--Dr. Mark Whalin
Listen up. The daddy is still thinking about our soldiers fighting in Iraq, risking their lives in a country that doesn't even want them there. The daddy is thinking about the Tuskeege Airmen, African American soldiers who flew high and fought bravely on behalf of our country, for a people who thought of them as little more than cotton picking monkeys, a people belonging to an inferior race and a people of whom they didn't want to look in the eye. And the daddy is thinking of black soldiers in World War I and II who fought in segregated units, because their fellow white American soldiers didn't want blacks to fight alongside them.
In American Smooth, Rita Dove, Professor English at the University of Virginia, speaks of African Americans surviving, dancing around ballrooms and through minefields of racial bigotry with style and grace: The freedom and exhilaration one feels twirling around the dance floor; the stir a black woman causes when she enters a room (that grand entrance!); Hattie McDaniel's arrival at the Coconut Grove; the determined dignity of the Billie Holidays. But what her poems speak to with the greatest passion and clarity to is about those black soldiers who fought so bravely and endured so much in the section of the book titled “Not Welcome Here.”
These are poems about black soldiers from World War I and World War II and their treatment by an “impertinent nation” once they returned home. Dove lets the black soldier speak:
You didn't want us when we left
but we went.
You didn't want us coming back
but here we are.
In "Alfonzo Prepares To Go Over The Top," Dove puts us on the front lines, showing
us war in all of its horror ("moves ass and balls, over tearing twigs and crushed
faces") and a soldier's life ("hear the leaves? I am already memory") as pawn
in a bigger game and temporary at best:
Alfonzo Prepares To Go Over The Top
A soldier waits until he's called- then
moves ass and balls, over
tearing twigs and crushed faces,
swinging his bayonet like a pitchfork
and thinking anything's better
than a trench, ratshit
and the tender hairs of chickweed.
A soldier is smoke
waiting for wind: he's a long corridor
clanging to the back of a house
where a child sings
in its ruined nursery...
and beauty is the
gleam of my eye on this gunstock and my spit
drying on the blade of this knife
before it warms itself in the gut of a kraut.
Mother, forgive me. Hear the leaves? I am
In Bill Moyer's The Language of Life, Dove said of poetry:
"By making us stop for a moment, poetry gives us the opportunity to think about ourselves
on this planet and what we mean to each other...Equally important is the connection poetry
emphasizes of human being to human being: What are we doing to make everyone's lives
better, and not materially, but spiritually as well? I think that why poetry has often been
Thanks, Rita Dove, for reminding me to "stop for a moment...and think about...what we
mean to each other, to think about all of our soldiers, and to say a special prayer for those
who fought so bravely, who paid so big a price for us to be free.
Rita Dove, thanks for reminding us.