One of the many responsibilities of the poet (if she has any) is as chronicler of the present and the past. She should also (if she should do anything) work to build, as Frost once said, monuments to the moment. A tall order, I know, but if anyone seems up to it, it's Rita Dove.
In her ninth book of poems, this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate turns her attention again to a story which must be told. In "Sonata Mulattica," Dove examines a moment in history, re-creating it line by line, giving voice to the long forgotten, the otherwise voiceless.
"Sonata Mulattica" is a book-length lyric narrative, or a long story told in poems. It seems that in 1803, young violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower traveled to Vienna to meet the great Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was so taken by this young mulatto man and his talents that he composed a sonata in the violinist's name: the Bridgetower. Things were coming up Polgreen until -- you guessed it -- along came a girl. Had he kept his kisses from this object of Beethoven's desire, Bridgetower may have gone down in history, instead of being swept away with it like the rest of us unremarkable dopes.
This book is substantial (225 pages!) in more than one way. Although Rita Dove is a poet, the universe she creates here is akin to the universe in which the novelist works: Through this collection wanders a large cast of characters (street musicians, court ladies, mad kings), each of whom has a say (however minor) in the progression of the story. (The actual confrontation between Bridgetower and Beethoven takes place in a short play in the middle of the book.) What remains is not only the music of the poems but a collection of characters from whose perspectives we see an early 19th-century England, brutal and beautiful.
Although early on Dove promises to "leave out the boring parts," because of the nature of this collection some of her language falls into prose. However, whatever few lines may fall dead to the ear, she more than makes up for with lines like these:
There can never be enough pleasure.
To deny ourselves the prospect of ravishment
is to be cursed to gnash our pitiable path
through existence, to squeal when fed and bray
when kicked. People, feast upon this
miracle -- such beauty shining
almost weightless above
the net-strewn encampments of the whelk eaters;
this vision a promise from your King-to-be:
proof that each of us bears inside
a ruinous, monumental love.
This is, after all, "a story / about music and what it does to those / who make it, whom it enslaves ..." You're sure to fall victim to the music of this collection. It sings a good song, one you won't easily forget.
Ryan Vine is the author of "Distant Engines," recipient of a 2005 Weldon Kees Award. He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.