Poetry: Rita Dove’s “I have been a stranger in a strange land”

Rita Dove writes with lyricism and beauty. Her subjects range and are not easily typified. Not only did she win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection titled Thomas and Beulah, Dove was named US Poet Laureate in 1993. At the time of her appointment, she was only 40 years old and was the youngest poet ever elected to the position. She was also the first African American to hold the title. Gwendolyn Brooks had been named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. Currently, she is a Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Please savor “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

“I have been a stranger in a strange land”

Life’s spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t bliss. What was bliss
but the ordinary life? She’d spend hours
in patter, moving through whole days
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world.
And yet there was always

more of the same, all that happiness,
the aimless Being There.
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,
lingered to look through a pond’s restive mirror.
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,
pretending he could organize
what was clearly someone else’s chaos.

That’s when she found the tree,
the dark, crabbed branches
bearing up such speechless bounty,
she knew without being told
this was forbidden. It wasn’t
a question of ownership—
who could lay claim to
such maddening perfection?

And there was no voice in her head,
no whispered intelligence lurking
in the leaves—just an ache that grew
until she knew she’d already lost everything
except desire, the red heft of it
warming her outstretched palm.