By Rita Dove
240 pages; Norton
For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove, history is a whispering corridor full of ghosts and voices. In her new suite of linked poems, Sonata Mulattica, Dove dramatizes the life of George Polgreen Bridgetower (1780–1860), son of a European woman and a self-proclaimed "African prince." By 10, George was already startling Continental audiences with his brilliance on the violin. The poet re-creates this prodigy's world—the palaces of Hungary, the concert halls of Paris, where Thomas Jefferson and (Dove imagines) his mistress and slave, Sally Hemmings, were dazzled by the boy's performance. But it was Beethoven, the stormiest genius of the age, who inscribed Polgreen into history. Inspired by his playing, Beethoven dashed off a difficult sonata for violin and piano; the young man couldn't read some hastily scribbled passages, so he improvised to glorious effect. Beethoven was thrilled—until George, as Dove puts it, "blatantly ogled the object of Ludwig's affections." The famous sonata was rededicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, and the young violinist drifted into obscurity. Dove brings him alive with a poet's gift for the world of the senses: rustling silks, the skin of a young girl "dark yet warm / as the violin's nut-brown sheen," the moan of a great church organ "as it shudders—a great lung / hauling its grief...." Dove's richly imagined book has the sweep and vivid characters of a novel, but it's written with a poet's economy, an eye for the exact detail.