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By Rita Dove

What did he do except lie

under a pear tree, wrapped in

a great cloak, and meditate

on the heavenly bodies?

Venerable, the good people of Baltimore

whispered, shocked and more than

a little afraid. After all it was said

he took to strong drink.

Why else would he stay out

under the stars all night

and why hadn’t he married?

But who would want him! Neither

Ethiopian nor English, neither

lucky nor crazy, a capacious bird

humming as he penned in his mind

another enflamed letter

to President Jefferson—he imagined

the reply, polite and rhetorical.

Those who had been to Philadelphia

reported the statue

of Benjamin Franklin

before the library

his very size and likeness.

A wife? No, thank you.

At dawn he milked

the cows, then went inside

and put on a pot to stew

while he slept. The clock

he whittled as a boy

still ran. Neighbors

woke him up

with warm bread and quilts.

At nightfall he took out

his rifle—a white-maned

figure stalking the darkened

breast of the Union—and

shot at the stars, and by chance

one went out. Had he killed?

I assure thee, my dear Sir!

Lowering his eyes to fields

sweet with the rot of spring, he could see

a government’s domed city

rising from the morass and spreading

in a spiral of lights….


Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), first black man to devise an almanac and predict a solar eclipse accurately, was also appointed to the commission that surveyed and laid out what is now Washington, D.C.

Rita Dove, “Banneker” from Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983). Copyright © 1983 by Rita Dove. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Museum (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983)

  • Mythology & Folklore
  • Nature
  • Social Commentaries

Poet Bio

Rita Dove
The second African-American woman to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, and only the second to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Thomas and Beulah, 1987), Rita Dove has achieved a great deal in her career.  Her multi-layered poems dramatize the stories of individuals both living and dead against the backdrop of larger historical forces. See More By This Poet

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