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This review is taken from PN Review 111, Volume 23 Number 1, September - October 1996.

MYTHS OF COLOUR RITA DOVE, Mother Love (W.W. Norton) $17.95

Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her collection Thomas and Beulah in 1987, Rita Dove is one of the most successful young American poets of recent years. Since her début in 1980 she has produced five collections of poetry, one novel, a book of short stories and a verse drama. Dove's racial heritage - she is black - has played a significant role in her work. Thomas and Beulah was made up of lyrics about her grandparents who emigrated from the South and settled in Akron, Ohio, where Dove was born in 1952.

But for Dove, blackness as a theme does not preclude the use of Modernist techniques: in Mother Love she writes of her heritage again but this time refracted through the Demeter-Persephone story. What's more, the poems in the book are all sonnets, some traditional, some exploded. Dove's syncretism is not restricted to the formal level. In one poem when she's looking for Persephone's shrine in Sicily she tries to communicate with her guide and finds their only common language is German. So here you have a black woman descended from American slaves in Sicily talking German with an Italian, identifying with a Greek goddess and writing a sonnet sequence about it all. But unlike the earlier poet and translator of Ovid, Wheatley, Dove employs European culture on her own terms.

The book is above all a sonnet sequence rather than a collection ...


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