No scene could be worse

Stephen Burt

  • BuyTonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-10 by Adrienne Rich
    Norton, 89 pp, £19.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 393 07967 8
  • BuyA Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008 by Adrienne Rich
    Norton, 180 pp, £11.99, July 2010, ISBN 978 0 393 33830 0

Adrienne Rich’s new poems show qualities that almost require the label ‘late style’. They are made up of fragments, careless of finish and of audience. In technique, as well as in explicit subjects, they account for debilities and advancing years, which they also fiercely defy, and they look back so insistently to her earlier work that they may not seem designed to stand up on their own.

How did Rich get to this point? She was a Radcliffe undergraduate when Auden picked A Change of World for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1951; that book and The Diamond Cutters (1955) demonstrate an elegant if all too well-adjusted 1950s establishment style: ‘Between foreseeing and averting change/Lies all the mastery of elements/ Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.’ Another poem begins: ‘We had to take the world as it was given.’ This polite stoicism is a fit foil for the activist Rich later became, who counselled us not to mistake habits for fate: ‘They can rule the world,’ she decided in 1975, ‘while they can persuade us/our pain belongs in some order.’

Rich married the Harvard-trained economist Alfred Conrad, staying in Massachusetts with him until 1966; they had three sons. She spent most of the late 1950s at home, trapped more than she could then articulate. The title poem in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law (1963) described domestic ambivalence, the poet as artist craving space and time, the poet as mother looking for precedents in history (Mary Wollstonecraft) and in the heavens:

Banging the coffee-pot into the sink
she hears the angels chiding, and looks out
past the raked gardens to the sloppy sky.
Only a week since They said: Have no patience.

The next time it was: Be insatiable.
Then: Save yourself; others you cannot save.

Mellifluous when she started, Rich later mastered a percussive dissonance in unobtrusive metres and jagged free verse. She used that aural force to represent private conflict and then – especially after she and her family moved to New York – for reactions to public events, far away (Vietnam) but also close at hand (protests at City College of New York). Leaflets (1969) began with ‘Orion’, now an anthology piece. It is a strenuous trimeter meditation on artistic power and psychological freedom; the constellation appears as ‘my fierce half-brother’, though a sword ‘weighs you down as you stride//and the stars in it are dim/and maybe have stopped burning./But you burn, and I know it.’ Can she, should she, burn as Orion does, strike out on her own as he did? Apparently not: instead ‘I bruise and blunder,’ stuck ‘indoors … children are dying my death/ and eating crumbs of my life.’

‘Orion’ looked back at a yearning for independence; other work from the late 1960s solicited comrades in arms. ‘Last night you wrote on the wall: Revolution is poetry./Today you needn’t write; the wall has tumbled down.’ ‘How did we get caught up fighting this forest fire,/we, who were only looking for a still place in the woods?’ Rich was hardly alone in trying to make her writing more raw, but she was almost alone in successfully finding forms – uneven gravelly stanzas, explosive exclamations, rhymeless Americanised ‘ghazals’ – broken enough to suit a liberal outlook that had been smashed to bits.

Rich was ‘trying to drive a tradition up against the wall’, ‘looking for a way out of a lifetime’s consolations’, gritting her teeth and asking where she should go. Diving into the Wreck (1973), despite its reputation, did not show the way; it was a feminist statement, soon famous as such, but also a statement of frightening pain, its author seeing herself as stranded, in extremis, in mourning, on fire. Conrad killed himself in 1970; Rich reacted in ‘From a Survivor’, one of her starkest poems.

During the 1970s, Rich became acknowledged as a leader among US feminists. She also came out as lesbian, in prose and in Twenty-One Love Poems (1977). ‘No woman is really an insider,’ she warned in 1979, ‘in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness,’ and so she worked, in hortatory verse, in argumentative prose, in commencement addresses, as an editor and an organiser, to build other institutions. While her poetry became clogged with autobiography and biography slackly retold (‘She sank however into my soul,’ Rich wrote of Ethel Rosenberg, ‘I hardly can register how deep/her memory has sunk’), her essays and lectures were challenging a generation to read with feminist eyes and to wonder what beyond mere equality of opportunity the cause might entail. The same essays track further changes in her life: moves away from New York, first back to New England and then to Santa Cruz, California, where she has lived since 1984 with her partner, Michelle Cliff.

Rich says that she became interested in Marx around 1980; before then, but especially since, her poems and prose have insisted that every injustice is complicit in the rest. Her poems of the 1980s feel more like her poems of the 1960s, because she no longer holds up an exemplary solidarity as the solution to most problems. That’s partly because the solutions seemed to recede (her prose is explicit about the crushing disenchantment of the months after Reagan took office), but partly because her attention turned to race, to developing nations and to the environment, dilemmas in which few in affluent countries can claim innocence:

The clouds and the stars didn’t wage this war
the brooks gave no information
if the mountain spewed stones of fire into the river
it was not taking sides

Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), in which those lines appear, also contained the best of her verse talismans on the theme ‘everything is connected’:

Suppose you want to write
of a woman braiding
another woman’s hair –
straight down, or with beads and shells
in three-strand plaits or corn-rows –
you had better know the thickness
     the length the pattern
why she decides to braid her hair
how it is done to her
what country it happens in
what else happens in that country

You have to know these things

It is not so different from the advice that avowedly apolitical teachers give: write what you know; learn what you need to know. (The corn-rows are a nice touch, since they can signify white hippies or African American pride; there were lawsuits about them – could employers ban them? – during the 1980s.) It is advice that, followed to the letter, would make anyone more aware of politics, economics and history. And it is advice that, taken literally, cannot be followed: do you have to know everything to write anything? It can lead to a state of mind either exhausted by the compulsion to decry every injustice, or else paralysed by a puritanical alertness to the politics of everything, a state of mind in which, as Rich put it later, ‘you cannot eat an egg/ You don’t know where it’s been.’

The later Rich is suspicious of beauty without morals, but she does not, in the end, reject it; instead she complements it with the moral lessons that must, for her, stay close at hand. Thus An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991) shows a landscape romantically observed – ‘What I love here/is old ranches, leaning seaward, lowroofed spreads between rocks … the eucalyptus avenue leading/to the wrecked homestead, the fogwreathed heavy-chested cattle/on their blond hills’ – and then a paysage moralisé:

Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms
This is the breadbasket of foreclosed farms

To leave out either of these ways of seeing – the literal-observed and the analytic-historical – would be to ignore what, for Rich, we should know: it would be to imagine isolation when in fact everything is connected.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve is a rough book, full of frayed connections, between Rich and other people, between Rich and America, between ways of thinking about poetry. It also looks back to earlier poems, among them ‘Orion’. Rich’s lesser early poems felt, as she has said, ‘like exercises … written out of technique and habit’. Now the lesser passages feel like notes from scrapbooks, to be expanded at some later date, and some of the best passages feel that way too. In a new poem called ‘Innocence’ she deplores the racially segregated comfort with which she grew up:

confederations of the progeny
cottaged along these roads

front-centre colonials
shrubbery lights in blue
and silver

crèche on the judge’s lawn  O the dear baby

People craving  in their mouths
warm milk over soft white bread

Late style here means spare fragments, scattered memories and some self-disgust. (In the US, ‘crèche’ means a Nativity scene rather than the place you drop off children.)

Other new poems are lists, ‘slowly repetitiously’, as Rich admits, cataloguing reasons for outrage. She has a sense that she has said it all before: ‘The old, crusading, raping, civil, great, phoney, holy, world,/ second world, third world … class/war lives on.’ The lists in ‘Ballade of the Poverties’ mangle and scuff the iterative form of a Provençal ballad:

There’s the poverty of the cockroach kingdom and the rusted toilet bowl
The poverty of to steal food for the first time
The poverty of to mouth a penis for a paycheck
The poverty of sweet charity ladling
Soup for the poor who must always be there for that

When you read a lot of Rich you see repeated motifs: places and people on fire; a wild fox, alluring and unconstrained; a boat she has to pilot, a marsh or sandbank or peninsula she has to leave. All these figures come back in Tonight, a book as explicit as late Yeats or late Heaney in its return to the poet’s prior work. There are also recurring character types: during the late 1960s, guerrilla warriors; during the 1970s, female explorers, daring their way two by two through the harsh unknown. Then and now, there are also would-be male allies ultimately left behind: in Midnight Salvage (1999) a real young man in a wheelchair whom Rich dated in college; in Tonight, an imaginary friend from Rich’s childhood with the unlikely name Axel Avákar,

your profile hovering
there  Axel as if we’d lain prone at fifteen
on my attic bedroom floor  elbow to elbow reading

in Baltimorean August-
blotted air

         Axel I’m back to you
brother of strewn books  of late
hours drinking poetry scooped in both hands

Dreamed you into existence, did I, boy-
comrade who would love everything I loved

She wants to account for her choices to remembered men like him, not just to the women of the future.

Rich makes physical ailments figures for social ills. She compares, not for the first time, her phrases to scalpels: ‘For every bandaged wound/I’ll scrape another open.’ The poet as surgeon becomes poet as patient:

All, all is remote from here: yachts carelessly veering
tanker’s beak plunging into the strut of the bridge
slicked encircling waters
wired wrists  jerked-back heads
gagged mouths  flooded lungs

The victims of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib struggle under the oil slick of the Gulf, in a picture grislier than – but indebted to – William Carlos Williams’s poem of 1930s class struggle ‘The Yachts’. And then Rich addresses herself:

From shores of sickness you lie out on listless
waters with no boundaries  floodplain without horizon
dun skies mirroring its opaque face and nothing not
a water moccasin or floating shoe or tree root to stir interest
Somewhere else being the name of whatever once said your name

For an activist in search of solidarity, any isolation is bad; for an artist so insistently representational, so badly needing something to show us, no scene could be worse. What can Rich do in her becalmed, repellent historical moment, in this country of ours, as Auden once put it, where nobody is well? She can report on how it feels to live there, as she has always done:

You could offer any soul-tricking oarsman
whatever coin you’re still palming but there’s a divide
between the shores of sickness and the legendary, purifying
river of death  You will have this tale to tell, you will have to live
to tell
this tale

Note the sharp variation in pace and how, as she returns to her ‘tale’, the adjectives drop away.

Few of the tales in her recent prose are so carefully told. A Human Eye collects ten years of forewords, personal statements and reviews, none as explosive as her earlier essays on Bishop and Dickinson, on sexuality and motherhood. They are valuable mostly because they come from the author of those essays and of the poems. The language Rich uses to praise the late June Jordan is typical: ‘She believed, and nourished the belief, that genuine up-from-the-bottom revolution must include art, laughter, sensual pleasure and the widest possible human referentiality.’ What, in this sentence, does ‘revolution’ mean?

A Human Eye also contains an encomium Rich wrote for a new edition of James Scully’s Line Break, a collection of Marxist essays on poetry first published in 1988. A radical writer, Scully says, must conduct self-criticism and make it audible in the poems. Yet this self-searching can’t be allowed to mean inner exile or withdrawal: ‘A realised work entails … extratextual social praxis.’ It’s a forbidding prescription, part Brecht and part New Left, but it describes what Rich has been trying to do. The awkwardness that results from such attempts ‘may be perceived as formless’ – it may really be formless, as Scully does not say – but it may also be something scarily, fragmentarily new, something that rebukes by its very haltingness those of us who seem more content than Rich with the world as it is. Rich says that she, like Scully, wants an art robust enough to fit ‘the trajectory of all whose desire for social justice is inseparable from their need for beauty’ – a tough goal. Rich’s own poetry meets the challenge best – of making the ethical interesting – when it recognises the complexity of the world along with the clarity of her own moral demands.

Some sympathy with Rich’s politics, some sense that we live in a time of ecological emergency, is needed if you are to have sympathy with most of her work. But you do not need to feel, as Rich has sometimes felt, that our broad political dilemmas are the most important thing in your own life. You do not need to feel that all your decisions have to be accounted for or that the future – perhaps brightly, humbly egalitarian, more likely crowded, flooded, polluted and disappointed – will be your judge. But you do have to be able to imagine what it would be like to feel that way.

It is hard to imagine what a reader who didn’t know or didn’t care about Rich’s earlier books would make of Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. It pursues the kind of late style that asks us to know what came before. For readers who do care, though, it has new and vivid ways to see the contest that has driven her all along: on the one hand, the hope for solidarity; on the other, the artist whose words must stand alone.