By Rita Dove
How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.
That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.
Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.
How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.
In a bit of poem-elf serendipity, the same day I was working on this blog post, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol Building. If you’ve never been to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, picture a semi-circle room, overdressed with Victorian red curtains and gray marble pillars. Crowded around the room are bronze and marble statues of mostly men, mostly standing, mostly in the neoclassical mode. The Rosa Parks statue is seated, serious, her head turned to look out an invisible window, her pocketbook and coat belying the grandness of her action. The sculptor, Eugene Daub, was wise to position her in contrast to the imposing figures surrounding her. Her quiet power seems all the more intense.
There’s a myth of Rosa Parks, recently debunked by a new biography, that she was a sweet old lady too tired from her day’s work as a seamstress at a department store to give up her seat on the bus. In fact, she was only 42 at the time, and what tired her out was being humiliated on the bus. The disconnect between her outward appearance of ordinariness and modesty and the fire and heroics of her inner resolve is part of what makes her a compelling and inspiring figure.
Rita Dove’s poem “Rosa,” captures the same quiet intensity as the Capitol’s newest statue. At the outset, the poem is as neat and trim as the woman it describes. The four three-line stanzas have a fairly uniform length, and the first and last stanza mirror each other in structure. Most of the poem is written in sentence fragments, except for the third stanza, which breaks out into a complete sentence as it describes Rosa making a stand by choosing not to stand.
But there’s tension under the tidiness, which Dove builds with a series of paired oppositions. The clean flame of her gaze is set up against her sensible coat. Each stanza has its own dichotomy: right/wrong; dream/sensible; doing nothing/doing; stood up/bent down.
The pairing of sat there from the first stanza with stood up from the last tells a whole story in itself. Sat there and stood up are two simple movements that we all do everyday, but in the poem, sat there has none of the indolence we usually associate with the phrase, and stood up carries the second meaning of standing up for human rights.
These pairings of opposites, along with the short line length, build tension and highlight the tenuous balance of white power/black humiliation that Parks upends.
I learned a few things when I posted this poem.
I didn’t know that Detroit has a bus depot named after the most famous bus rider in our nation’s history. Rosa Parks, it turns out, had a history in Detroit. A few years after getting fired from her department store job because of her activism, Parks moved to Detroit. She worked for Representative John Conyers and lived in the city till she died at age 92. She’s buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
The architecture of the Rosa Parks Transit Center does great honor to Parks. The building and plaza suggest the beginning of a journey: the front of the building is shaped like the prow of a ship and a beautiful canopy floats above the busses like sails. (Unfortunately she is little honored in the operations at the depot. Detroit has one of the worst public transportation systems in the country.)
I had a few more surprises when I was brushing up on the familiar seat-on-the-bus story. I had always thought hers was a modest, quiet act that led to a big dramatic one, the bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King. But the full story of her modest, quiet action is as dramatic and suspenseful as the Little Rock Nine’s walk through the front doors of Little Rock High School. You can read the full story here, but I’ll highlight a few things:
- Ten years before the Montgomery bus driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white passenger, Parks had a run-in with the very same bus driver, James Blake. A Montgomery bus ordinance at the time required blacks to enter at the front of the bus to pay and then exit and re-board through the back to sit down. This way black passengers wouldn’t walk past whites. One day, during a rainstorm, Parks chose not to exit and re-board. Blake very nearly shoved her off the bus and then drove away before she could get back on.
- Parks’ “doing nothing,” as Dove puts it, was a moment fraught with danger. She knew that Blake, the bus driver, carried a gun. She was alone on the bus. When she challenged the driver, no other riders on the crowded bus gave her support. She knew she could be arrested, and she knew she could face abuse at the police station. Her calm demeanor is all the more remarkable.
- The incident in the last stanza of the poem refers to the behavior of the police officers who came to arrest her. One picked up her shopping bag, the other her purse. But whose courtesy is “That courtesy”? The idea that courtesy could be extended in such a discourteous place, a place where a woman was asked to give up her seat for a man, a place where black passengers were routinely insulted by whites, is another of the ironic oppositions the poem holds together.
Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. Her father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry. She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, earned a Fulbright scholarship, and got her MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She won the Pulitzer Prize and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95, the youngest person to ever be appointed to that office and first African American. She teaches at University of Virginia.
I wouldn’t describe too many poets as adorable, but then again there aren’t too many poets who ballroom dance. Watch here as Dove and her husband dance the samba, and see what adjective springs to mind.
One of my mother’s favorite jokes is, “Mary Rose sat on a tack. Mary Rose.” Inspired by the second stanza of Dove’s poem, I offer a twist on the old joke: “Rosa Parks gets on the bus. Rosa Parks.”