RITA DOVE (1980) "Teach Us to Number Our Days," from Rita dove's first full-length volume, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), is significant for its ability to illustrate the ways in which individuals are shaped by both their inner and outer lives, and the poem's form—a free verse sonnet (see prosody and free verse)—suggests the tensions between constriction and freedom.
In "Teach Us to Number Our Days," as in work throughout her career, Dove writes as an African American, but her work does not speak exclusively to the black experience, nor does it limit what the black experience might be. In her introduction to her Selected Poems (1993), Dove says that one of the questions that most interests her when she writes is: "How does where I come from determine where I've ended up?" (xxi). "Teach Us to Number Our Days" first depicts a scene that has socioeconomic and racial components to it; the poem then goes on to explore movingly the ways in which a person develops and grows up in a world of social constrictions.
The poem's complex interweaving of social realities and dreams, which can or cannot transcend external factors, recalls Gwendolyn brooks's famous "kitchen-nette building" (1945). But Dove's poem is less hopeful and less humorous. Dove's title, which is a quotation from Moses's prayer in Psalm 90:12, places the poem within a long tradition of black spirituals, many of which take Moses as a central figure, and suggests that freedom will be found only in the next world.
The first stanza situates us, with its vernacular language and specific sensual details, in a contemporary ghetto, a world of funeral parlors and "cops." A boy tries to escape the constrictions in the world around him through his imagination and his dreams. The television antennae become for him a tic-tac-toe board. He dreams he swallows a blue bean that, like the bean in the fairytale "Jack and the Giant Beanstalk," grows and grows. But the image of growth soon becomes ominous: Even in his dreams, the boy cannot escape constriction, the force that shapes the world around him, as the vines seem to blind him. Even the natural world now appears defined by human power, "knotting like a dark tie."
In the boy's world, "the patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans." The policeman's "blue bullets" are the beans, the source of power and what the boy dreams he has swallowed. outside of its title, the poem offers no escape. In the poem's final image, a single-line stanza, instead of a couplet or tercet, the "mum" flowers become an image of raw emotion: a cry that will get no answer from the disinterested agents of power in this world.
Dove, Rita. Introduction to Selected Poems, by Dove New
York: Pantheon, 1993. Steffen, Therese. Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove's Poetry, Fiction and Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Vendler, Helen. The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Nadia Herman Colburn
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