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This month, we are looking at how the juxtaposition of poems in a collection creates meaning by examining pairs of poems from Rita Dove’s 1999 collection, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by examining two poems about books.
The First Book Open it. Go ahead, it won't bite. Well...maybe a little. More a nip, like. A tingle. It's pleasurable, really. You see, it keeps on opening. You may fall in. Sure, it's hard to get started; remember learning to use knife and fork? Dig In: You'll never reach bottom. It's not like it's the end of the world-- just the world as you think you know it.
Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967 For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty to do: Browse the magazines, slip into the Adult Section to see what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic, décolletés, and the plague of too much money. There was so much to discover--how to lay out a road, the language of flowers, and the place of women in the tribe of Moost. There were equations elegant as a French twist, fractal geometry's unwinding maple leaf; I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure of a pineapple Jell-O mold--or take the path of Harold's purple crayon through the bedroom window and onto a lavender spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch the rough curve of bound leather, the harsh parchment of dreams. As for the improbable librarian with her salt and paprika upsweep, her British accent and sweater clip (mom of a kid I knew from school)-- I'd go up to her desk and ask for help on bareback rodeo or binary codes, phonics, Gestalt theory, lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire, the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting; I would claim to be researching pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding, but all I wanted to know was: Tell me what you've read that keeps that half smile afloat above the collar of your impeccable blouse. So I read Gone with the Wind because it was big, and haiku because they were small. I studied history for its rhapsody of dates, lingered over Cubist art for the way it showed all sides of a guitar at once. All the time in the world was there, and sometimes all the world on a single page. As much as I could hold on my plastic card's imprint I took, greedily: six books, six volumes of bliss, the stuff we humans are mad of: words and sighs and silence, ink and whips, Brahma and cosine, corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels-- I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminum siding and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors, someone had scrawled: I CAN EAT AN ELEPHANT IF I TAKE SMALL BITES. Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That's what I'm gonna do!
Response to “The First Book” and “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967”
Reading Poems about Books Together
After I finished reading this collection, I realized that the poems I had marked as favorites all appeared in pairs. This unconscious act presented the perfect opportunity to take a look at how poets arrange their work to enhance its meaning.
And also to remind you to try to find poetry in their original collections, not in random “collected works” volumes!
Readers’ Hack: These collections are expensive and may not stay in print long. A large public library with a good poetry collection is a blessing. If you don’t have that, check larger compendiums of the author’s work and choose those in which the order and layout of the original publications have been preserved.
These two poems appear sequentially near the end of the first major section of the collection, called “Freedom: Bird’s Eye”. The first poem in this section, “Singsong”, appears in an earlier post.
“The First Book”
In “The First Book” the speaker encourages the reader to dare to open that first book. There are two fears to overcome: the fear of understanding the book on a literal level is one. The second is the metaphysical fear of what will happen to a person who dares to step into the unknown.
Using a new tool requires fearlessness. It’s awkward at first, so of course there is the fear of embarrassment. But we also have some innate fear of where that new tool will take us. Once we learn a new skill, we are never the same after that.
The end of the poem sums it all up: “it’s not like it’s the end of the world” (there’s that fear). But also know that reading will also expose your misperceptions, or “the world as you think/ you know it”.
Making Reading an Experience
To bring her point home, Dove packs a powerful punch with short lines, one syllable words, and extensive punctuation convey the nonverbal impact of her ideas.
“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967”
A quick glance at this poem in comparison to the former shows that this speaker has much to say, or many words anyway.
The speaker in this poem is a voracious reader. He or she has dared to “dig in” (see “The First Book”) and indeed, seems destined to never reach bottom.
The thing I particularly enjoy about this poem is that the speaker has dug in to every part of the library, not just the fiction section or even the “age appropriate” section. She (I’m going to call her a she although any gender pronoun would work) is in and out of the adult section, the little kids’ section, and ALL of the nonfiction sections.
I’m smiling as I write this, so the librarian’s “half smile afloat” is no mystery to me.
Making Reading Poems an Experience
In contrast to Dove’s strict economy with words in “The First Book”, this poem about books has all the words. Some that aren’t even in English. The speaker is voracious, and definitely not discerning. She’s like a puppy in the library, if puppies could read. The long, flowing words and use of enjambment heightens the effect to convey the excitement the reader feels.
Also note that the only specific book that Dove, the poet, chooses to name is Gone With the Wind. That’s a book that White Southerners, especially in the mid 20th Century, considered a close second to The Bible, but probably not a book many Black families would want in their homes. Without the library, the speaker, if you assume she’s African American, wouldn’t know about it. Some people might think that’s a good thing, learning about different perspectives is an important part of reading. It’s also an important reason to have access to public libraries, which gives this type of access to all, equally. Or should anyway.
Also note that Dove, an African American, had access to a library in 1967. While Dove has lived in many places, she grew up in the Midwest. In many places, she would not have been allowed into public libraries. At best, African Americans had annexes of their own, but many places didn’t even have that.
The Poems about Books
Taken together, these two poems about books act as bookends: one showing the fear of that first foray into reading. The other poem shows the exuberance with getting past that hesitation and taking in all that books have to offer. It’s easy to see why both of these poems appear in “Freedom: Bird’s Eye”
I would love to see a third poem showing the next phase of reading when the reader stops trying to “reach bottom” (“The First Book”) and instead strives to make the most of each wonderful text.
Also, don’t forget, that putting these two poems in a section entitled “Freedom:Bird’s Eye” tells us how Rita Dove feels about reading.