On the Bus with Rosa Parks

On the Bus with Rosa Parks

by Rita Dove

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A dazzling new collection by the former Poet Laureate of the United States.
In these brilliant poems, Rita Dove treats us to a panoply of human endeavor, shot through with the electrifying jazz of her lyric elegance. From the opening sequence, "Cameos", to the civil rights struggle of the final sequence, she explores the intersection of individual fate and history.


A dazzling new collection by the former Poet Laureate of the United States.
In these brilliant poems, Rita Dove treats us to a panoply of human endeavor, shot through with the electrifying jazz of her lyric elegance. From the opening sequence, "Cameos", to the civil rights struggle of the final sequence, she explores the intersection of individual fate and history.

Editorial Reviews

Hungry Mind Review
Poetry marked by precise imagery, lyric intensity, and masterful craft.
Times Literary Supplement
An outstanding poet of the delicate nuances present in social complexity, of the lyric reflection embedded in the lyric journey.
People Magazine
...Movingly honors the woman who set off a civil rights movement...
Detroit Free Press
One of the country's premier poets.
Matthew Flamm
...[H]er poems wander into unexpected metaphor and subject matter....[These] meditations...deepen a dialogue over what might be described as public history versus private.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dove's brilliance--as with all great writers--is inextricable from her formal gifts: her poems effortlessly suggest grand narratives and American myths, yet ground themselves tersely in localities, characters, practicalities and particulars. This seventh collection leads off with a Dove specialty, the historical sequence: her "Cameos" lend broad, social relevance to an intermittently abandoned Depression-era wife and her family. As in Alice Munro's fiction, slight notations of near-undetectable actions are keys to deep emotional transformation: "Now she just/ enjoys, and excess/ hardens on her like/ a shell./ She sheens." In subsequent poems such as "Testimonial" and "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967," Dove revisits precocious origins ("I was pirouette and flourish,/ I was filigree and flame") and traces, with her characteristically strong enjambments, an emerging sexuality: "how her body felt/ tender and fierce, all at once." And as with the Pulitzer Prize-winning sonnets of Thomas and Beulah (no sonnets this time out), the reader follows the poet's imagined rituals and movements--"each night the bed creaking/ cast onto the waves/ each dawn rose flaunting/ their loose tongues of flame"--only to come squarely back to earth in the title section: "Not even my own grandmother would pity me;/ instead she'd suck her teeth at the sorry sight/ of some Negro actually looking for misery.// Well. I'd go home if I knew where to get off." Readers will find that this is the place.
Library Journal
Yes, former poet laureate Dove puts us on the bus with Rosa Parks--and brings us together with countless other African American women who endure life's bruises, large and small, with immense dignity. Whatever her subject--and the range is immense, from breast-feeding to travel to her horror of self-pity--Dove is epic in emotion, lyric in her precise, jewel-like lines. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Matthew Flamm
...[H]er poems wander into unexpected metaphor and subject matter....[These] meditations...deepen a dialogue over what might be described as public history versus private.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Univ. of Virginia professor, Pulitzer winner, and former Poet Laureate, Dove has reaped great rewards for verse, such as this seventh collection, which is really quite modest in design and accomplishment. Always genial and accessible, Dove's economical, never-erring poems have the same homey charms and family wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston's fiction: "Cameos" is a verse collage that bears "witness" to a time and place: the '20s and '30s in Ohio, where a boy grows up among a lot of doting sisters, never bonds with his "clowning" father, and prefers science to music. There's more than a touch of inspiration and uplift (but no Maya Angelou smarminess) in Dove's affirmative poems: two celebrate her young self as a reader of "the stuff we humans are made of." "Dawn Revisited" marvels at the promise of a new day and a second chance. The poet is uncomfortable with repose ("Against Repose") and refuses to give in to self-pity in front of her daughter ("Against Self-Pity"). She's proud of her dignified mother, working as a seamstress to finance business school; and admires the old lady in "Götterdammerung," who, despite aches and pains, will not give up on adventure, travel, and her own sexuality. A public poet as well, Dove pays homage to the Capitol building ("Lady Freedom Among Us") and, in the title sequence, with indirection and context, narrates the saga of Rosa Parks and a few less-famous bus-riding women in the Jim Crow South for whom, as Dove so eloquently puts it, "Doing nothing was the doing." Dove extols the "life force" in chants clear and democratic.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)
1030L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt



July, 1925

Lucille among the flamingos
is pregnant; is pained
because she cannot stoop to pluck
the plumpest green tomato
deep on the crusted vine.
Lucille considers
the flamingos, guarding in plastic cheer
the birdbath, parched
and therefore
deserted. In her womb
a dull--no, a husky ache.

If she picks it, Joe will come home
for breakfast tomorrow.
She will slice and dip it
in egg and cornmeal and fry
the tart and poison out.
Sobered by the aroma, he'll show
for sure, and sit down
without a mumbling word.
Inconsiderate, then,

the vine that languishes
so!, and the bath sighing for water
while the diffident flamingos arrange
their torchsong tutus.
She alone
is the blues. Pain drives her blank.
Lucille thinks: I can't
even see my own feet.

Lucille lies down
between tomatoes
and the pole beans: heavenly shade.
From here everything looks
reptilian. The tomato plops
in her outstretched palm. Now
he'll come,
she thinks,
and it will be a son.
The birdbath hushes
behind a cloud
of canebreak and blossoming flame.


Joe ain't studying nobody.
He laughs his own sweet bourbon banner,
he makes it to work on time.
Late night, Joe retreats through
thestraw-link-and-bauble curtain
and up to bed. Joe sleeps. Snores
gently as a child after a day of marbles.

knows somewhere
he had a father
who would have told him
how to act. Mama,
stout as a yellow turnip,
loved to bewail her wild good luck:
Blackfoot Injun, tall with
hair like a whip.
to do it
without him
is the problem. To walk into a day
and quietly absorb.
Joe takes after Mama.
Joe's Mr. Magoo.
thinks, half
dreaming, if he ever finds
a place where he can think,
he'd stop clowning
and drinking and then that wife
of his would quit
sending prayers through the chimney.

Those eyes, bright and bitter
as cherry bark, those
coltish shins, those thunderous hips!
No wonder he couldn't leave
her be, no wonder whenever she began to show
he packed a fifth and split.

in funk and sorrow. Joe
in parkbench celibacy, in apostolic
factory rote, in guilt (the brief
astonishment of memory), in grief when
guilt turns monotonous.

He always knows when to go on home.


(So there you are at lastù
a pip, a button in the grass.
The world's begun
without you.

And no reception but
accumulated time.
Your face hidden but your name
shuddering on air!)

Lake Erie Skyline, 1930

He lunges, waits, then strikes again.
I'll make them sweat, he thinks
and does a spider dance
as the fireflies shamble past.

The sky dims slowly; the sun
prefers to do its setting
on the other side of town.
This deeper blue smells
soft. The patterns in it
rearrangeùhe cups

another fly. (He likes to
shake them dizzy
in his hands, like dice, then
throw them out for luck.
They blink on helplessly
then stagger from the sidewalk
up and gone.)

Sometimes the night arrives
with liquor on its breath,
twice-rinsed and chemical.
Or hopped up, sparking
a nervous shimmy. Or
dangerously still, like his mother
standing next to the stove,
a Bible verse rousing her pursed lips.

He knows what gin is made fromù
berries blue. He knows
that Jesus Saves. (His father
calls it Bitches' Tea.)

And sistersùso many, their
names fantastic, myriad
as the points of a chandelier:
Corinna, Violet, Mary, Fay,
Suzanna, Kit, and Pearl. Each evening
when they came to check
his bed, he held his breath, and still
he smelled the camphor
and hair pomade. Saw
foreheads sleek, spitcurl
embellishing a cheek, lips
soft and lashes spiked
with vaseline. He waited
to be blessed.
         They were
Holy Vessels, Mother said:
each had to wait
her Turn. And he, somehow,
was part of the waiting, he was
the chain. He was, somehow,
his father.

The latest victim won't
get upùjust lies there
in the middle of the walk
illuminating the earth
regular as breath.
He stomps and grinds
his anger in. Pulls
his foot away and yellow
streaks beneath the soleù
eggyolk flame, lurid
smear of sin.

laughing, take his shoes away
and bring them scraped
and ordinary
back. Idiots,
he thinks. No wonder
there's so many of them.

But he can't sleep.
All night beneath his bed,
the sun is out.

Depression Years

can't stop eating;
she wants to live!
Those professors
have it all backwards:
after fat came merriment,
simply because she was afraid to
face the world, its lukewarm
that generationwise had set
her people in a stupor of
religion and
gambling debts. (Sure, her
mother was an angel
but her daddy was
her man.)

Pearl laughs
a wet red laugh.
Pearl oozes
everywhere. When she was
young, she licked the walls free of chalk; she
ate dust for the minerals.
Now she just
enjoys, and excess
hardens on her like
a shell.
She sheens.

But oh, what
tiny feet! She tipples
down the stairs. She cracks a chair.
The largest baby shoe
is neat. Pearl laughs
when Papa jokes: Why don't
you grow yourself some feet?

Her mother calls them
devil's hooves.
Her brother
He has
A Brain; he doesn't notice.
She gives him of her own
ham hock, plies him with
sweetened yams. Unravels
ratted sweaters, reworks them
into socks. In the lean years
lines his shoes
with newspaper. (Main
thing is, you don't
miss school.)

She tells him
it's the latest style.
He never laughs.
He reads. He
shuts her out.
Pearl thinks
she'll never marry--
though she'd
like to have
a child.

Painting the Town

The mirror
in the hall is red.
giggles: Pretty
as a freshly painted
She tugs
a wrinkle down.
Since she's discovered
men would rather drown
than nibble,
she does just

She'd like to show
her brother
what it is like to crawl
up the curved walls
of the earth, or
to be that earth--but
he has other plans.
Which is alright. Which is
As It Should Be.
Let the boy reach manhood
anyway he can.

Easter Sunday, 1940

A purity
in sacrifice, a blessedness
in shame.
in full regalia, clustered
violets and crucifix.
She shoos
a hornet
back to Purgatory,
rounds the corner, finds
her son in shirtsleeves staring
from the porch into the yard
as if it were the sea.

And suddenly
she doesn't care.
(Joe, after all, came home.)
She feels as if
she's on her back
again, and all around her
blushing thicket.

Nightwatch. The Son.

(Aggressively adult,
they keep their
lives, to which
I am a witness.

At the other end
I orbit, pinpricked
light. I watch.
I float and grieve.)

Bird's-Eye View


When I was young, the moon spoke in riddles
and the stars rhymed. I was a new toy
waiting for my owner to pick me up.

When I was young, I ran the day to its knees.
There were trees to swing on, crickets for capture.

I was narrowly sweet, infinitely cruel,
tongued in honey and coddled in milk,
sunburned and silvery and scabbed like a colt.

And the world was already old.
And I was older than I am today.

I Cut My Finger Once on Purpose

I'm no baby. There's no grizzly man
wheezing in the back of the closet.
When I was the only one,
they asked me if I wanted a night-light
and I said yesù
but then came the shadows.

I know they make the noises at night.

My toy monkey Giselle, I put her
in a red dress they said was mine
onceùbut if it was mine, why did they yell
when Giselle clambered up the porch maple
and tore it? Why would Mother say
When you grow up, I hope you have
a daughter just like you

if it weren't true, that I have a daughter
hidden in the closetùsomeone
they were ashamed of and locked away
when I was too small to cry.

I watch them all the time now:
Mother burned herself at the stove
without wincing. Father
smashed a thumb in the Ford,
then stuck it in his mouth for show.
They bought my brother a just-for-boys
train, so I grabbed the caboose
and crowned himùbut he toppled
from his rocker without a bleat;
he didn't even bleed.

That's when I knew they were
robots. But I'm no idiot:
I eat everything they give me,
I let them put my monkey away.
When I'm big enough
I'll go in, past the boa
and the ginger fox biting its tail
to where my girl lies, waiting ...
and we'll stay there, quiet,
until daylight finds us.


Meet the Author

Rita Dove is the recipient of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is a Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville.

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