Rita Dove’s “Yellow House on the Corner”

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

Rita Dove is an award-winning poet and author and the second African-American poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1987 for her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah. Dove grew up in Ohio, taught for almost a decade at Arizona State University, and eventually settled in Virginia, where she teaches at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Among many awards and honorary doctoral degrees bestowed on her, Dove also served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, one of our country’s most prestigious honors for American poets.

Even the high roar of a leaf-mulcher
could be the horn blast from a ship…

“Yellow House on the Corner,” the title poem taken from her first collection, Yellow House on the Corner (1980), is an interesting protest poem that challenges our notion of neighborhood and community. The poem consists of four stanzas and moves in and out of detailed description, historical allusion, and plainspoken admission. The central them of the poem seems to be change and how even small change — the way a vowel is spoken, for example — can have large ramifications in a community.

Yellow House on the Corner

Shape the lips to an o, say a. That’s island.
One word of Swedish has changed the whole neighborhood.
When I look up, the yellow house on the corner
is a galleon stranded in flowers. Around it

the wind. Even the high roar of a leaf-mulcher
could be the horn blast from a ship
as it skirts the misted shoals. We don’t need much more to keep things
going. Families complete themselves
and refuse to budge from the present,
the present extends its glass forehead to sea
(backyard breezes, scattered cardinals)

and if, one evening, the house on the corner
took off over the marshland,
neither I nor my neighbor
would be amazed. Sometimes

a word is found so right it trembles
at the slightest explanation. You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing’s
like it used to be, not even the future.

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