The US Poet Laureate from ’93 to ’95, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, honored with both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts—readers, it’s been too long since Rita Dove has blessed us with her writing. She speaks about relearning how to write after her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. And her experiences with racism as a Black woman wherever she goes. She says “Playlist for the Apocalypse” echoes what’s going on in the world, from many different historical and personal directions, while meaning to comfort the reader.
Excerpt from Playlist for the Apocalypse by Rita Dove.
I am as true to that bell as to my God.
I was given a name, it came out of a book—
I don’t know which. I’ve been told the Great Man
could recite every title in order on its shelf.
Well, I was born, and that’s a good thing,
although I arrived on the day of his passing,
a day on which our country fell into mourning.
This I heard over and over, from professors
to farmers, even duel-scarred students;
sometimes, in grand company, remarked upon
in third person—a pretty way of saying
more than two men in a room means the third
can be ignored, as I was when they spoke
of my birth and Mr. Jefferson’s death
in one breath, voices dusted with wonderment,
faint sunlight quivering on a hidden breeze.
I listen in on the lectures whenever I can,
holding still until I disappear beyond third person—
and what I hear sounds right enough;
it eases my mind. I know my appearance
frightens some of the boys—the high cheeks
and freckles and not-quite-Negro eyes
flaring gray as storm-washed skies
back home; it shames them to be reminded.
So much for book learning! I nod
as if to say: Uncle Henry at your service,
then continue on my way through darkness
to start the day. This is my place:
stone rookery perched above
the citadels of knowledge,
alone with the bats and my bell,
keeping time. Up here, molten glory
brims until my head’s rinsed clear.
I am no longer a dreadful coincidence
nor debt crossed off in a dead man’s ledger;
I am not summoned, dismissed—
I am the clock’s keeper. I ring in their ears.
And every hour, down in that
shining, blistered republic,
someone will pause to whisper
Henry!—and for a moment
my name flies free.
Excerpted from Playlist for the Apocalypse © 2021 Rita Dove. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.