This poem by Rita Dove is about the playful conversation of a mother and daughter regarding their lady parts. But, why did Dove allude to the controversial picture book for children, ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ in the title?
Rita Dove’s poem, “After Reading ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ for the Third Time Before Bed” isn’t just a late-night mother-daughter conversation regarding the exploration of lady parts. It’s much more than the apparent layer of innocence. There are several themes in this poem that aren’t only limited to a little girl’s simplicity and curiosity while learning about her body. The themes such as sexuality, gender-bias, innocence vs experience, and womanhood are there in this poem. Whatsoever, the allusion to the controversial book in the title is explained thoroughly in the analysis section below.
There is something deep inside the playful conversation of a mother and her daughter that begins with the little girl finding her lady-part or vagina. The speaker of the poem is her mother who somehow tries to make her child aware of her body and sexuality. After seeing her mother’s matured body, the child tries to find the similarities between them. Finding one, she shrieks, “We’re pink (mama)!”. But when she sees blood during her mother’s menstruation, she becomes frightened. Still, her mother tries to console her that it’s not bad. This feature makes them what they are.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem contains three stanzas. The first two stanzas talk about a singular idea. Whereas the last stanza marks a shift in the poem. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. Only in a few instances, the poet uses slant rhymes. Whatsoever, the poem contains internal rhyming that keeps the flow of the poem unrestrained. While metrically analyzing the poem, it becomes clear that the poem flows in a mixed-pattern of rhythm. There are both the iambic meter and the trochaic meter in the text. In some lines, one can also find some spondees. As an example, “spilled toys” and “neat cameo” are spondees.
There are several literary devices in “After Reading ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ for the Third Time Before Bed”. Being a modern poem, the poet connects the lines of the poem by using enjambment. There is a metaphor in “this mistaken bit of nomenclature”. Here, the poet refers to the sense of the word, “vagina” for comparing it with the mistaken nomenclature of an idea. In this metaphor, there is irony too. Along with that, “lopsided star”, “spilled toys”, and “cameo” also contain metaphors. The poet also uses alliteration in this phrase, “mine and momentarily”. Thereafter, in the line, “This is good blood”, the poet presents a paradox. Likewise, the line, “black mother, cream child” contains an antithesis. The last two lines contain a chiasmus.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
My daughter spreads her legs
to find her vagina:
my prodigious scallops
exposed to her neat cameo.
Dove’s poem begins with an epilogue, “I’m the milk and the milk’s in me! … I’m Mickey!” Here, the poet uses an allusion to the children’s book, ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The reference to the book’s name in the title that the poet has read three times before going to bed has significance concerning the subject matter of the poem. In the book, the titular character Mickey floats to the “Night Kitchen” in his dream. Reaching there he finds himself naked. The dream continues with him without any clothes. In this book, the writer explores a child’s curiosity about his body and sexual organs. Likewise, in this poem, Dove presents her daughter’s curiosity regarding her lady-parts. So, the theme of both works is somehow connected internally.
When the speaker completes reading the book, she finds her daughter spreading her legs to find her vagina. It is hairless, symbolizing innocence and purity. According to the poet, “vagina” is a mistaken “bit of nomenclature”. It is true. As “vagina” comes from the Latin equivalent of “sheath”. Sheath being a cover for a sword doesn’t fit the sense of this lady-part. However, the little girl doesn’t allow a stranger touching her lady-part without her yelling. Here, the poet refers to how innocence suffers in the face of experience.
She demands to see her mother’s vagina. Then the speaker feels as if they are like a “lopsided star”. She is a mature woman and her child is just three. Besides her “prodigious scallops,” her daughter’s lady-part looks like a “neat cameo” or a neat jewel.
And yet the same glazed
she shrieks, and bounds off.
The speaker sees her vagina as the “same glazed tunnel” and some “layered sequences”. There is no beauty in her matured vagina. Still, her three-year-old daughter finds it beautiful. She innocently remarks, “We’re pink”. It seems that the sight has generated a mixed kind of feelings inside her innocent mind. It’s a concoction of fear, curiosity, shame, and strangeness. That’s why, she “shrieks, and bounds off.” Here, the usage of the word “pink” is ironic. It refers to the impregnation of the gender-bias in a girl child’s mind. “Pink” can’t be the identity of this girl. Still, she somehow learned this expression either from her mother or society.
Every month she wants
to know where it hurts
That we’re in the pink
and the pink’s in us.
In the third stanza of Dove’s poem, the speaker refers to her child’s curiosity and fear regarding her menstruation. She wants to know what hurts her mother that she bleeds so. And what the “wrinkled string” means between her legs. Are those things normal in a woman’s life? Is it what makes a girl, a woman? The answer is yes. But, for a child digesting such things is odd. Hence, the mother says, “This is good blood.” She knows it’s wrong to deviate her child from the topic. However, it’s also true at such an early age she can’t understand it. It can make him even fearful about her future.
Moreover, the speaker creates a contrast in the line, “black mother, cream child”. It’s a proclamation of their identity. The usage of the word “cream” is a metaphor for simplicity and innocence. It also refers to the child’s complexion. Lastly, the chiasmus follows the pattern of the epilogue, “That we’re in the pink/ and the pink’s in us”. Here, “pink” stands for another misconception regarding the identity of a woman. Society thinks women are destined to be in the “pink section”. And, the women never find it disturbing. Hence, it’s women who never question this. And accepting this bias, they keep this cycle moving. That’s why the “pink” is within them as well as in society.
“After Reading ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ for the Third Time Before Bed” appeared in Rita Dove’s poetry collection “Grace Notes”. In this poem, the poet alludes to one of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000” list, “In the Night Kitchen” written by Maurice Sendak. The book was first published in 1970. It illustrates Mickey’s dream journey to a surreal baker’s kitchen. The young boy assists in the making of a cake there. However, the overall story is simple and dream-like. But, the illustrations of the book caused controversy. The book depicts a fully naked Mickey when he reaches the “Night Kitchen”. Apart from that, critics also find sexual innuendo in the episodes, with the nudity, free-flowing milky fluids, and giant penis-like milk bottle. As a result, the book raised controversy and got banned later.
The poet had probably read this book before writing the poem. Through the allusion to the book’s name in the title as well as in the epilogue, she showed her support for Maurice’s concept. It’s not obscene to depict a child’s sexuality for an educational purpose. However, critics don’t find it disturbing while seeing naked Christ’s portrait. But, the depiction of a young child like Mickey, is morally problematic for them. The poet criticizes this mentality of people in this poem. However, she also sarcastically comments on gender-bias, sexuality, and the socially structured identity of a woman here.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes of Dove’s “After Reading ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ for the Third Time Before Bed”.
- An Introduction by Kamala Das – In this poem, Kamala Das proclaims her feminine identity without caring much about the hypocrisy and rigidity of the conventional Indian society.
- Praise Song For My Mother by Grace Nichols – In this poem written by the African poet Grace Nichols, there is a similar theme of the mother-daughter relationship. Here, the speaker talks about how much her mother meant to her.
- My Mother’s Kitchen by Choman Hardi – In this poem, the poet explores various items that a mother is giving to her daughter as she moves away. The poem is a reflection of the real-life events revolving around Hardi’s life.
- Catrin by Gillian Clarke – This piem displays the love and turmoil in the parent-child relationship. It centers around a conflict that seems to have risen into fury rather quickly.
- The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me by Eavan Boland – In this poem, the poet speaks on the themes of love, relationship, time, and aging. Boland presents a story around a fan her mother gave her.