Rita Dove's most recent book, American Smooth, takes its title from a style of ballroom dancing where the partners are free to release each other from time to time and improvise. We might conclude that the dancers are lovers, but often these poems cunningly involve a different kind of freedom to separate, while remaining together, and a different kind of couple: poet and reader.
Does my idea seem too fancy? Well, dear Reader, consider this deft, memorable poem:
Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less
I'm not the kind of person who praises
openly, or for profit; I'm not the kind
who will steal a scene unless
I've designed it. I'm not a kind at all,
in fact: I'm itchy and pug-willed,
gnarled and wrong-headed,
never amorous but possessing
a wild, thatched soul.
Each night I set my boats to sea
and leave them to their bawdy business.
Whether they drift off
or dock in the morning
scuffed and chastened --
is simply how it is, and I gather them in.
You are mine, I say to the twice-dunked cruller
before I eat it. Then I sing
to the bright-beaked bird outside,
then to the manicured spider
between window and screen;
then I will stop, and forget the singing.
(See? I have already forgotten you.)
See? To whom do you suppose the semi-ironic last line is addressed? To you (and me).
The characteristic gesture of this book is a smooth meditation on bodily experience: thinking about the senses and their world, with the intellectual effort flowing rather than labored. In American Smooth, dance, that flirtatious and stylized play of body and soul, is both figurative and literal. Not that there is never an actual dance or a love partner, but that the poems are about a kind of self-hood: informal, capricious, reflective, ornery, improvisatory -- that is, American.
Reverie in Open Air
I acknowledge my status as a stranger:
Inappropriate clothes, odd habits
Out of sync with wasp and wren.
I admit I don't know how
To sit still or move without purpose.
I prefer books to moonlight, statuary to trees.
But this lawn has been leveled for looking,
So I kick off my sandals and walk its cool green.
Who claims we're mere muscle and fluids?
My feet are the primitives here.
As for the rest -- ah, the air now
Is a tonic of absence, bearing nothing
But news of a breeze.
The insouciant, engaged mind and its feet go where they will, Whitman-style, not mistaking themselves for "natural" on the one hand or purely intellectual on the other -- and the reader is invited to follow the steps. (These poems are from Rita Dove's book "American Smooth." Norton. Copyright © 2004 by Rita Dove.)