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Reflections on Democracy and Individuality in “Playlist for the Apocalypse”

Reflections on Democracy and Individuality in “Playlist for the Apocalypse”

  • Our review of Rita Dove's latest poetry collection, "Playlist for the Apocalypse."

Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove returns after twelve years with an exquisite new poetry collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse. Her poems magnify the marginalized individual, simultaneously illuminating national and global failed attempts at democracy. As always, her words are raw, poignant, and accessible.

The opening segment, “After Egypt,” came about through a project with the Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia and Beit Venezia in recognition of the origins of the word “ghetto” and the 500th anniversary of the Venetian Jews being forced to relocate in 1516. This was the first time “ghetto” was used to describe segregated, subpar living quarters, but it literally means “foundry,” referring to the island where the Jews had to move where foundry slag was dumped. Dove links Jewish Venice to our current moment:

            as long as we stay where
            you’ve tossed us, on
            the slag heap of your regard,
            the republic is safe.

                        OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

            Now you see me
            Now you don’t

Dove collects similar themes as she writes poems from the perspective of an insect, as in “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude”:

            We were a musical lantern;
children slept to our rasping sighs.

            And now and then one of us
shook free and sang as he climbed
to the brim, he would always

            fall again. Which made them laugh
and clap their hands. At least then
we knew what pleased them,

            and where the brink was.

Dove also participated in a song cycle project with the composer Richard Danielpour, where she was given the daunting task of writing verse about the last fifty years of American history. In this section of poems, “Standing Witness,” which was also the name of the collaboration, Dove speaks cleverly from the Statue of Liberty’s perspective, who observes not-so-silently as the country destroys itself. The poems are stirring testimonies, titles borrowed from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.” She takes stock of pivotal American moments: the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, Obama, and Trump (“Granted, it felt good at first to snicker, / But now the rooster won’t shut up”).

Who better to narrate than Lady Liberty, a beacon of hope yet also a pillar too easy to blame? From the epilogue: “I didn’t ask to stand under a crown of spikes,” she narrates. “I stand ready to tell you what I have seen. / Who among you is ready to listen?”

Dove gets personal in the last section, “Little Book of Woe.” In the late 1990s, she started to experience severe body numbness and was eventually diagnosed with Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. The poems she uses to divulge her daily life, managing her condition, are tender, playful, and optimistically realistic.

In “Rosary,” Dove records the rhythm of daily care routines:


            1 tablet           1 drop
            1 tablet           1 drop

           1 g                    1 ml
           Apply               inject

           0.5 tablet         1 tablet
                        1.5 tablets

            1 tablet           1 drop
            1 tablet           1 drop

See Also

           Use as directed

In “Last Words” she writes, “I don’t want to die in a poem / the words burning in eulogy / the sun howling why / the moon singing why not.”

It’s hard not to view this poem as a counter to “Shakespeare Doesn’t Care” in her earlier section of odes:

            What does he care
            if we all die tomorrow?
            He lives in his words. You wrestle,
            enraptured, with yours.
            What time does with them
            next, or ever after,
            is someone else’s rodeo.

Once again, Dove has written a culturally astute volume packed with musicality and charm. Her eloquent honesty creates a true playlist for the apocalypse, should that relentless threat ever finally tighten its grip. Still, she respectfully declines to be dismal:

           let the end come
           as the best parts of living have come
           unsought & undeserved


Playlist for the Apocalypse

by Rita Dove

W. W. Norton & Company

Published on August 17, 2021

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