Rita Dove’s “Canary”
July 17, 2014 | by Chantal McStay
Billie Holiday died fifty-five years ago today. Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.
These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.
Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:
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.
I first came across “Canary” in Dove’s 1991 collection Grace Notes, which, as its title suggests, is full of poems that navigate the subtle intersection between word and sound, poetry and melody. I was struck by the Holiday elegy for its reverence—for its refusal to impose a tidy summation on the jazz figure. There’s no hint of the pathetic. Dove doesn’t try to capture Holiday—the image of the caged canary suggests that’s already been done by too many. Instead, she focuses on illuminating complexity, putting language to the strange sadness that flickers throughout Billy Holiday’s music.
The short poem evokes Holiday by insisting on the fugitive, the complex, and the fragmented; Dove conjures the depth and grain of Holiday’s voice, with its shadows and lights, and mobilizes it as a metaphor for a life of highs and lows. The poem shifts in verb tense and perspective, creating a kind of alternate timeline—stanzas meld the past and the present, reminding the reader of the web of intricate struggles behind the sob story that so often stands in place of Holiday’s life. The past is made up of a series of compiled immediacies—we remember the tragic narrative as easily as we forget the individual moments of practical need fulfillment and doing what “you have to.”
Dove presents Holiday’s aesthetic as one emerging from entrapment: Holiday, like a canary, sings through a cage, her personal truth boxed in by tabloid reconstructions and memory distortions. And Dove’s own tersely enigmatic poem formally embodies this constraint. “Fact is, the invention of women under siege / has been to sharpen love in the service of myth,” Dove writes, confronting the interplay of fact and legend in depicting the famous jazz singer. Holiday’s music proves that she’s a shrewd, masterful performer, but she’s burdened by a posthumous narrative that pins her as a tragedy, a beaten woman, an addict, a criminal, a prostitute. A poem like Dove’s allows us to see beyond these labels. The strongest weapon against being “invented” by others? Inscrutability. “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
The full text of the poem is available online through the Poetry Foundation.
Chantal McStay studies English at Columbia University and is an intern at The Paris Review.