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About this Poem 

"I'm a fanatic ballroom dancer, and Latin rhythms are usually invigorating. But I find mambo simultaneously joyous and poignant for two reasons: first, the pause in the rhythm (stop!-2-3-4) suggests that something's always missing—a hole in the fabric of celebration, perhaps. And, secondly, the memory of Manny dancing with his beautiful young instructor, oxygen tank on his back, suggests a way to plug that hole, even though we know that some patterns—disease, age—are relentless and will grind on long after the dance is done."
—Rita Dove

Borderline Mambo

Rita Dove, 1952

As if the lid stayed put on the marmalade.
As if you could get the last sip of champagne
out of the bottom of the fluted glass.
As if we weren’t all dying, as if we all weren’t
going to die some time, as if we knew for certain
when, or how. As if the baseball scores made sense
to the toddler. As if the dance steps mattered, or there’s a point
where they don’t. For instance wheelchair. Heart flutter.
Oxygen bottle mounted on the septuagenarian's back
at the state ballroom competitions—that’s Manny,
still pumping the mambo with his delicious slip
of an instructor, hip hip hooray. Mambo, for instance,
if done right, gives you a chance to rest: one beat in four.
One chance in four, one chance in ten, a hundred, as if
we could understand what that means. Hooray. Keep
pumping. As if you could keep the lid on a secret
once the symptoms start to make sense. A second
instance, a respite. A third. Always that hope.
If we could just scrape that last little bit
out, if only it wouldn’t bottom out
before they can decode the message
sent to the cells. Of course it matters when, even though
(because?) we live in mystery. For instance
Beauty. Love. Honor. As if we didn’t like
secrets. Point where it hurts. Of course we’ll tell.

Copyright © 2013 by Rita Dove. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on August 28, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Copyright © 2013 by Rita Dove. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on August 28, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Rita Dove

Rita Dove

The author of numerous collections of poetry, Rita Dove served as the United States poet laureate from 1993 to 1995.

by this poet

poem
Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, 
or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me....
	The Heiligenstadt Testament

Three miles from my adopted city 
lies a village where I came to peace.
The world there was a calm place, 
even the great Danube no more 
than a pale ribbon tossed
poem

 

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poem
She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her.  What's this,

I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that's when I saw she was dressed all in gray,
from a