Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry
Rita Dove, Museum (Carnegie Mellon, 1983)
Solmaz Sharif, Customs (Graywolf, 2022)
BY LISA RUSS SPAAR
The word museum conjures up images of special spaces dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of curated collections of natural, scientific, historic, cultural, and artistic phenomena. For some, perhaps the Louvre comes to mind, or New York City’s Museum of Natural History, or the District of Columbia’s Holocaust Museum, the Phillips Collection, or the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum. For others, it may be the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Or a local children’s museum. Or a Tennessee roadside temple to Hank (Bocephus) Williams, Jr.
“Museum” derives from the Greek mouseion, “place of study, library or museum, school of art of poetry,” originally “a temple or shrine of the Muses,” from Mousa “Muse.” A museum was a “seat of the Muses,” a place for contemplation and philosophical discussion. Over time, the museum became a depository of various private collections, the germ of which, as with the Ashmolean at Oxford, was often plunder acquired by wealthy sponsor-funded explorations that yielded collections of curiosities and foreign exotica—cabinets of wonder. It seems that anything can be a muse for a museum, a cause for horror, for wonder. Consider the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi, India, or The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. There are museums devoted to dog collars, McDonald’s Big Macs, and barbed wire—just about anything imaginable can spur the collecting jones—what one writer in The Hedgehog Review called “curatorial creep.”
Notions of what a museum can be and mean shape the second books of Rita Dove and Solmaz Sharif. Dove’s second collection, Museum, was published three years after her first collection, The Yellow House on the Corner appeared in 1980, and three years before the publication of her breakout third book, Thomas and Beulah (1986), which would win the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and launch Dove into an illustrious career that has included the publication of nearly twenty books in an array of genres, an appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States, and countless awards and honorary degrees. That Carnegie Mellon presciently brought out all three of these seminal books is a testament to the inestimable value and vision of independent and university presses. In the pivotal second book of Dove’s long and illustrious career, we see her emerging as a lifelong curator of wide-ranging and eclectic fascinations that refuse simplification or any one characterization besides that of keen, intelligent attention. Sharif’s second book, Customs, published just this past year, follows a little over five years after her prize-winning first collection, Look, was published in 2016, both books brought out by another intrepid independent publisher, Graywolf. Sharif’s second book extends into more personal territory the despair and ire about the ravages of war explored in her first book, suggesting that another kind of “museum” might be any mindset encoded with entrenched seams of denial and bias, codes that can sometimes make the salvific lessons of culture, including poetry, feel remote, even impossible. Both Dove and Sharif eschew any conception of a poetry collection as a static mausoleum and strive, in their unique ways, to envision, in these second volumes, portals that guide and inspire imagination despite the obstacles of otherness, exile, oppression, prejudice, and language itself. “Look,” both books seem to demand. “Accompany and experience alongside me the relationship of word and world as I experience it.”
Dove’s poetry career spans more than forty years and offers her readers the rare privilege of witnessing a poet’s growth from incipient stages to a maturity that dazzles with its ever-refreshed praxis. She has been rightly called a “national treasure,” and if it is possible for a contemporary poet to be a household name, Dove possesses that currency (though I had one distant relative, who rarely reads anything, let alone a book of poems, once ask, “hey, at Virginia, don’t you all have that Rita Mae Dove?”—conflating two of Charlottesville’s writer celebrities, Rita Mae Brown and of course Rita Dove). It’s exciting to consider that when Dove was working on and publishing Museum, she was not yet “Rita Dove” as we know her today. She was in her late twenties and early thirties, and, as she would later say in a conversation with Virginia Quarterly Review, rather than keeping her eye on and trying to write toward the then-current Zeitgeist—the Black Arts movement, for example, or the prevailing penchant for the lyric poem—she focused on what she needed to say and how she needed to say it. “It’s helpful for younger writers to know,” Dove said, “that this is how we start out, and that the best thing you can do—really the biggest kind of success—is to feel that what you’re writing is what you want to write, what you need to write.”
In a 2016 interview with Sarah Gzemski for the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Dove writes about a certain kind of freedom she had when writing those first three books: “When I began writing seriously—and by that I mean writing and rewriting with the intent to communicate to strangers—I felt there was no one really listening. I was trying to bring my story and viewpoint to others and have them hear it. Now I feel that there are many people listening.” Revisiting Museum offers a glimpse of that emerging poet working through her obsessions and what might be at stake in turning them into poems.
Luckily, readers interested in Dove’s early work can find her first seven books collected in full in Collected Poems 1974–2004, a handsome volume brought out by W. W. Norton in 2016. This compendium does not include the much lauded Sonata Mulattica (Norton, 2009) and the recently published, long awaited and highly acclaimed Playlist for the Apocalypse (Norton, 2021).
I am fortunate to have an actual dog-eared copy of Museum in paperback, with its original cover art, the 1929 painting “Agosta, der Flügelmensch und Rascha, di schwarze Taube,” about which Dove writes in a poem with a translated title, “Agosta the Winged man and Rasha the Black Dove,” in part two of Museum. Carnegie Mellon reissued Museum as part of its Classic Contemporary Series in 1992 with a far less riveting cover: a by-comparison bland black-and-white photo showing the backs of seated school children viewing with a docent an early European painting. One benefit of examining actual second books, then, rather than finding their contents in a collected volume or capturing them on the Internet, is the pleasure of seeing small things, subtle ephemera—a different slip jacket, penciled marginalia from earlier readings, a pressed flower—that might, for one reason or another, get quietly edged out of the canon.
Integral to any archive, collection, or museum is its catalog, its index. Its “list,” if you will. And Umberto Eco has called lists the “origin of culture.” In a 2009 interview with Der Spiegel, Eco says as much:
Although it is a second book written near the start of a career, Museum is hardly a book of apprentice pieces. Instead, it reads like a playlist—Dove has ever been a creator of playlists—for the important work to follow. All of her major themes and subjects are here: myth and mystery, music, family, persona, the vicissitudes of history, and a fearless abjuration of any admonition to stay in one’s lane or to adhere to any one conception of poetry and identity. The collection opens, in fact, with a frontispiece or “lobby” poem, “Dusting,” a bellwether Beulah poem which sings ahead to Thomas and Beulah and in fact finds a home in the “Canary in Bloom” section of that book. What follows in Museum is a quartet of subtly but discerningly curated “galleries” (or playlists within the book’s larger playlist, each with its own prefatory meta epigraph or epigraphs, which serve as bonus tracks), each a model for how a poetry collection might be made, the image systems and themes of one poem being taken up and changed and moved along from poem to poem, like leitmotifs in a song cycle or thematic movements in a symphony.
In the book’s first section, “The Hill Has Something to Say,” as just one example, the epigraph comes from a tombstone in Texas (other epigraphs in the collection come from voices as various as Bob Marley and Boris Karloff) and is followed by the first poem proper, “The Fish in the Stone,” a poem about a fossil that signals the poet’s own interest in how the lost and the searcher exchange their secrets. The fish in the stone
engineers a gangster’s
and perfectly in amber.
He knows why the scientist
in secret delight
strokes the fern’s
The ants are taken up in the next poem, “The Ants of Argos,” in which “sun-baked stones fumed piquant / wherever shepherd boys had pissed // to hear them sizzle.” These mythic stones become a stone funeral urn in the next poem, “Pithos,” and morph into “Nestor’s Bathtub” (“jug upon jug of fragrant water poured / until the small room steamed,” all that’s left to attest to his legend as “the clay pots screamed / and stones sprang their sockets / and the olive trees grew into the hill”). This hill turns into the section’s title poem, “The Hill Has Something to Say”: “. . . and takes its time. / What’s left / to climb’s inside us, / earth rising, stupefied.” This poem’s clamber through “Scavenger Time” leads the reader to a meditation on a copper beech growing in the park of a castle in Erpengerg, a “living architecture” that then opens into “I will build you a house,” the first line of “Tou Wan Speaks to Her Husband, Liu Sheng.” This purported house is a tomb, meant to house the prince “when you are long light and clouds / over the earth.” This ephemeral image segues into three poems that revisit the hagiography of two female saints, Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena, brave women who met resistance to their sex with the higher powers of imagination and faith. These translated passions are taken up in the two final poems of part one, prescient pieces about Boccaccio and his protagonist, Fiammetta, set during early plague years, poems that could not be more timely in our pandemic epoch of anxiety and denial:
around them and spend time
with fine foods, wine and music
behind closed drapes. Having left
the world already, they are surprised
when the world finds them again.
Still others carouse from tavern
to tavern, doing exactly as they please . . .
The almost balletic foray through time and space, myth and lived experience, inner and outer worlds afforded by Museum’s first section, is an exemplar of Dove’s curatorial intentionality, her ability to provide a soundtrack for worlds real and imagined, for journeys we are invited to make, and—revised, altered—make again. The book is replete with meditations on matters of the heart, but it is also a kind of breviary or primer for anyone with questions about how individual poems might be shaped into meaningful books. The book’s last section, “Primer for the Nuclear Age,” not only looks ahead to Dove’s recent Playlist for the Apocalypse, but contains a masterpiece, “Parsley,” one of Dove’s most anthologized pieces. Many readers will know this poem from anthologies, but to read it in the context of Museum only deepens the strange beauty and tragedy the poem explores. It presages the historical and cultural work Dove will later take up in books like Sonata Mulattica. As an aside, I would add that Museum also contains one of the most powerful evocations of translation I’ve encountered, “Reading Hölderlin on the Patio with the Aid of a Dictionary”:
up, white flags dispatched
from a silent camp.When had my shyness returned?This evening, the sky refused
to lie down. The sun crouched
behind leaves, but the trees
had long since walked away.
The meaning that surfacescomes to me aslant and
I go to meet it, stepping
out of my body
word for word, until I am
everything at once: the perfume
of the world in which
I go under,
Rereading Rita Dove’s Museum at the start of March 2023 for this Second Acts column, I feel the same way: transformed.
If Eco is correct that the list represents/embodies one origin of culture, then, as Solmaz Sharif writes in her prize-winning debut collection, Look, “Let it matter what we call a thing.” In “Personal Effects,” from Look, Solmaz says, “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made // of our language,” implicating herself—as an American citizen born in Turkey to Iranian parents—in the atrocities, lacunae, and aphasia that can arise from brutal disparities and misunderstandings among nations, cultures, and tongues. In Look, Sharif refuses to let the reader not look at the violent ruptures between the language of war and the language of humanity. No one is given a pass in this collection’s all too real “museum” of atrocities, exile, wounds, and suffering.
Customs feels like a more vulnerable and personal book than Look, with its diagnostic and documentary approaches, its reliance in part on the inclusion of language borrowed from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to express the speaker’s ire and anomie. Customs is full of intimately registered impediments—customs officers, checkpoints, gates, railings, gates with gates inside them; in a long poem, “Without Which,” a suture of back-to-back closed brackets (“]]”) threads like a sequence of scarified staples through a series of short, filmic poems in which the exiled speaker has “lost / even loss.” The speaker experiences these obstacles in the body; the reader is brought into this claustrophobic “elsewhere” and “otherwise” escape-room of a museum to encounter these checkpoints and border crossings as the speaker encounters them, as in the anaphoric “The Master’s House”:
To find a spot on any wall to stare into
To develop the ability to leave an entire nation thusly, just by
staring at a spot on the wall, as the lead-vested agent names
article by article what to remove
To do this in order to do the other thing, the wild thing. . . .
The world of Customs is a liminal and conditional one—a realm of “if” and “until” and “of” (“Of / is such a little city”)—and if there is a soundtrack, it is “like some cassette turning // to dust in the car’s player,
that quieted, in the front seat,my parents, some tape spooled back
with a ballpoint pen and worn
to mica in the car’s player as the turn signalclicked its quiet, and the keys
clicked with the wide and final turn—
song which was, I’m sure,an ancient poem sung and filled
with cypresses, their upright
windscreen for what must be grown.
(from “An Otherwise”)
But what is the “wild thing” Sharif speaks of in “The Master’s House”? Make no mistake: Sharif’s belief in lyric epiphany is mitigated by her restless anomie and dislocation. In one of two “origin” poems titled “Dear Aleph,” she writes that “Empathy means // laying yourself down // in someone else’s chalklines // and snapping a photo.” Instead, Customs often feels like a restless lament for the unknowable, gnostic artifact: “this thing,” she writes in “The End of Exile,” “a without which // I cannot name. // Without which is my life.”
Reading Customs can feel like being trapped in the sterile no-person’s land of an airport or holding tank. And yet not all of the doors and thresholds in Customs seem ultimately unpassable. Not everything is beyond the reach of knowing, however conditional and precarious that gnosis. Here are the last three sections of “Without Which”:
This door, for now,
of paint scraped
away by the swinging
Door I would have answered—
here is might have
just before it is razed.
Here is the home
as far as from
Would you have knocked for me?
I ask the neighbor.
I have been, he said.
Then I felt his knocking
inside my chest.
That this intimate, somatic interiority, this perception that entrance—the heart’s answering knock—might come from within, is the place this speaker arrives, fully armed with the “sharp blade” of all the loss that’s been lost, with no guarantees or expectation of homecoming or reunion. In “An Otherwise,” a poem in which Eros notably enters the room, Sharif writes:
to be let in, beloved.
This is the oldest poemthe older poet said,
outside the door of the beloved
asking to be let in—Alluring otherwise life.
Life without exchange rate.Life where what is
Long down the back of the throat.
Speaking to its own.
Answering the mewing
at the closed doors.
It is finally that long buried “root noise” of beginnings and belonging—speaking to its own and with its own voice—with which this enclosure thrums.
In her interview with Virginia Quarterly Review, Dove talks about the importance of being more than a historical tourist. “To be a historical tourist,” she says, “means to take a few snapshots of the surface of things. You’re only passing through. Then the reader, too, can say, ‘Oh, wow. Isn’t it terrible that that happened?’ but not feel troubled by it; not feel, in some way, a participant in it.” One function of a museum and its archive is certainly historical, but the texts of Museum and of Customs are interactive spaces that move with sonic and formal intention through their materials. In his interview with Der Spiegel about lists, Eco calls cataloging both orderly and anarchic, always changing to reflect the vexations and tumult of any moment. A reader turns and returns to Museum and to Customs for just this sort of attentive looking and listening. Humanity is the magnetic moral compass of these second books. “I knew not the poem,” Shariz writes, “only the weather. / I knew not the listening, only this landscape, its one clear channel. // The metal in my teeth caught its frequency. / The iron shavings of my blood pulled toward this otherwise.”