sum of the two respective parts.
The poem begins this way:
Wait.Here comesAt his touchthe music:(just under the tricep)lean back, look at me—lock your knees,the straighter your legslook, straight upthe easier to fall,into him, his hand strokingto descendyour cheek … .lightly.
And so on, through to the end. The first speaker (flush left) is the woman speaking to herself in the second person; the second speaker (flush right: even the typography separates and joins) is the man, and the poem ends with her feeling the audience’s gratitude and his feeling or taking total possession of her:
stay on your toes nowlean into me,define the length of him …that’s right . . .the audienceforget themthe audienceyour bodyshudderingall mineinto applausenow
We realize—if we haven’t yet registered the fact—the poem’s multiple identities. We have here two monologues that may be thought of as simultaneous or as provocation-and-response, an antiphonal back-and-forth. And we also have the merging of the two voices, just like the merging of two bodies moving as one, in those lines that ask to be heard either as separate or overlapping: “the audience shuddering . . . your body shuddering,” “shuddering into applause,” “into applause now.” As separate, or overlapping, or both: the wonderful thing about this double-column writing is that it shows how Dove has refused a too easy rhythmic accompaniment or setting for her dance poems. Instead, she has substituted something at once easier to see and harder to hear, which forces the reader to perform his job with a graceful, daring combination of effort and attentiveness, of actively leading and passively submitting to another’s lead. The reader must turn himself into both halves of the dancing couple.
“Fox Trot Fridays” provoked a different question as well, one that applies to virtually all volumes of poetry published in the United States within the past fifty years: to what extent can or should we attempt to consider a book as a self-contained work with its own internal logic, themes, and music, and to what extent as a group of discrete poems brought under cover by a combination of convenience and necessity? A poet has a certain number of poems, written over a period of five or six years; a publisher requests a book, and the poet willingly complies. Does a reader derive more satisfaction from a whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts, however lovely the single lyrics may be? Louise Glück has set the standard for books that cohere. The Wild Iris, especially, however it developed over time in the poet’s head, impresses us in part by the ongoing nature of the monologues, the addresses, and the growing conversation between the poet-gardener, the individual flowers in her yard, and the God who supervises and looks down upon all of His creations. Dove’s own Pulitzer-winning Thomas and Beulah told a family story in two parts and had a purposeful design. Does American Smooth?
Not overtly. Just as Dove’s individual dance poems tacitly make us listen for a verbal music appropriate to the music of the ballroom, so all of the poems require us to make sense of their relation to one another. Dancing is only one of her subjects. “Twelve Chairs” are the epigrammatic responses—some of them unpunctuated, some of them gnomic—of people required to sit in judgment. The World War I section works from history books and the diaries of a veteran named Orval Peyton, whom Dove met in 1987. What, if anything, brings them together?
“Fox Trot Fridays” begins at the end of the workweek (“My Papa’s Waltz” is also, almost certainly, a Friday night poem, unless Roethke’s father had a six-day workweek) and ends with a return to Paradise. The dancing couple in “Rhumba,” like any male/female partnership, could be troped as a version—however fallen—of Adam and Eve. Paradise turns out to be one of the several motifs linking individual poems throughout the book. Grace Notes took the embellishments suggested in the title and asked us to consider them as more than random, irrational, insignificant frills and garnishes. Instead, they became instruments of grace, redeeming their makers and users in the same way that art reaches for the grace beyond it. So it came clear to me only after reading “Fox Trot Fridays” why the book begins with two seemingly unrelated poems, “All Souls” and “ ‘I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land.’” The first recounts the Fall, without ever naming our first parents, and the changes that attended their leaving our earliest and only ideal home. With excellence and concord behind them,
- they hunkered down to business,
- filling the world with sighs—
- these anonymous, pompous creatures,
- heads tilted as if straining
- to make out the words to a song
- played long ago, in a foreign land.
What does the female partner in a dancing couple do if not tilt her head and try to reachieve the actual and symbolic harmonies lost long ago? Dancing is a momentary attempt to regain Eden, Eve and Adam rejoining at the hip he once lost. The second poem goes back in the story by a page or two: now we have Eve still in the Garden, apart from Adam and discovering the tree and its “speechless bounty.” Just noticing the temptation is equivalent to succumbing to “the red heft of [the fruit] / warming her outstretched palm.” The trope is here paradoxically inverted: an invitation to the dance, a hand extended to lead a partner out onto the floor, consolingly repeats that earlier, more catastrophic invitation to step down and into the world. (And consider how Milton famously made use of hands, united, dropped, and reunited at his epic’s end, in Paradise Lost.) The temporary delight of the dance momentarily allows us to regain the blissful seat we left behind. Some invitations are issued out of malice, others out of the promise of redemption. Dancing uplifts the soul as well as the body.
American Smooth begins with the Fall. It ends with something like a rising. In other words, the volume mimics in more ways than one the rise and fall of all smooth dances. The title poem recounts Dove’s delighted recognition that for a moment in some fox-trot or waltz she and her partner had “achieved flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence, / before the earth / remembered who we were / and brought us down.” In addition, the entire last section of random lyrics (entitled “Evening Primrose”) is held together by a common strand, namely, the idea of surprise. Or of not belonging and then finding a place. Or of things lost and returned, of destruction and re-creation. “Reverie in Open Air” begins, “I acknowledge my status as a stranger”; “Sic Itur Ad Astra” (the title is Virgil’s “this way to the stars”) deals with a dream of rising to the stars in sleep; a child speaker in one poem eagerly awaits growing up, and an adult, in another, wants to rest in her mother’s lap as she did when she was a child. “Desk Dreams” revisits various places in Dove’s past, each with its own writing desk, the last of which was the one in Charlottesville that now stands like “honey in the ashes.”
The penultimate poem argues “Against Flight,” but the last one, “Looking Up from the Page, I Am Reminded of This Mortal Coil,” signals a release, an acceptance, a confirmation of the ordinary life from which the speaker chooses not to shuffle off. Unsure whether what she sees from her window is “daybreak / or the end,” the poet comes to her senses by asking, and then implicitly answering, the questions that have occupied her attention throughout the volume: “What good is the brain without traveling shoes? / We put our thoughts out there on the cosmos express / and they hurtle on, tired and frightened, / bundled up in their worrisome / shawls and gloves.” Like Elizabeth Bishop, in the great title poem of Questions of Travel, inquiring whether we should have stayed at home, “wherever that may be,” Dove wonders about those twinned impulses: motion and stasis. She also seems to be taking a last look at the earlier poems in this volume. We hear a reminder of the military band of her African-American World War I troop when she feels she is ignoring “the body’s marching orders”; all kinds of movement (dancing as well as walking) are implicit in the “traveling shoes” above. The Eden of the book’s first poems is replaced at the end by the dawn of a new day, with avian musicians: “The blaze freshens, / five or six miniature birds / strike up the band.” Dove introduces art into her last poem only to naturalize it. As she awakes to an ordinary daybreak, she returns from the theater of the mind—and from all artistic efforts that stretch us towards grace—to a simple, quiet life:
- … no more strobe and pink gels
- from the heavenly paint shop: just
- house lights, play’s over, time to gather your things and go home.
Going “home” means returning to the life of a professor-poet in a rebuilt house, of hearing birds instead of human musicians “strike up the band,” and it also means accepting both the allure and the inevitable disappointments of all heavenly aspirations.