Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Two poetry collections by Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich in 1979

[Image source: . Photo by Susan Wilson, in the Radcliffe Archives, Schlesinger Library (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University).]

The Dream of a Common Language (Poems 1974-1977)

The title refers to poetry; that much, you could conclude from the poem in which the words appear, Origins and History of Consciousness. But not just any old poetry – this poetry. I think I wasn’t so off-track in at first supposing that it also has a specific feminist weight; a connexion with the dream of a common sisterhood.

So the book is to some extent meta-poetry, poems about a search for a new poetry (I suppose many good poems are like that to a certain extent; stopping short of being just Klein bottles...). But NOT just any poetry. The art that is being sought and dreamt of is so close as to be identical with a life (but not any life) and a power and a society.

Perhaps it might all be mixed up with the sort of polemical assertions that new love tends to induce in poets. But Rich gives an honest answer to that:

                       I want to call this, life.

But I can’t call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.

It so happens that the central part of the book is a sequence called Twenty-One Love Poems. In fact there are twenty-two of them, and only the unnumbered one is truly a love poem, an aching concession to feeling. The rest is taut with watchfulness, open to the world and to unmendable wounds. And the relationship it memorialises, fails. It wasn’t the Nirvana that she wanted it to be,

and soon I shall know I was talking to my own soul.


But this is a momentary dejection (the anger is less momentary). In an earlier part of the sequence she says:

            Your small hands, precisely equal to my own
            only the thumb is larger, longer in these hands
            I could trust the world, or in many hands like these,


Do I trust Adrienne Rich’s hands?

It’s a collection that you’re compelled to read as a whole, straight through; all of the poems are focussed on and veering towards the “common language” of the title. But some of the poems I don’t like. Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev is one (and it’s the second poem in the collection, and substantially longer than the first, so that’s offputting). The Lioness, the last poem in the first part (which is called, and is about, Power) is another. And, in the third part, Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff – and a few others. At first I just shrugged my shoulders about these perversities of taste, but if I stop to examine them there seems to be a pattern. I seem to have a problem with the poet speaking through the mouths of, or pretending to look through the eyes of, other women. Basically I feel that she’s somehow co-opting them to say what she thinks – that she isn’t showing them enough respect. And that also applies to the lioness. I find myself thinking: We men have used women enough; must you do it too?

But now it’s possible that I’m reacting to something right, and righteous, and right-on in the book. Perhaps to the pride in these words:

                                My guilt is at least open,
            I stand convicted by all my convictions


It really wouldn’t be surprising if my hopeful stance of the man-who-would-understand (Natural Resources) was found out and thoroughly implicated by this book, of all books.

The poetry leaps out of a voice that is often plain, even skeletal.
while her mind and body in Manhattan are more with me
than the smell of eucalyptus coolly burning    on these hills


The drift of the sentence actually tries to undercut the evocativeness of “coolly burning” – not to mock it, but to accept its limits.  It wants to speak freely and not be constrained to putting out a steady production line of flowers. “mind and body in Manhattan” is the best way to talk.

Nevertheless there is a continuous subtlety of form in the poems. The best ones, it seems to me, are Origins and History of Consciousness, Splittings, Cartographies of Silence, and the three poems at the end of the book: Natural Resources, Toward the Solstice and Transcendental Etude

All these poems are medium-length – a few pages – and I suppose they might all be called meditations. There is a great deal of cross-current between the poems: for instance, “the gap / in the Great Nebula” (Natural Resources) and “the rift / in the Great Nebula” (Transcendental Etude); or the spiders’ webs in A Woman Dead in her Forties, Natural Resources and Toward the Solstice. Nevertheless, each poem keeps its own identity; it has a distinct music, a distinct form though it is nothing so mechanical as a stanza form. You have to read the poem to hear it.

In the first of these poems, Origins and History of Consciousness, the key word “simple”, which ties it all together, is delayed until the beginning of the third paragraph:

Thinking of lovers, their blind faith, their
experienced crucifixions,
my envy is not simple.

The poems often circle before dropping down on their chosen line of progression. Their right-on-ness, their compulsion to tell the truth and to be on the right side, is what can’t be wished away, for it makes them what they are: confrontational, directly challenging, unapologetic. They nevertheless admit to complexities: consider how in the lines just quoted the word “experienced” can mean both “something they actually felt” and “something they were practised at”.

There is insecurity, too. Cartographies of Silence ends with this positivity:

            what in fact I keep choosing

            are these words, these whispers, conversations
            from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.

But the poem is haunted by a different power, the power of silence. Or perhaps “power” is the wrong word, since Rich views it with such misgivings:

            She died     a famous woman    denying
            her wounds
            her wounds    came    from the same source as her power

(Marie Curie in Power)

Natural Resources, again, ends forthrightly enough:

            I have to cast my lot with those
            who age after age, perversely,

            with no extraordinary power,
            reconstitute the world.

But the poem has insecurities. In the “circling” opening we happen on the image of a woman miner. Immediately the poet is on the defensive: “The miner is no metaphor”. Well, perhaps. There were more than three thousand woman coal miners in the US in the early seventies. Still, the image can’t help but make us consider that, after all, most miners have been male. And that’s allowed to undercut the argument. There was no need: women’s labour is in fact a main component in our world, as Rich more straightforwardly persuades us in Divisions of Labor (a poem in Time’s Power). But Natural Resources gains from the subtle fault. It circles its way to a vision of a barn sale, of things – not words but silent, practical things - collected by women of the past (“These things by women saved / are all we have of them”).  Their silence was a weakness – was it? but if power is called into question, perhaps weakness might be strength. In those closing words (quoted above), the meaning of “cast my lot with” is now vulnerable. It sounds like it means “stand up for”, but it also sounds like it can’t mean “be one of”. In short, the poem is open to questioning: one is lucky, perhaps, to have a public voice, and necessarily separated from the people one stands up for.

Toward the Solstice is equally uncertain, and I think (perhaps I’m not meant to) there’s a promise in its uncertainty. The solstice is a hard, physical fact; it’s a time that does come. Is it a winter or a summer solstice? And what does it mean, for the speaker? “It seems I am still waiting / for them to make some clear demand...” The poem is about a revolution, but isn’t 100% committed to revolution though it would like to be. A vein of images ties the speaker to continuities. She finds herself

                   trusting to instinct
the words would come to mind
I have failed or forgotten to say
year after year, winter
after summer, the right rune
to ease the hold of the past
upon the rest of my life
and ease my hold on the past.

That ringing phrase, “the right rune”, jumps out of the flow of the sentence. You could say that it epitomises the confrontational, idealistic, engaged position that The Dream of a Common Language often arrives at, and always dreams of.  

In the rather random lines I’ve quoted, a preoccupation comes to light: time after time, age after age, year after year. These phrases are absolutes: they assert the conviction, the amassed evidence, with which the poet puts forward a proposition. But they also suggest continuity, waves of time that go round. That seems to me characteristic of much of the revolutionary art of the 1960s and 70s. It starts with folk music, not with futurism.

Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988

This collection, too, has a mannerism. You can see its origin, in fact, in the lines just quoted above:

            to ease the hold of the past
            upon the rest of my life
            and ease my hold on the past

The lines describe a relationship, and then they switch it round. So the first poem here, Solfegietto, addressed to the poet’s mother, ends:

            What was worth fighting for? What did you want?
            What did I want from you?

(The title means something like “in the manner of scale exercises” and the poem is about the mother’s failed attempt to make her daughter a virtuoso. In Transcendental Etude Rich had spoken out about how little she trusts that kind of achievement. This poem attempts to probe beyond that statement.)

The next poem ends:

            Do you think I don’t remember?
            did you think I was all-powerful
            unimpaired    unappalled?
            yes    you needed that from me
            I wanted this from you


It’s a sort of companion-piece to the first poem (now it’s Rich who is the mother). But the double questions and the reversals of relationships continue through the poems that follow:

            does she ever forget how they left, how they taught her leaving?

                                                                        (Harper’s Ferry)

            What would you bring along on a trek like this?
            What is bringing you along?


Time’s Power is less absorbed with the poet’s own mission. It has less wrong with it than The Dream of a Common Language, and is less urgent; less exciting, maybe. The double questions admit the otherness of the world. Yet the poem I like best is Harper’s Ferry, not least because the abused child’s wounded leg is a covert allusion to the poet’s own disability (the poem that comes after it begins with her “walking in a walker on the cliffs”). Harper’s Ferry is complex, and owns up to the poet’s own involvement in its docu-fiction. It’s about armed struggle, and the verse is urgent, from the “October-shortened sun” of the third line; time, it seems, moves forward rather rapidly, for later we find

                     the decanter of moonlight pours its mournless liquid down
            steadily on the solstice fields

I suppose solstice continues to imply a millennial or critical moment (see Toward the Solstice, above). I want to quote this, too:

            But this girl is expert in overhearing
            and one word leaps off the windowpanes like the crack of dawn,
            the translation of the babble of two rivers. What does this girl
            with her little family quarrel, know about arsenals?

(The answer is, quite a lot...) These two passages give an idea of the odd, excited nature of the poetry. You could say that it’s a poem that’s in love with guns. But it’s in love, too, with cold mint tea. And it’s also horrified, for example, by the brothers who have

                                                climbed her over and over
            leaving their wet clots in her sheets

The other poems that I’ve gone back to most often are Living Memory and Turnings. I haven’t pondered the desert imagery in the collection as much as I might; I think the image of God’s eye through a microscope at the end of Turnings resonates with the un-quaint slides in the attic (The Slides)...    


Adrienne Rich 1929 - 2012

Another gleaning from my old website; I wrote this in 2003.

Audrey Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur and Adrienne Rich. Austin, Texas, 1980. 



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