Poetry and dance are cognate arts. Dance is often referred to as “poetry in motion,” and the play of words across the page known as poetry is, as Kansas-born poet William Stafford called it, “a series of moves like dancing.”
It isn't surprising, then, that a singular magic occurs when Rita Dove blends the two art forms in her latest poetry collection, American Smooth.
Dove, who this July was named poet laureate of Virginia, is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Along with her husband, German novelist Fred Viebahn, she's also a ballroom-dance enthusiast whom one interviewer has described as “a brilliant dancer, a showstopper.”
In this eighth book of poems — her first in five years — Dove assembles diverse subjects under the thematically broad title “American Smooth.” That, by Dove's definition, is a ballroom dance derived from traditional forms in which “the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression.”
Within the book's five sections, poems swing from topic to topic. One dramatizes the plight of an African-American soldier in World War I:
Another shares a sensuous, Sappho-like swoon over a square of chocolate:
Yet another contemplates Eve's banishment from the Garden of Eden:
It's Dove's dance poems, however, that steal the show. In well-executed turns of phrase and line, carefully controlled rhythms, and language ranging from graceful to sassy, she recalls the forms and moods of dances such as the rhumba, cha-cha and waltz. Her poem “Bolero” begins this way:
And in “Fox Trot Fridays,” Dove displays the stylistic acumen that has brought her such acclaim:
Ah, yes, Nat King Cole's slow satin smile. What could be more American smooth than that?
Yet, at times, some less-than-smooth poems interrupt the elegant flow of this collection. Sharing the floor with the dance poems, they seem awkwardly out of place. A sequence titled “Twelve Chairs,” for instance, comes across as particularly wooden.
For the most part, though, American Smooth is a bravura performance by an incredibly accomplished poet. Dove's numerous awards include a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, a finely imagined collection of poems based on the lives of her grandparents. She was also the first African-American to be designated poet laureate of the United States — and, at 41 in 1993, when she was sworn in, the youngest person ever to hold the position.
And if all that doesn't impress enough, consider this: The woman can samba.