I usually find poetry intimidating and narrative poetry puzzling. How could this be the best way to tell a story? Wouldn't a novel work better — or a graphic novel, or a movie, or a mini-series? No. Rita Dove's brilliance, her authority, her humor and compassion and sheer technical mastery make Sonata Mulattica the definitive biography of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.
Bridgetower was a mixed-race violin prodigy born in 1780, taken under Haydn's wing at the Esterházy court, then trotted all over Europe to give concerts. The crux of Dove's story comes when, in 1803, Bridgetower meets Beethoven. The great composer writes a violin sonata for him, No. 9 in A major. Bridgetower performs it magnificently and Beethoven is elated. The pair celebrate together and — fatal mistake — Bridgetower flirts with a young woman Beethoven has been ogling. Such a small thing, but the consequences were tragic. Beethoven repudiated him and rededicated the sonata to Rodolphe Kreutzer (who considered it unplayable). Bridgetower's moment of glory came to a swift end. Then followed rueful years of further wandering and decline.
The narrative is structured in "Five Movements and a Short Play." Each titled "movement" consists of a group of poems clustered around a theme. For instance, "Bread & Butter, Turbans & Chinoiserie" covers Bridgetower's spell at the English court, while the "Short Play" enacts the misplaced flirtation. Telling any story requires selection. Telling it in poetry, with brief, intense bursts of emotion and imagery, means that every scene or poem must distill the essence of the narrative into a potency that expands in the reader's imagination — or, as Dove herself puts it, "This is a tale of light and shadow/ what we hear and the silence that follows."
Dove's poems function like Impressionist touches of paint, independently lovely and together forming a picture. She uses a range of forms, mostly free verse, some more structured, some spare. Her themes are the big ones — life, love, music, race, identity, success, genius, luck. She scatters the point of view among her protagonists: Beethoven says, "I am by nature a conflagration." The Prince Regent says, "There can never be enough pleasure." Bridgetower himself says, "If I could step out/ into the street and become/ one of them,/ one of anything,/ I would sing — / no, weep right here — to simply/ be and be and be...."