A sultry dance, a mingling of blood in earthy poetry

San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Reviewed by Alexandra Yurkovsky

American Smooth
By Rita Dove
W.W. NORTON; 143 PAGES; $22.95

"Last but certainly not least, a hug and a wink to all my ballroom dancing friends." So Rita Dove signs off on "American Smooth," her first poetry collection in five years.
Appropriately, the title names a dance, but it also functions as a metaphor that loosely unifies the five sections of this multifaceted volume. After presenting dictionary definitions of "American" and "smooth," Dove herself defines "American Smooth" as a traditionally derived dance 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." And thus permitting Dove to sashay from topic to topic: the Garden of Eden, a 10-year-old girl in Harlem, herself writing at "her" desks in five cities and three countries and more. The poems dance through and with the world, giving it a new spin.

For Dove, the dance begins in the Garden of Eden. "All Souls,' " the first poem of the "Fox Trot Fridays" section, recounts our banishment from paradise. In Dove's version, a sense of time, and therefore change, is the essence of forbidden knowledge.  "Of course the world had changed / for good. As it would from now on / every day, ... / Now that change was de rigueur, / man would discover desire, then yearn / for what he would learn to call / distraction. This was the true loss."

The nature of this loss is then elaborated from Eve's view, with the insistence that  "there was no voice in her head, /... – just an ache that grew / until she knew she'd already lost everything / except desire, the red heft of it / warming her outstretched palm."

"Fox Trot Fridays" appears to make a quantum leap into the world of "Nat King Cole's / slow satin smile," but the image of "one man and / one woman, / rib to rib," connects it with Eden. At this point, Dove's universe expands and diffuses, as the poems begin roaming at large through time and space.

"Not Welcome Here," a sequence written from the perspective of African American soldiers who fought during World War I, resembles Langston Hughes' colloquial monologues, with their perceptive vocal inflections and slightly breezy tone. The rest of the poems are mostly personal lyrics that bloom into lush paeans to nature and family, or incorporate commentary on race and interpersonal relations.

Whether written in free verse or according to a formal pattern, Dove's poetry is highly musical, often reveling in sensual yet sense-appropriate rhymes. At times her work seems deficient in depth to match its epic breadth. The poems tend to skim the surface, rather than delve. But this is partly a question of temperament, and they also indicate that Dove has achieved profound maturity and contentment.

Alexandra Yurkovsky is a Berkeley poet and teacher.