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Sonata Mulattica: Poems Hardcover – April 6, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
This 12th collection from the former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient is her third book-length narrative poem: it follows the real career of the violin prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780–1860), a former pupil of Haydn, as well as the grandson/ of an African prince, or so his promoters and teachers in England said. Moving to Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars, the violinist met and befriended the famously moody Beethoven, who was prepared to dedicate his famously difficult Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower until a rivalry for the same woman drove them apart. Dove tells Bridgetower's story, and some of Beethoven's and Haydn's, in a heterogenous profusion of short poems, some almost prosy, some glittering in their technique. In quatrains, a double villanelle, what looks like found text, short lines splayed all over a page and attractive description, Dove renders Bridgetower's frustrated genius: Music played for the soul is sheer pleasure;/ to play merely for pleasure is nothing/ but work. Dove does not always achieve such subtleties—those who loved her early work may think this book too long: few, though, will doubt the seriousness of her effort, her interest at once in the history of classical music and the changing meanings of race. (Apr.)
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From The New Yorker
Dove’s verse sequence re-creates the life of the biracial violinist George Bridgetower, best remembered for being the first performer, and the initial dedicatee, of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. (Beethoven replaced his humorous dedication to the “lunatic and mulatto” after quarrelling with him, apparently over a woman.) A virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso’s life, the poems use all registers—nursery rhymes, diary entries, drama—and are stuffed with historical and musical arcana. Yet the book remains highly accessible, reading much like a historical novel. Dove is fascinated by Bridgetower’s life as a black musician and occasionally implies parallels with the world of jazz and rap, but the issue of race does not predominate. She is concerned equally with the status of musicians in a world of precarious patronage—even Haydn, at the Esterhazy estate, has “no more leave / to step outside the gates / than a prize egg-laying hen”—and with “the radiant web” of music itself.
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Rita Dove masterly paints the entire classical era with a finely tuned pen, using the long-lived Haydn as a backdrop to all the other musical lives. Like music, her style ranges from classical to popular, to soul and rap . . . but never straying far from the what MIGHT have been, if only the world's most famous violin sonata had a black boy's name for its title.
So we have a real-life story, or at least some outlines for the writer to fill in. George's father was a self-styled African Prince brought to the Austro-Hungarian court as part, frankly, of a human menagerie; gifted in many languages, he seems to have had an instinctive nose for that touch of exotic wildness that would secure his place in European society. George's mother was a German woman of Polish descent. George himself, as a boy on the Esterhazy estate, comes to the notice of Joseph Haydn, who develops his musical talents to the point where he creates a sensation at his Paris debut at the age of 9, and thereafter gets adopted by the English court. He is 23 when he visits Vienna, enthralls Beethoven then maddens him, and returns in defeat to England; there, he will serve for 20 years as leader of the Prince Regent's orchestra, wander abroad, and return to die in a London suburb at the end of his eighth decade.
It is a rocket of a story with a long dying fall. Poetry doesn't narrate the upward trajectory -- for that you need the chronology and racy notes at the back -- so much as punctuate the ascent with starbursts of wonder: "I was nothing if not everything | when the music was in me. | I could be fierce, I could shred | the heads off flowers for breakfast | with my bare teeth, simply because | I deserved such loveliness." But poetry excels prose in its ability to meditate on those plotless later years. Some poems cry out in anger, as here in RAIN when George takes leave of the cultural cacophony of Vienna: "Because we're wading through wreckage, we're | not even listening to all the crash and clatter -- | chords wrenched from their moorings, smashed | etudes, arpeggios glistening as they heave and sink. | Ciphers, the lot of them. Their money, their perfumed stink." Others are almost unbearably poignant, as in HALF LIFE: I'm a shadow in sunlight, | unable to blush | or whiten in winter. | Beautiful monster, | where to next -- | when you can hear | the wind howl | behind you, the gate | creaking shut?"
This reference to George Bridgetower's race is of course of interest to Dove, who is of African descent herself. But despite the title, SONATA MULATTICA is about many sorts of ways of reducing a person's individuality, even while feting him for some extraordinary success. There is little difference between the prodigy George, his African showman of a father, or the real life negro busker Black Billy Waters, who makes several ribald appearances. Even the great Haydn chafes at being treated like a chattel. Here is George at 9, in recital with another child prodigy: "Two rag dolls set out for tea | in our smart red waistcoats, | we suffered their delight, | we did not fail our parts -- | not as boys nor rivals even | but men: broken, then improperly | mended; abandoned | far beyond the province | of the innocent."
I would mention three other things that poetry does extremely well. One is to play with form and style. Dove's range is extremely wide, taking in sonnet and rondeau, popular nursery rhymes and street songs, many types of free verse, some concrete poetry, and even a short verse play. The effect, as she skips from the 18th century to the 21st and back, is rather like what Peter Maxwell Davies does with popular music in his brilliant EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING, simultaneously capturing the period and anatomizing it. But poetry and music are indeed close; that is my second point. Poems like POLGREEN SIGHT-READING, in which the violinist, half by sheer intuition, struggles with Beethoven's manuscript are amazing evocations of the extraordinary in music: "I've been destined to travel these impossible | switchbacks, but it's as if I'm skating | on his heart, blood tracks | looping everywhere...". Finally, poetry can be intensely personal. One of the most moving poems of all is the last, THE END, WITH MAPQUEST, where Dove comes back to visit the very ordinary suburb where Bridgetower died, ending with a confession: "Do I care enough, George Augustus Bridgetower, | to miss you? I don't even know if I really like you. | I don't know if your playing was truly gorgeous | or if it was just you, the sheer miracle of all | that darkness swaying close enough to touch, | palm tree and Sambo and glistening tiger | running circles into golden oil. Ah, | Master B, little great man, tell me: | How does a shadow shine?"
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Monica B. Morris
an anecdote of musical legend has it that beethoven composed his Kreutzer Sonata (later the name of famous short story by tolstoi) in honor of bridgetower, but owing to a parting of company over an incident involving a woman, beethoven did not name, as first intended, his violin sonata for bridgetower.
much of the events of bridgetower's life are not known. under dove's pen speculation becomes poetry. a theme running through the poems of the narrative is the depiction of blacks in throughout europe during the 18th and 19th centuries in curios in the poems Staffordshire Figurine and Ode on a Negress Head Clock, with Eight Tunes, and by juxtaposing the street entertainer, black billy waters, with the concert violinist, george bridgetower.
another fine addition to her growing body of work. Sonata Mulattica is in the tradition of john berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.