Playlist for the Apocalypse: Poems
by Rita Dove
(W.W. Norton, 2021, 128 pp., $26.95)
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing’s
like it used to be, not even the future.
—Rita Dove, from “Ö”
Rita Dove revels in contradictions. More than other latter-day Whitmanites, this eclectic poet of African-American history, orchestral music, global cuisine, German literature, and ballroom dancing celebrates the dizzying multitudes implicit within history, race, politics, sex, family, and myth. Whether dismantling perceived differences, or revealing the strangeness of veridical fact, Dove’s work often identifies affinities between people, places, objects, and ideas previously assumed to be irreconcilabe. This career-long project extends to the formal and generic makeup of her poems. From her debut Yellow House on the Corner (1980), to her fourteenth collection Playlist for the Apocalypse (2021), this former US Poet Laureate continues to display a remarkable ease in resolving the major with the minor, the lyric with the narrative, the personal with the public, and the formal with the free.
Recipient of over twenty-five honorary doctorates, the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, and the National Medal of Arts from President Obama, Dove has made such resolutions the focus of several books. These include the Pulitzer-Prize winning Thomas and Beulah (1986), a lyric-narrative sequence that traces the Great Migration through the poet’s maternal grandparents, and Sonata Mulattica (2009), which recovers from obscurity the mixed-race violin prodigy and sometime friend of Beethoven, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, through narrative poems, dramatic monologues, and even a verse play. For some poets, such a union of opposites might prove strained, with one subject or mode dominating over another. But Dove manages a stable amalgamation, profiting from the tensions between story and song in poems at once autobiographical, historical, and political. Her very best poems take advantage of all these modes and more. Dove accomplishes this feat with such a delicate touch that the casual reader might not notice the easy facility with which Dove turns out her lines. I think of the plain-style, free-verse idiom that she consistently employs in much the same way that Robert Pinsky viewed Elizabeth Bishop’s work: “sophisticated but very quiet about its sophistication.”
Playlist for the Apocalypse demonstrates Dove’s erudition and sophistication without flaunting it. In this book largely concerned with the function of the arts during historical crises, the poet also exhibits her genius for redressing conflicting beliefs. Dove opens the book’s “Spring Cricket” section, for example, with two poems that initially appear to cancel each other out: “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude” and “The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude.” Composed in the voice of the eponymous protagonist, both poems form a kind of Hegelian dialectic about African-American oppression and otherness vis-à-vis the evolution of the Blues. In Dove’s characteristically understated style, the first poem establishes the cricket/singer of “tunes” that are “sad— / but sweet, too,” songs that the cricket chirps “all by myself” without knowing “anybody else / who could play along.” Dove compares this prelapsarian solitude to the time before Dutch or Portuguese slave-traders infiltrated the continent, a time when Africans wouldn’t have identified themselves as African. Soon, however, the inevitable expulsion occurs:
Then came the shouts and whistles,
the roundup into jars, a clamber of legs.
Now there were others: tumbled,
clouded. I didn’t know their names.
We were a musical lantern;
children slept to our rasping sighs.
And if now and then one of us
shook free and sang as he climbed
to the brim, he would always
fall again. Which made them laugh
and clap their hands. At least then
we knew what pleased them,
and where the brink was.
Dove slyly sets up the false binary of oppressor/oppressed through her parable in which “they” capture “us”: They have “hands,” which they “clap”; we have “legs,” which we “rasp” and “sigh.” They “shout,” “whistle,” and “laugh” while we “clamber” and sing. But oppressor and oppressed become cultural partners, coconspirators, in the shaping of African-American heritage. By performing for applause, for “what pleased them,” the crickets essentially change their tune. Dove filters notions of “Négritude” developed in the 1930s by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor through the cricket’s “blues,” implying the interdependence of blackness and whiteness. Who are “we” in a world where universal equates to white? Given the dialectical master-slave context that such an us/them relationship involves, the “us” becomes their struggle to be free from “them,” but is never fully able to do so.
The cricket sings in revolt, in resentment, and in fidelity to its comrades united in this fight. Dove’s concern here is with what might be called an aesthetics of oppression. She seems to be channeling Wallace Stevens, for example, with her image of the “musical lantern,” her jar placed in Tennessee, which “took dominion everywhere,” like Jazz. In other words, without the melting pot of Dove’s jar (and without “they”), Ragtime, Spirituals, the Blues, European marches, and West African music would never have melded to create an entirely new genre—one of the only truly American art forms.
Once Dove identifies the “brink” between us and them, however, she complicates it with the second “Spring Cricket” poem by directly addressing a “you” (presumably a white, non-cricket audience). About the “singing” of its tribe, the cricket concludes:
…………..It’s just what we do.
No one bothered to analyze our blues
until everybody involved
was strung out or dead; to solve
everything that was happening
while it was happening
would have taken some serious opium.
Seriously: All wisdom
is afterthought, a sort of helpless relief.
So don’t go thinking none of this grief
belongs to you: Even if
you don’t know how it
feels to fall, you can get my drift;
Rather than indicting the “you,” the poem makes a logical appeal to its audience of non-crickets for sympathy. The poem does so through (mostly) slant-rhymed stanzas that echo, however faintly, the neo-classical heroic couplet; Dove even titles one poem in this section “The Spring Cricket’s Discourse on Critics,” offering an amusing spin on Pope, not to mention the hilarious internal rhyme of “cricket”/ “critic,” two troches which, when repeated, sound remarkably close to the call of a katydid. Similarly, when considering the most evocative rhyme in “The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude” (“opium”/ “wisdom”), one might hear in “opium” the word’s approximate rhyme with “opprobrium,” a sonic corollary that suggests the severity of the self-censure such difficult analysis would’ve required, as well as its human cost.
The price of wisdom, Dove suggests, is suffering; even as the crickets climb, they sing about falling. “Serious opium” no doubt alludes to the widely discussed substance-abuse associated with even the most celebrated Jazz icons: Louis Armstrong in the ‘20s and 30s, Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, Miles Davis in the ‘50s, and John Coltrane in the ‘60s. With the exception of Armstrong, whose drug of choice (marijuana) was significantly less “serious” than the heroin addictions that plagued the others, many of the earliest and most innovative Jazz composers and musicians were either “dead” or “strung out” by the time scholars began taking seriously the history and analysis of Jazz. Gunther Schuller, for example, didn’t publish Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development until 1968; Parker died of an overdose in 1955, Coltrane of liver cancer in 1967—not to mention Jazz progenitors Buddy Bolden (d. 1931) and Jelly Roll Morton (d. 1941).
Playlist for the Apocalypse explores the legacies of music throughout—as well as lyric, music’s proxy. As it progresses through six discrete sections, the book asks repeatedly: What is the role of music and poetry during difficult times? Historical events Dove covers include the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, Trump, and the COVID-19 pandemic. If this sounds like an impossible catalog of suffering, Dove manages to diffuse such criticism by writing, for the first time, about her own personal hardships relating to Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, with which Dove was first diagnosed in 1997. The book’s final section, titled “Little Book of Woe,” includes some of her most powerful poems to date, particularly “This Is the Poem I Did Not Write” and “Soup,” the latter being a lyric-narrative confronting Dove’s initial diagnosis with an admirable mixture of terror, humor, humility, and grace. The poem also serves as an evocative example of the many successful poems Dove has written about food:
Yes, soup was what I wanted: not news
but the slow courage of the lentil
as it softened, its heart splitting into wings;
not good cop bad cop but the swift metallic smack
of too much thyme administered hastily,
the kind of mistake you never make again.
Even the humble lentil perseveres through adversity. Like the cricket, it rises above its own cauldron of oppression, its “heart” sprouting “wings” in reaction to the hot water in which it simmers. But perhaps the most stirring metaphor Dove cooks up in this passage involves an old pun, which the poet makes new by placing it not only within this culinary context but by associating it with mortality as viewed by a patient who has received a troubling diagnosis: the poet’s wish to escape to the before-time of having “too much thyme.” Dove longs for such liberation, characterizing Wordsworthian “seed-time” as “a mistake you never make again.” Why? Because you can’t use thyme twice.
Dove’s most moving poems, however, bring some aspect of the personal to bear on larger historical forces. Some of the book’s finest amalgamations happen in the “After Egypt” section, in which Dove manages to link two diasporas (Jewish and African) through a single word: “ghetto.” This section features many powerful poems, including a sonnet written in the voice of poet Sarra Copia Sullam (1592-1641) who, as Dove’s note indicates, “played a pivotal role in the intellectual and cultural life of Jewish Venice,” a life which was sequestered by sixteenth-century Venetian authorities to “a section of the principality known as the Ghetto—the first use of this word for segregated, and subpar, living quarters.” The most audacious poem in this section is “Declaration of Interdependence,” which explicitly yokes Jewish-American and African-American oppression through an imagined dialectic between a representative speaker from each community. These speakers taunt, resist, and expose the hurtful absurdity of racist stereotypes:
To my knowledge I have never terminated a deity.
……………Last time I looked, I did not have a tail.
Business is not “in” my blood. I attended a university. I studied.
……………I am a trained athlete. Nothing I do on the court is natural.
The poem ends effectively with the provocative lines: “Do not talk about my mother. / Do not talk about my mother.” Though she makes this connection implicitly through parallels of trauma (and with the use of physically adjacent lines), this moment, which features the only language that the two narrators speak in tandem, points explicitly to the solidarity Dove observes between historically oppressed races.
Though this observation does not apply to every poem, Playlist for the Apocalypse tends to falter the further from the poet’s direct experience the book strays. (The dramatic monologue “Bellringer,” which opens the book, is one stirring exception.) The weakest section of Playlist is “A Standing Witness”: a sequence of fourteen brief poems commissioned and set to music by composer Richard Danielpour. As an occasional project, “A Standing Witness” presents Dove with the usual challenges relating to this genre (mainly, how to make such a work seem like more than an exercise, an assignment). Historically, most poets have tried to avoid such challenges; Wordsworth, for example, when asked to serve as Poet Laureate, agreed on the condition that he wouldn’t have to write a single occasional poem.
As a project, however, “A Standing Witness,” comes with additional pressures under which, to Dove’s credit, most poets would’ve buckled; Dove was asked to compose her sequence as a song cycle “bearing witness to the last fifty-odd years of American history.” Dove chooses to frame her sequence as a series of dramatic monologues spoken by the Statue of Liberty. The title of each of the fourteen “songs” incorporates language from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” the Italian sonnet cast in bronze and mounted on the statue’s pedestal. The most successful poem in this sequence is the prologue, “Beside the Golden Door,” which is itself a sonnet arranged in the familiar, Italian pattern of two quatrains followed by two tercets. But Dove’s poem is unrhymed and written in rough, accentual alexandrines. Here it is:
Surely there must be something beautiful to smile upon—
the umbered blue edge of sky as it fades into evening,
the brusque green heave of the sea. When I
look up, surely there will be a cloud or a lone star
dangling. Truth is, the Truth has gone walking—
left her perch for the doves and ravens
to ravage, hightailed it to the hills, to the quiet
beyond rivers and trees. No matter
what ragged carnival may be thronging the streets,
what bleak homestead or plantation of sorrows
howling its dominion, Truth would say these are
arrogant times. Believers slaughter their doubters
while the greedy oil their lips with excuses
and the righteous turn merciless; the merciful, mad.
The poem begins in tenuous yet sincere hope, but soon shifts to an accurate and acute judgement of recent history. Remarkably succinct, “Beside the Golden Door” embodies a broad range of emotions. Searching for “something beautiful” in the vast expanse of the United States—something similar to the “green heave” and “umbered blue” the speaker observes in nature—she finds only the mercilessness and madness of humankind.
But the sequence fails to live up to the excellence the prologue promises. “A Standing Witness” suffers from two major flaws: 1) the poems do not move very far past what a general audience already knows about events such as Woodstock and Roe v. Wade; and 2) the language of the poems relies too much on commonplaces, dead metaphors, and clichés. These flaws, of course, are related. It’s difficult if not impossible to say anything new about familiar events when the diction, phrases, and syntax the poet uses are ready-made, even stale. A certain number of commonplaces and dead metaphors are probably inevitable in poems that consider the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, and Obama’s inauguration. But isn’t one of the primary functions of poetry to purify the language of the tribe, as Mallarmé declared and Eliot parroted?
Any poet who writes as consistently well as Dove has over her forty-year career is more than capable of approaching even the most well-trodden subjects from a different vantage point. Which makes the poet’s lapses in the following lines about Watergate all the more perplexing:
his generals’ reports
did not justify terminating their trust in him,
leader of the free world balls-deep in the muck
of a war no one would claim to have started,
though everyone agreed it must be brought to an end
sooner rather than later. By any means necessary
In this passage alone, I count eight hackneyed phrases (“trust in him,” “brought to an end,” “sooner rather than later,” etc.) and three dead metaphors (“leader of the free world,” “balls-deep,” and “muck of war”). The poem goes on to include “plug the leaks,” “high and dry,” and “brought to light,” ending with a final tercet that includes “No need for alarm,” “the road not yet traveled,” and “waiting for the smoke to clear.”
One might argue the mimetic fallacy here—that including so many commonplaces brings verisimilitude to this poem about Nixon who was, admittedly, not the White House’s most original speaker or thinker. But Dove makes such lapses repeatedly throughout “A Standing Witness.” In the poem that follows “Huddle,” for example, we find “dreamed of becoming / a mother,” “cold-hearted bitch,” and “free to go.” A more generous reader might also point out, as Hannah Arendt did about Auden’s use of idiomatic phrases, that when a poet manages to elevate idioms from the prosaic to the poetic, “we are magically convinced that everyday speech is latently poetic.” But it’s difficult to interpret “Something big was about to happen” (in reference to 9/11) or “the joke’s on / you” (concerning the assassination of MLK Jr.) as language worthy of the occasions to which these commonplaces and clichés have been applied.
In spite of these relatively rare lapses, Playlist for the Apocalypse, like music itself, provides readers with a salve for traumas both historical and contemporary. The book posits art as a tool for engaging subject matter potentially too radioactive to handle by any other means. Among the most difficult subjects Dove confronts in Playlist are those relating to police brutality, including the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2017 instance of an off-duty cop body-slamming fourteen-year-old Naji Tribble who sustained a skull fracture and spent a week in the ICU.
Perhaps the most affecting of these is the latter, Dove’s dramatic monologue spoken in Tribble’s voice. Here is “Naji, 14. Philadelphia”:
A bench, a sofa, anyplace flat—
just let me down
somewhere quiet, please,
a strange lap, a patch of grass . . .
What a fine cup of misery
I’ve brought you, Mama—cracked
and hissing with bees.
Is that your hand? Good, I did
good: I swear I didn’t yank or glare.
If I rest my cheek on the curb, let it drain . . .
They say we bring it on ourselves
and trauma is what they feel
when they rage up flashing
in their spit-shined cars
shouting who do you think you are?
until everybody’s hoarse.
I’m better now. Pounding’s nearly stopped.
Next time I promise I’ll watch my step.
I’ll disappear before they can’t
unsee me: better gone
than one more drop in a sea of red.
Dove updates the conventions of the Victorian dramatic monologue by bringing the genre into this startlingly new contemporary American context. “Naji” calls to mind the very first examples of dramatic monologue dating from the 1830s. On the one hand, Dove’s protagonist displays the heroism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” On the other, the “trauma” inflicted by the abusive cop evokes the physical violence and psychological depravity of Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover.” More subtly, Dove takes advantage of what most contemporary practitioners avoid; the poem is spoken to a “you” (“Mama”), the poem’s silent auditor. Like “Ulysses” and “Porphyria’s Lover,” “Naji” also takes place within a readily discernable dramatic occasion: the moments immediately following the brutal beating of the speaker, presumably before he is taken by his family to the City Hospital of Philadelphia.
Dove, in fact, is one of our finest and boldest practitioners of dramatic monologue. Characteristically, though, Dove goes about this work with the same understated excellence with which she makes her lyrics. Dove intimates the severity of the speaker’s injuries throughout “Naji” without ever announcing this explicitly. The initial stanza, for example, suggests just how close to death Naji was: The imperative “just let me down” sounds remarkably close to “just let me die,” “just let me go,” or “just let me drown.” And the phrase “somewhere quiet, please,” with its pleading, desperate tone, conveys an implied desire for the peace of death, while “patch of grass” suggests a grave.
In the fourth stanza, however, Naji’s monologue turns. Shifting from childlike innocence and vulnerability (“Good, I did / good.”), the poem leaps into the mature insights we find in the poem’s second half: “They say . . . / trauma is what they feel” and “I’ll disappear before they can’t / unsee me.” At fourteen, Naji finds himself on a precipice. Where the adolescent might’ve wanted to be seen, the young man and survivor of police brutality recognizes the dangers of visibility, which he equates with violence. The idea here is that police view a black boy as harmless and a black man as a threat. This insight anticipates the “Spring Cricket” sequence. Where the oppressor helped shape the song of the oppressed in those first two cricket poems, the violence of the cop informs Naji’s maturation from boy to man. In this respect, Dove holds up Naji’s story, his distinctly American tragedy, as emblematic of an entire nation’s pain. Perhaps more importantly, though, Dove uses her poem as a call to action, an occasion for radical remediation, before police violence grinds up another generation.
In a 2021 interview for World Literature Today, Rita Dove observed: “Poetry is the repository of our collective emotional memory.” For Dove, poetry is a means of remembering, memorializing, and imagining those songs and stories that unite peoples of all colors, nationalities, time periods, and creeds. In spite of problematic notions relating to universality, poetry still functions as a communal enterprise, a place where anyone can access those artifacts that continue to inform who we were, confirm who we are, and form who we will become. Even if prosody aspires toward a condition of pure sound, poetry taps into “collective emotional memory” through its elevation of language, the raw material we use both to problem-solve and to sing. Playlist for the Apocalypse, with its generous, inclusive vision of the role of poetry during this difficult moment, argues for an art that can do both.