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Dove, Rita. Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009. 240 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Reginald Harris

It is harder to play long
than fast. It’s more than stretching
a line—suspension is
what we yearn for,
that delicate fulcrum between crash
and sheer evaporation, a dissipating breeze.
to levitate strands of melodic sound
across all the mired avenues
we barge along, daily—this shining wire
so light, so strong, we can just make out
(there!—there it goes) and follow,
slip note by note along
and fly—float—
in that radiant web.
(from “Polgreen, Sight-Reading” pg. 113)

In recent years, many African-American poets have adopted the form of the book-length biography in verse, mixing fact with imagination as a way to investigate and interrogate the past. Some, such as Marilyn Nelson in Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), or Tyehimba Jess with leadbelly (2005), bring us into the lives of well known figures; others—A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (2005), or Frank X Walker’s Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2004), for example—revive lesser known figures. In these works, each poet covers key biographical points, but also delves into the zeitgeist of their times, the consciousness of the central figure, and explores how he or she was seen by others.

Rita Dove has adopted this type of book-length exploration before, in a more personal way, for her acclaimed Thomas and Beulah (1986). She enters the field again with her new collection Sonata Mulattica, telling the story of Afro-Caribbean/Polish-German violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778 or 1780 – 1860). A child prodigy, if Bridgetower appears at all in the historical record it is because of his fateful encounter with Ludwig van Beethoven. The two men had premièred his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major (Opus 47), while the ink was still wet, in Vienna in 1803, and the volatile composer was set to dedicate the work to him (“The Sonata Mulattica”). However, disagreements over a woman lead to Bridgetower’s name being stricken from the work, which Beethoven dedicated to French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who famously disliked it, saying it was unplayable, and never performed it.

Rita Dove explores Bridgetower from a variety of angles in the poems, delving not only into the man but also Eighteenth Century history, performance, the nature of “celebrity” and race. Her lyric narrative extends the use of song, music and dances of her previous book, American Smooth (2004). Two prologues set the broad outlines of Bridgetower’s life, and a series of epilogues close Sonata Mulattica with the “afterlife” of some of the book’s characters, as well as Dove’s present day search for remnant signs of Bridgetower. These sections bookend “Prodigy” covering his early years; “Bread & Butter, Turbans & Chinosierie” detailing Bridgetower’s life as a patron-dependent musician; “Sturm Und Drang,” limns Beethoven; “All is Ashes” and “Nomadia” detail the years after the incident with Beethoven and the decline of Bridgetower’s career. At the center of the work is the “Volkstheater: A Short Play for the Common Man—‘Georgie Porgie, or A Moor in Vienna’,” her humorous but not entirely compelling reimagining of the misunderstanding Beethoven and Bridgetower over a barmaid which lead to Beethoven’s withdrawal of the dedication of the sonata, cast in the form of early Nineteenth Century Viennese theater (rooted in the Austrian love of social satire and farce). In an endnote Dove writes, “Think Punch and Judy, with human punching bags and much better puns” (pg. 214).

Although Dove says, “the racial divide has not yet been invented” in her “Prologue (of the Rambling Sort),” and much of Sonata Mulattica is “color-blind,” Bridgetower’s blackness still shows as an issue he and his family had to deal with (pg. 21). In the poem “The Dressing,” Dove has the Senior Bridgetower characterize their family name as “A reach / and a stretch”, and also notes:

Outside, I am not a man.
I am a thing
which in fine company
arouses awe:
that curious fusion of fear and longing
I have leaned to make use of

[. . .]

Here, on this Isle, I am
a continent. I am so large
they cannot grasp my meaning.
Contours loom, unmapped;
my lineaments refuse coherence.
I am the Dark Interior,
that Other, mysterious and lost;
dread Destiny, riven with vine and tuber,
satiny prowler slithering up behind
his doomed and clueless prey.
(pg. 72)

Dove mirrors and echoes the younger Bridgetower’s life and travels in Sonata Mulattica with the life of composer and contemporary Franz Josef Haydn, who appears here as a recurring character. A fellow musician for hire for two royal courts, it is the voice of Hayden, not Bridgetower, who links their lives with servitude:

It is a sad thing always
To be a slave,
But if slave I must, better
The oboe’s clarion tyranny
Than a man’s cruel whims.
(from “Haydn, Overheard,” pg. 69)

Recurring references to and metaphors of clothing throughout Sonata Mulattica are indicative of Dove’s view of the musicians, courtiers and patrons of the arts flowing through the poems all as performers on some level-playing well-established roles. She also uses objects (“Ode on a Negress Head Clock, with Eight Tunes,” “Moor with Emeralds”) as metaphors for the circumscribed nature of Bridgetower’s life and how he and others in royal pay were considered little more than servants or musical automata.

Other historical figures like Charlotte Papendiek, a servant who kept an extensive diary of her life in the court of George III of England, and British stage performer “Black Billy” Waters speak in Sonata Mulattica, along with a cameo appearance by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Some of these poems, viewing Bridgetower from different angles or expanding our sense of the times, work better than others. The true star of this overall rich and impressive work, however, is Rita Dove herself. Her sharp eye for detail and sure sense of control permeates these poems. Whether speaking through Bridgetower at the top of his form:

this is what it is like
to be a flame: Furious
but without weight, breeze
sharpening into wind, a bright gust
that will blind, flatten all of you—
yet tender,
somewhere inside
tender. If you could see me
now, Father, you would cry—though
you wept easily, as I remember,
and even so it was manly,
the way that thick black fist
daubed your cheek
with those extravagant sleeves
(from “The Performer” pg. 119)

or later, after his run-in with Beethoven when he decides to leave Vienna,

Time to leave
This tiered confection
Of a city, this coquette
Who pretends to sip
Then slings the rest away,
Who spit you out
Like coffee dregs . . .

Why, they’re quit of me—
They’ve rinsed the cup.
As if on cue
It begins to rain [. . .]
(from “Tail Tucked” pg. 143-144)

Dove’s vision and language is always sure and clear. By the end of sonata, one may feel as though he or she has been given a kaleidoscopic tour of Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century Europe, and some measure of the toll of near-fame.

Although the final poem in Sonata Mulattica, “The End, with MapQuest” closes with the lines

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
palm tree and Sambo and glistening tiger
running circles into golden oil [. . .]
(pg. 208)

the energy, inventiveness and range of the book betrays the author. Mainly using free narrative verse, but also including sonnets, villanelles and an imagined Eighteenth Century rap, Rita Dove’s lively and often moving poems pay homage to Bridgetower. A major artist has finally given him the kind of dedication he deserves.


Librarian and author REGINALD HARRIS is Systems Department Help Desk and Training Manager at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year for 10 Tongues: Poems (Three Conditions Press, 2001), he has received Individual Artist Awards for both poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council.