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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass

Sunday, January 23, 2000; Page X12

Many thanks to Rita Dove, Book World's new poetry columnist, for her kind words about me in this space last week. I have returned this week to give her a welcome of my own before signing off. When she was a young poet living in Europe, she wrote several poems about women saints. They are to be found in her second book, Museum (Carnegie-Mellon Univ.):

Catherine of Sienna

You walked the length of Italy

to find someone to talk to.

You struck the boulder at the roadside

since fate has doors everywhere.

Under the star-washed dome

of heaven, warm and dark

as the woolens stacked on cedar

shelves back home in your

father's shop, you prayed

until tears streaked the sky.

No one stumbled across your path.

No one unpried your fists as you slept.

I thought of this poem -- and the figure of a woman with a fierce inner life -- when I read a poem from most recent book, On the Bus With Rosa Parks (Norton) last year. Here it is:

Rosa

Now 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. That courtesy.

This stunning small poem does so much to capture the spirit of the time and of great-souled Rosa Parks in a few words. It made me think about the Catherine of Siena poem because of the connection between the saint and the quiet revolutionary. They are both very determined spirits. It also made me think how much Rita Dove's poems are about the right to a vivid inner life. One of her most moving poems on this subject comes from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon Univ.), a sequence of narrative poems about an ordinary and remarkable African-American family. Beulah, in this poem, is neither saint nor activist, but a woman in a life full of the demands of nurturing, trying to hold onto some corner of herself that belongs to her.

Daystar

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.

She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared

pouting from the top of the stairs.

And just what was mother doing

out back with the field mice? Why,

building a palace. Later

that night when Thomas rolled over and

lurched into her, she would open her eyes

and think of the place that was hers

for an hour -- where

she was nothing,

pure nothing, in the middle of the day.

It's a space we all require -- people with a religious passion, people caught in the turmoil of social change or in the steady drizzle of a daily life, young people trying to carve out for themselves the space to become artists, as Rita Dove did years ago brooding over the lives of saints.

This is my last appearance in this space. As Rita Dove suggested last week, I'm going to try to give myself more time for the work of making poems. I've been doing this column weekly for four years and I will probably miss it. I know I will miss the responses of readers, and this is a chance to express my gratitude. The letters, suggesting topics or poets, offering alternative interpretations, correcting my not-always secure hold on the facts, telling stories that the poems each week stirred up, offering poems and translations in response to the ones printed here, have brightened my days. I'm leaving you in good hands. Rita Dove is not only a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a novelist and a playwright and a former Poet Laureate, she's what the poet Wallace Stevens said modern life requires: a figure of capable imagination.

As my granddaughter has taken to saying: "So long. Have a good thousand years."

(Catherine of Siena" is from "Museum," by Rita Dove, published by Carnegie-Mellon Univ., paperback, 1997; "Rosa" is from "On the Bus With Rosa Parks," by Rita Dove, published by Norton, 1999; "Daystar" is from "Thomas and Beulah," by Rita Dove, published by Carnegie-Mellon Univ., 1987.)

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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