Blog #201: Bishop in Dove instead of Woolf

Fathers don’t have to be dynasts to bridge past and future. Through family and family stories, almost every father roots his children to the past while growing different possible futures through present actions. Understanding of “Grape Sherbet” is deepened by the knowledge that Rita Dove’s father was the first black man allowed to work as a chemist for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. The sherbet is a miracle of chemistry, a reality-altering, colour transformation with implications as deep as Memorial Day and “the grassed-over mounds.” Memorial Day, after all, has its origins in the end of the Civil War. Like the children who name “each stone for/ a lost milk tooth,” who make the dead a positive part of natural growth, a part of growing up, the father may not understand all the implications of what he does. The grandmother’s “pure refusal” almost certainly is fueled more by racial anxiety than it is by diabetes. However, because of family, because of history, because of her father–a Dove who wears “his cap turned up / so the bib resembles a duck,”–Rita Dove can accept what the grandmother of her poem cannot. She can see why her father bothered, how he overcame pressures from both sides of the colour line, pressures both from within and from without, and because of his miracle she can face the past without ducking, without refusal. As she invents or re-creates her father’s feat, using secret recipes of her own, her “Grape Sherbet” burns with a grateful, playful smile.

Rita Dove: Introduction to “Grape Sherbet.”

I wrote the above paragraph to accompany Rita Dove’s “Grape Sherbet” when I included that poem in Fathers: A Literary Anthology. Short as the paragraph is, it was the product of several months of reading Rita’s poems and reading and thinking about her life. I thought I knew “Grape Sherbet” well, and yet this morning, thanks to a tweet by Robert Macfarlane, I realize how much there is yet to know. I’ve discovered one of Rita Dove’s secret recipes, and, once again, I am reminded that one of the rewards of reading poetry is that there is always more to know. Poetry is like landscape. A new experience or new fact can reconfigure the previously known so that it has to be revisited and rethought.

The MacFarlane tweet which triggered this blog is as follows: “ It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.” The quotation comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” a poem which I read long ago and which I admired and still admire for its luminous realism, the way in which the mythic simmers beneath the painstaking, gritty surface details. In part, I like the poem because the cosmic is approached through the common. Through traces of personal history and the iridescent armour of the fish scale words glitters the cold dark hardness of the numinous. (Yoiks, what a pretentious sounding sentence. True, all the same.) I like the poem, too, because it reminds me of my fisherman past, and the heroism latent in the gore and exhaustion of my fish plant days.

Much as I like the poem, I had forgotten the line flagged by MacFarlane, and consequently I missed a large and important part of Dove’s poem. The Bishop allusion opens up new vistas, as, Woolf-like, Bishop uses allusion to dig out deep, beautiful caves beneath the surface of her work. “It’s just how we imagined lavender would taste” connects “Grape Sherbet” to Bishop’s explorations in “At the Fishhouses.” Dove’s history is a continuation and expansion of Bishop’s. The generational search for identity inherent in Bishop’s grandfather looms larger as Dove interrogates the past through her father and grandmother. In contrast to Bishop’s poem, geographical identity is largely eschewed, even if the darkness of the American south smoulders darkly beneath the cemetery turf. The bitterness of Bishop’s sea is transmuted to the lavender sweetness of sherbet, and salt enhances the sweetness.

It might be said that Dove’s poem verges on the saccharine. After all, there are so few grounds for optimism, even if the father’s miracle is a transforming one. Outside of the world of the poem, the dark forces of racism and sexism continue to maim and terrorize. But Dove is not willfully closing her eyes to reality. Her bow to Bishop is proof of that. Dove’s knowledge, too, is historical, and like Bishop’s it is drawn from the “hard cold mouth of the world,” “derived from the rocky breasts forever.” Bishop strengthens Dove, even as Dove draws upon her . Childish innocence disappears with the lost milk teeth. As adults, the knowledge we know is not the knowledge we imagined to be. To change the world, miracles are needed. Miracles require attention and belief. Like the father’s, the poet’s task is to bother. The task is to confront indifference and pay attention to the details of the world, and by so doing to attempt a “transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.” Dove’s apparent simplicity owes much to Bishop’s seeming complexity.

“Grape Sherbet”

The Day? Memorial.

After the grill

Dad appears with his masterpiece –

swirled snow, gelled light.

We cheer. The recipe’s

a secret and he fights

a smile, his cap turned up

so the bib resembles a duck.

That morning we galloped

through the grassed-over mounds

and named each stone

for a lost milk tooth. Each dollop

of sherbet, later,

is a miracle,

like salt on a melon that makes it sweeter.

Everyone agrees – it’s wonderful!

It’s just how we imagined lavender

would taste. The diabetic grandmother

stares from the porch,

a torch

of pure refusal.

We thought no one was lying

there under our feet,

we thought it

was a joke. I’ve been trying

to remember the taste,

but it doesn’t exist.

Now I see why

you bothered,

father.

by Rita Dove

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