This review was published in November 2015 in The University Paper Newcastle here.
“PICTURE this,” she says, poet Rita Dove’s first words on stage, instantly fully immersing the audience at The Culture Lab show.
We’re told to imagine an impoverished backroom of a house in Peckham in 1860, where an old man with “toffee-coloured skin” is dying, alone.
This man is George Bridgetower, the inspiration behind Rita’s most recent collection of poems, Sonata Mulattica.
He was a violin prodigy, educated by Haydn, who not only played Beethoven’s work, but inspired many of them and even had one originally dedicated to him.
A man who somehow, mysteriously, disappeared off the maps of history.
Rita told us how Bridgetower first ‘walked into’ her life – whilst watching a film at home with her husband, she noticed his character subtly present in the background behind Beethoven.
Intrigued, she dug deeper and became fascinated with discovering how and why a man who played the violin for Beethoven in Vienna, ended up dying alone and impoverished in the backroom of a house in Peckham.
Her findings inspired Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. It is hard to pin down the genre of the book – a collection of poems, lyrical history?
Rita describes the collection as neither historical fiction, nor biography. She jokes, “Just the facts, man, have never been my style.”
She reads the first poem from the collection, which outlines the whole narrative of Bridgetower’s life, including many facts and figures.
Just the facts may not be her style, but she deftly weaves precise dates and details into some of the most lyrical poetry I have heard in a long time. The thing that I learn as her talk continues though, is part of this is just how she speaks.
Her natural orating is undeniably lyrical and poetical.
In the language that she uses, and the singing rhythm that she speaks it.
At times, it is often unclear whether she has stopped the reading of a poem and has returned to her talk, or whether the reading is still going on. She speaks in a flowing web of lyrics, half lecture, half continual poetry reading.
Rita tells the audience of what it was like to grow up in industrial, entrepreneurial U.S.A, surrounded by what she calls the ‘industrial Titans’.
A shy child, she became a naturally unobserved observer, and fascinated with story-telling.
Story-telling for Rita was her first exposure to what was emotionally truthful, whether or not it was factually so.
She realised there was art, and artfulness. She was a child, female, and black. At the time, that was pretty invisible. “So,” she says, “I watched, and learned.”
As she goes on to describe the difference between poetry and prose, stating that poetry is the ‘searching for the words of a language no one has ever spoken’, I am overwhelmed by the effortless beauty to Rita’s speech.
She subtly teaches the audience the difference between the two, emphasising how both poetry and prose capture the urger to express a reality, but via a different method.
Returning to Sonata Mulattica, Rita says that if she were forced to classify it herself, she would describe it as a “series of sung texts; lyric narratives and narrative lyrics.”
It is perfectly pertinent in a talk where the boundary between lecture and lyrical lecture is unclear.
The poems themselves are, as expected, wonderful.
She leaps from the voices of Beethoven, to Bridgetower’s ‘African Prince’ father, to a third person narrator absolutely effortlessly and always totally in character.
Whilst she reads the poems, we are completely drawn in to the images they conjure up before us – totally immersed in their experience. Real scenes and episodes are played out through her poetry.
There is humour, too, carefully slipped in with exquisite timing.
She is open and willing to talk about how she writes, citing her odd habit of writing mainly after midnight, and categorising her poems by colour rather than theme or idea whilst their in draft form.
As Rita’s talk comes to an end, she reads the last poem from the collection. A genuine gasp of wonder is heard from the audience as she delivers the last line: “Ah, Mr B, little great man. Tell me, how does a shadow shine?”
It is clear that the shadow of Rita’s poetry will shine for a very, very long time.