Indigo Kalliope — Poems From The Left
Kalliope means "beautiful voice" from Greek καλλος (kallos) "beauty" and οψ (ops) "voice". In Greek mythology she was a goddess of epic poetry and eloquence, one of the nine Muses.
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The title On the Bus with Rosa Parks comes from a moment in 1995 when Rita Dove and her daughter, Aviva, boarded a bus during a convention held in Virginia. Aviva leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Hey we’re on the bus with Rosa Parks,” a phrase that haunted Dove and became a “meditation on history and the individual.”
Rita Dove, a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning author, published the results of that meditation, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, in 1999. The three poems here are from her book.
On the Bus with Rosa Parks
All history is a negotiation between familiarity and strangeness.
—Simon Schama, British Historian
Before Rosa Parks, there were others who had been arrested. One was 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who was arrested when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on March 2, 1955. She said: “It’s my constitutional right to sit here.” She was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery's segregated bus system was unconstitutional. She later worked as a nurse’s aide.
Claudette Colvin Goes to Work
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case.... This must be stopped.
—BOYCOTT FLIER, DECEMBER 5, 1955
Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance—lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I'm beat, bring me a beer.
Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light–one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it's dark enough for my body to disappear;
then I know it's time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: "Hey Mama" souring quickly to
"Your Mama" when there's no answer-as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason
you’re here at all, walking your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy —
What do we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid; my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.
I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t care or spit
or kick and scratch like they say I did then.
I help those who can’t help themselves, I do what needs to be done. . . and I sleep
whenever sleep comes down on me.
How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.
That trim name with
its dream of a bench to rest on.
Her sensible coat.
Doing nothing was the doing.
The clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.
How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve her purse.
In the Lobby of the Warner Theatre,
They'd positioned her-two attendants flanking the wheelchair
at the foot of the golden escalator, just right
of the movie director who had cajoled her to come.
Elegant in a high-strung way, a-twitch in his tux,
he shoved half spectacles up the nonexistent
bridge of his nose. Not that he was using her
to push his film, but it was only right (wasn't it?)
that she be wherever history was being made – after all,
she was the true inspiration, she was living history.
The audience descended in a cavalcade of murmuring
sequins. She waited. She knew how to abide,
to sit in cool contemplation of the expected.
She had learned to travel a crowd
bearing a smile we weren't sure we could bear
to receive, it was so calm a suturing.
scrolling earthward, buffed bronze
in the reflected glow, we couldn't wait but leaned out
to catch a glimpse, and saw
that the smile was not practiced at all -
real delight bloomed there. She was curious;
she suffered our approach (the gush and coo,
the babbling, the director bending down
to meet the camera flash)
until someone tried to touch her,
and then the attendants
pushed us back, gently. She nodded,
lifted a hand as if to console us
before letting it drop, slowly, to her lap.
Resting there. The idea of consolation
soothing us: her gesture
already become her touch,
like the history she made for us sitting there,
waiting for the moment to take her.
Rita Dove has often done readings of her work, and made many recordings. For thousands of kids in public schools, these readings or recordings have been their first exposure to contemporary American poetry.
Among many other honors, Rita Dove received the NAACP Great American Artist Award for her artistic achievements as a black writer. Her work, however, is so expansive that any label will cover only a small part of it. As you can see, looking over the listings here.
Sources and Further Reading:
Ten Poems (chapbook), Penumbra Press (Lisbon, IA), 1977.
The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (chapbook), Porch Publications (Phoenix, AZ), 1980.
The Yellow House on the Corner, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.
Mandolin (chapbook), Ohio Review (Athens, OH), 1982.
Museum, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1983.
Thomas and Beulah, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1986.
The Other Side of the House, photographs by Tamarra Kaida, Pyracantha Press (Tempe, AZ), 1988.
Grace Notes, Norton (New York, NY), 1989.
Selected Poems, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
Lady Freedom among Us, Janus Press (Burke, VT), 1993.
Mother Love: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
Evening Primrose (chapbook), Tunheim-Santrizos (Minneapolis, MN), 1998.
On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
American Smooth, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Sonata Mulattica: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 2009.
Fifth Sunday (short stories), University of Kentucky Press (Lexington, KY), 1985, 2nd edition, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
Through the Ivory Gate (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1992.
The Darker Face of the Earth: A Play (first produced at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1996; produced at Kennedy Center, 1997; produced in London, England, 1999), Story Line Press (Brownsville, OR), 1994, 3rd revised edition, 2000.
- (Author of foreword) Multicultural Voices: Literature from the United States, Scott Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1995.
The Poet’s World (essays), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.
- (Editor) The Best American Poetry 2000, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
Conversations with Rita Dove, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.
- (Editor) The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, Penguin (New York, NY), 2011.
Author of Lyrics
The House Slave, music by Alvin Singleton, first presented at Spelman College, 1990.
- (With Linda Pastan) Under the Resurrection Palm, music by David Liptak, first presented by Eastman American Music series, 1993.
Umoja: Each One of Us Counts, music by Alvin Singleton, first presented in Atlanta, GA, 1996.
Singin’ Sepia, music by Tania Leon (first presented in New York, NY), Continuum International Publishing (New York, NY), 1996.
Grace Notes, music by Bruce Adolphe, first presented in New York, NY, 1997.
The Pleasure’s in Walking Through, music by Walter Ross, first presented in Charlottesville, VA, 1998.
Seven for Luck, music by John Williams, first presented in Tanglewood, MA, 1998.
Song for the Twentieth Century, music by John Williams, first presented in Washington, DC, as part of Stephen Spielberg’s film The Unfinished Journey, 1999.
Thomas and Beulah, music by Amnon Wolman, first presented in Chicago, IL, 2001.
Work represented in newspapers and anthologies: Author of weekly column “Poet’s Choice,” in Washington Post Book World,2000-02. Contributor of poems, stories, and essays to magazines, including Agni Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Nation, New Yorker, and Poetry. Member of editorial board, National Forum, 1984-89, Isis,andPloughshares; associate editor, Callaloo, 1986-98; advisory editor, Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Callaloo, Georgia Review, Bellingham Review, International Quarterly, and Mid-American Review.
Arizona State University, Tempe, assistant professor, 1981-84, associate professor, 1984-87, professor of English, 1987-89; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, professor of English, 1989-93, Commonwealth Professor of English, 1993—. Writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute, 1982. National Endowment for the Arts, member of literature panel, 1984-86, chair of poetry grants panel, 1985. Commissioner, Schomburg Center for the Preservation of Black Culture, New York Public Library, 1987—; judge, Walt Whitman Award, Academy of American Poets, 1990, Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1991 and 1997, juror of Ruth Lilly Prize, 1991, National Book Award (poetry), 1991 and 1998, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, 1992—; jury member, Amy Lowell fellowship, 1997, and Shelley Memorial Award, 1997. Library of Congress Poet Laureate consultant in poetry, 1993-95, Library of Congress Bicentennial year special consultant in poetry, 1999-2000, member of board of student achievement services, 2002—. Member, Afro-American studies visiting committee, Harvard University, and Council of Scholars, Library of Congress, 2002—. Has made numerous appearances on radio and television, including Today Show, Charlie Rose Show, Bill Moyers’ Journal, A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
All of the information listed above is from the Poetry Foundation entry on Rita Dove.
- The Poetry Foundation — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/rita-dove
- Biography — http://www.biography.com/people/rita-dove-9278390
- Academy of American Poets — www.poets.org/...
- University of Virginia — http://people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/compbio.html
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