Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rita Dove on the Lessons of Lady Freedom

Rita Dove was born in Akron, OH, in 1952 and has many poetry collections, honors, and awards to her credit.  In works like the verse-novel Thomas and Beulah (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Sonata Mulattica (2009), Dove treats historical events with a personal touch, addressing her grandparents’ life and marriage in early 20th-century Ohio, the battles and triumphs of the Civil Rights era, and the forgotten career of black violinist and friend to Beethoven, George Polgreen Bridgetower. Poet Brenda Shaughnessy noted that “Dove is a master at transforming a public or historic element—re-envisioning a spectacle and unearthing the heartfelt, wildly original private thoughts such historic moments always contain.” In 1996 Dove received a National Humanities Medal. She is currently Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The Statue of Freedom is a bronze statue designed by Thomas Crawford (1814–1857) that, since 1863, has crowned the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, January 21,  she would have witnessed the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest protests in U.S. history. In 1993, the statue was removed for repairs and Dove, from her office as U.S. Poet Laureate, got a rare look at Lady Freedom up close. It inspired a poem that addresses “how in our country, and as represented in the District of Columbia, you can see the contrasts abutted right up against one another: poetry and pomp, government and the disenfranchised, lofty ideals and complex reality,” she explains. This statue was “not just Lady Freedom but also the troubling conscience standing on the street corner demanding that we take a look, that we consider each of us as individuals. We should not forget her lessons—even if the dream of America is tarnished or eaten away by corrosion or in need of cleaning and repair, it is not defunct.”

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 tourist's agenda

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
bigboned resolute

don't think you can 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

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