for Michael S. Harper
Billie Holiday's burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you're cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can't be free, be a mystery.
Rita Dove is a former U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-1995) and recipient of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Sonata Mulattica (2009). Dove currently teaches at the University of Virginia. She was named the 11th Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters at Bucknell University.
This poem pays homage to Billie Holiday, an influential African American singer who redefined jazz vocals and is perhaps best known for the protest song "Strange Fruit." Dove's poem riffs on ways African Americans and women resist oppression.