The Importance and Depth of “Ohio” in Two Poems by Rita Dove and Ai

by Marcus Jackson
Featured Art: Linez and Boxez – Felicity Gunn

In poems, Ohio—as word, as a set of landscapes, as a cradle for psychological, emotional, and cultural exploration—exists with significance and versatility. Derived from the Iroquois word that means “beautiful river,” Ohio, as a name, is vowel wealthy, bookended by o’s, assuring that its mention brings a sonic vitality and depth. Ohio, in terms of topography, is rolling plains, glacial plateaus, Appalachian hills, stretches of bluegrass. Due to its proximity to the Great Lakes, and its general position on the continent, Ohio has hosted all of the following: major, ancient routes used by Native American tribes to travel and trade; pivotal exchanges between Native American and European fur traders; the ruthlessness and violence brought on by the heightened European demand for exportable goods and by the grueling process of colonization; numerous battles fought during extended, armed confrontations or wars (Pontiac’s Rebellion, the American Revolutionary War, the Northwest Indian War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War); hubs and final stops for freedom- seeking slaves along the Underground Railroad; early industrialization; and destinations for African Americans leaving the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration. To many poets and readers, the mention or involvement of Ohio can at least subconsciously educe some of the locale’s extensive identity. Looking closely at two poems by Rita Dove and Ai, we will examine a few of the elements and forces that the incorporation of Ohio brings to the texts.

     First up is “Wingfoot Lake,” from Rita Dove’s 1987 collection Thomas and Beulah. Dove chooses an actual Ohio park as the setting for this poem because it is a powerful symbol and amplifier of Beulah’s (the main character’s) personal, political, and cultural grief. Beulah is a widow whose departed husband, Thomas, traveled northward as a young man to escape the Jim Crow south, eventually settling in Akron, Ohio, meeting Beulah, and starting a family. In the poem, Dove, who was born and raised in Akron, exquisitely blends the mournful memories (on both the personal and the public levels) of Beulah with the complicated politics and past of the park, a park which can be seen as a microcosm of America. Before British and French colonization, the area in which Wingfoot Lake exists (near present-day Akron) was a bountiful area— the Cuyahoga River owing northward to feed Lake Erie, and other travel routes connecting the Great lakes to the Ohio River—and Native American tribes, notably the Delaware tribe, settled there and enjoyed the trade and fishing thoroughfare that the area fostered. In Dove’s poem, however, it is “Independence Day, 1964,” and the area is now officially owned by the (then) foremost manufacturer of tires and rubber in the world, Goodyear Tires. Dove’s two main elements in the poem—a complex, reminiscing Black mother, and a location that has gone from native stronghold to a 20th Century, corporate leisure area—are both portals to larger contemplations, emotions, and historical perspectives.
     One of the poem’s most profound characteristics is the subtlety with which Dove navigates these large-scale subjects; the poem mainly does so by allowing the nuanced descriptions and images of Beulah’s thoughts and memories, and of the park itself, to convey the cultural and socioeconomic weight. The title and its parenthetical immediately present the historical and cultural context (the poem’s setting date of July 4th, 1964, is two days after the monumental Civil Rights Act was signed into law), and the poem opens with rich brushstrokes of Beulah’s rst memory of a swimming pool—shown to her by her late husband. In the memory, the look of the pool strikes Beulah with anxiety: “the swimmer’s white arms jutting / into the chevrons of high society,” forcing her to tell her husband to “drive on, fast.”
     In the second stanza, Dove moves on to show that, even though there were many racial and economic barriers present in Beulah’s and her late husband’s lives, their adult children are more readily sharing certain spaces with their White counterparts. Nevertheless, as Beulah’s four daughters take her to the picnic of the company where their husbands work, we quickly see that those spaces are still somewhat segregated, and that most of the sharing is surface- level and/or restricted to the realm of common consumerism: “white families on one side and them / on the other, / unpacking the same squeeze bottles of Heinz, the same / waxy beef patties and Salem potato chip bags.”
     The poem divulges that this is the first Independence Day since Thomas’s death. The fact of Thomas’s absence during the signing of the Civil Rights Act brings on a gracefully written set of memories that includes Beulah watching on television the political marches, which Dove makes into this salient metaphor: “a crow’s wing slowly moved through / the white streets of government.” This metaphor, aside from being aesthetically beautiful, leads directly into a description of activities at the pool and Beulah’s reaction: “That brave swimming / scared her, like Joanna saying / Mother, we’re Afro-Americans now! / What did she know about Africa?” By using the word “swimming” and pivoting from the image of the march back into the scene of the company picnic, Dove creates an imagistic refrain to the original swimming pool that troubled Beulah, and Dove also presents Beulah being taken aback when trying to keep up with the most current terminology used to describe her and her people’s own identity. Through the wisdom and grace of this poem, Ohio can shed its usual reputation as an unassuming, plain place in middle America and become a foundation for important complications and discoveries.
     The poem’s final twelve lines include a marvelously accelerated survey of the geographical heritage of Blackness, the increased physical and cultural vulnerability inherent in aging, the far-reaching grasp of colonialism, and the haunt- ing ability of capitalism to claim the last word. In the closing sequence, Dove briskly takes us through: bodies of water in Africa, the American South, and Ohio; through a fear that 20th Century violence is evolving monstrously; and then to the logo of a company that has, by way of the grand revenue gains it made during two World Wars, acquired acres and acres of land that once was a center for native life and exchange. Dove tells us that Beulah is not entirely comfortable in this present: “Where she came from / was the past, 12 miles into town / where nobody had locked their back door, / and Goodyear hadn’t begun to dream of a park / under the company symbol, a white foot / sprouting two small wings.” Dove has the vision and the honesty to end the poem with that powerful symbol, and this last passage captures, with its careful diction and its trust in the reader, personal Black grief and communal grief over some of the unjust power structures of the western world—the image of these white wings undercuts the brave hope of the “crow’s wing” Beulah had watched moving through the televised streets of Washington. This exquisite poem exemplifies how Ohio can represent the dualities of possibility and pain.
     After looking closely at Dove’s poem, whose first words/title are a specific Ohio location, let us now think about a poem that waits until its conclusive movement to invoke the place. “More,” a poem by the late American writer Ai, who self-identified as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche, is a dedication to the famed Ohio poet James Wright, and it was originally published in Ai’s 1986 collection Sin.
     “More” begins with the narration of the speaker’s recent dream “of America.” Right away, the subject of the dream clearly generates a feeling of surrealism and investigation. The poem then increases its surreal, investigatory senses by turning the dreamt-about America into a character—a rough- for-the-wear prom date at a rundown dance:

          Last night, I dreamed of America.
          It was prom night.
          She lay down under the spinning globes at the makeshift bandstand
          in her worn-out dress
          and too-high heels,
          the gardenia
          pinned at her waist
          was brown and crumbling into itself.

One can assume, since the poem is dedicated to James Wright, that Ai is echoing his voice (Ai is traditionally known for her persona poems/dramatic monologues), but this poem also reads ne if we imagine the speaker to be an anonymous American on his/her/their deathbed. The America-as-prom-date metaphor is commanding because of the decaying conditions of the participants and the thrown-together details and particulars within the scene. Additionally, the metaphor suggests that the obligations of romantic convention are more like impositions.
     Intensifying its investigation of American identity in the tenth line, the poem moves on to have the metaphoric prom date (America) and the speaker directly converse within the dream: “What’s it worth, she cried, / this land of Pilgrim’s pride? / As much as love, I answered. More.” This exchange features the metaphoric America asking the value of its dubious origins and identity, and, although we might expect the speaker of the poem to jump in and proclaim something about the ruthlessness, false bravado, or violence that must be a part of any accurate appraisal of this nation, the speaker surprises by doubling down and contending that this land, this country, is worth as much or more than love itself. Hence, the poem buys some more time to take inventory of the surreal American experience.
     The speaker, almost flirtatiously, extends his/her/their address to the metaphoric America, this time shifting attention temporarily to some dreamlike landscape details: “but you, purple mountains, / you amber waves of grain, belong to me / as much as I do to you.” Ai adds an interesting twist here by cloaking the geographic descriptions in a declaration of dual ownership. This twist is followed by the metaphoric prom date, who is not rapt by the speaker’s announcements, fully disassembling. Yes, America falls apart: “She sighed, / the band played, / the skin fell away from her bones.” This sequence, in which the dreamt-about prom date becomes a corpse after being compared to the majesty of contentiously owned acreage, is a deft comment on America’s landscape lust, and cycles of conquest and acquisition. We can also see in these lines a swift escalation from romance to horror and violence.
     The dream in the poem ends, and the speaker wakes. Conscious, the speaker is again in the midst of his/her/their own death and wants back a past, a well- known, contradictory American life of “too much clarity” and “nights smelling of rage.” The poem then, in its three-sentence nal movement, calls upon the Ohio River to deliver a progression of death wishes and rebirth wishes that the speaker seems to know are never to come true:

          I’d lie face down in this hospital bed, this icy water called Ohio River,
          I’d oat past the sad towns,
          Past all the dreamers onshore
          with their hands out. I’d hold on, I’d hold, till the weight,
          till the awful heaviness tore from me,
          sank to bottom and stayed. Then I’d stand up
          like Lazarus
          and walk home across the water.

It is striking that the speaker, during this set of lines, depicts the town and people, who are stand-ins for average Americans, with a combination of hope- fulness and despair, maintaining the dynamics that exist in the earlier dream of the metaphoric prom date. Also, the poem, in this ultimate movement, sets the imagined resurrection—likened to the rising of Lazarus—in an exact body of water, thereby merging religious absolution and regeneration with a water source that played a huge role in ancient, Native American life, in early ex- changes between natives and settlers, in the wars and struggles brought on by colonization, and in the extensive industrialization that followed. Importantly, this river also represented the threshold of freedom for many escaped slaves. One of the poem’s most crucial endeavors, even while it finds brief notes of acceptance and peace, is rendering its characters, metaphors, and details with opposing energies, which ensures that the conflicts and paradoxes of American heritage, and of Ohio, are present throughout the text.
     Certainly, Ai’s “More” and Rita Dove’s “Wingfoot Lake” show that because of its landscapes and its multifaceted identity in native, colonial, U.S., and African American histories, Ohio can act as a versatile setting or series of forces in a poem. Dove’s poem precisely depicts a park in Ohio as a haunted paradise, and Ai sharply renders the state and its namesake river as mythic places in which timeless deaths, fantastic resurrections, surreal love affairs, speechless resiliency, and brutal realizations all dwell.

Marcus Jackson’s second book of poems, Pardon My Heart, was released by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books in 2018. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Harvard Review. Jackson lives with his wife and child in Columbus, and he teaches in the MFA programs at Ohio State and Queens University of Charlotte.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s