Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Adrienne Rich – Later Poems 1971-2012 [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0393089568″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/4164HcKUvUL.jpg” width=”219″ alt=”Adrienne Rich – Later Poems”]The Signature to a Life

A Feature Review of

Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012

Adrienne Rich

Hardback: Norton, 2012.
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Reviewed by Cynthia R. Wallace

 

Adrienne Rich is familiar to many through widely anthologized poetry and her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Though the 1951 Yale Younger Poets Award marked her early success in the established tradition, her more experimental work of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the era of Rich’s coming-out as a radical feminist and lesbian, is the poetry around which her reputation crystallized. But Rich wrote and published, steadily, for three full decades after those heady years. Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012 offers a correction to those who judge the poet – for better or worse – only by the first half of her career. Its 544 pages include selections from volumes published between 1971 and 2010, chosen by the writer before her death in March 2012, as well as ten previously uncollected poems written in 2010-2011.

 

Later Poems begins with selections from Diving into the Wreck, for which Rich won the 1974 National Book Award. She accepted the award, with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, “in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain.” Such women are at the center of many of the volume’s earlier poems. Some are confessional, while others imagine historical figures: Marie Curie who “died   a famous woman   denying / her wounds” in “Power,” nineteenth-century artist friends conversing in  “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff,” imperfect but precious prior generations in “Grandmothers” and “Heroines.”

 

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Rich’s poems do not tend to be narratives or mellifluous lyrics: more frequently they are snapshots, speeches, questions stacked on questions. Rich makes great use of apostrophe, the poetic address of an absent other, and at points, she asks us to read sections of poems as spoken by different personas. The result of these various voices, insistent questions, and second-person pronouns is a certain air of populatedness in the book. Read together, the poems suggest the multiplicity of human life, the negotiations of relationship, the responsibility implicit in dialogues both intimate and public.

 

Especially in the more recent poems, issues not just of gender and sex but also of race and class, war and globalization come to the fore. Rich admits in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001), “my thinking was unable to fulfill itself within feminism alone,” and Later Poems is a testament to Rich’s self-revision as an activist. Some of the strongest poems trace the resonances between the speaker’s embodiment and the suffering of others down the street and around the globe. “The problem is / to connect, without hysteria, the pain / of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world,” we read in “Contradictions: Tracking Poems.” Such connection is central to “Hunger”:

I know I’m partly somewhere else–

huts strung across a drought-stretched land

not mine, dried breasts, mine and not mine, a mother

watching my children shrink with hunger.

I live in my Western skin,

my Western vision, torn

and flung to what I can’t control or even fathom.

 

The speaker acknowledges a bodily commonality with African women, even as she acknowledges the impossibility of fully understanding any other. Written two decade later, “Calle Visión” draws another such link between the “fire in your wrist” of arthritis and the daily horrors of working in a slaughterhouse, its injustices climaxing in a fire that killed workers locked in the building. The speaker does not imagine that her pain is the same as the workers’, but she uses it as a point of imaginative connection, a tentative empathy that spurs on her poetic exposure of injustice. At their best, these are located poems, poems of place and moment, responding to news events, redolent of the poet’s life in New York City and, later, Santa Cruz. They recognize shared human frailty but also the arrogance of presuming to comprehend. The extraordinary poem “North American Time” is another that highlights the dangerous responsibility of a Western poet to “engage / this field of light and darkness” despite the risks of her “verbal privilege.”

 

These links and tensions – between politics and embodiment, pain and injustice, I and you – remain at the heart of Rich’s poetry throughout the years. The later poems suggest an aging poet eulogizing friends and musing on death, but they do not retract back into an armchair complacency. The 2010 “For the Young Anarchists” implies a voice of experience, but it is the advice of one who has not given up hope in activism. In fact, many of the more recent poems are about progressive communities and the ongoing power and fragility of poetry in the face of political degradation. Many also persist in a certain tenderness that marks Rich’s earlier love poetry, a supreme sensitivity to the intimacies of friendship as well as romance.

 


 

Rich’s language is often colloquial, her form free, her lines broken by internal spaces yet continuing breathless down the page through enjambment. They quote, they demand, they rely on Dickinsonian dashes. Stylistically, they are often speakerly. Thematically, they are unapologetically political, even polemical. But Rich’s language is often beautiful. “Waiting for You at the Mystery Spot” exemplifies the strength of sound and imagery the mark her entire career:

I sat listening to voices watching the miraculous migration

of sunshafts through the redwoods      the great spears folding up

into letters from the sun deposited through dark green slots

each one saying

I love you but

I must draw away     Believe, I will return

 

If the poems tend toward a weakness, it’s their elliptical nature, the gaps and fissures that sometimes stretch too far. While occasional endnotes help with references, the situation to which a given poem responds is not always clear. Some are obvious: “Ballade of the Poverties” reads as a litany against those benefiting from the American debt crisis; “The School Among the Ruins” grippingly imagines the horrors of recent years’ bombings on the other side of the ocean. Others take more work. But then, Rich’s commitment to writing about the realities that may not make the evening news naturally lead to this need for re-reading and allusion-tracing. For these reasons, I think Rich’s contemporaneous poetry and prose are good companion volumes: her essay collections highlight the texts, movements, and crises that shape her poetic project. Though formalists might like us to approach each poem as a self-contained unit, Rich has always been a poet grounded in context, and we do well to read her on her own terms.

 

Adrienne Rich’s work as a feminist is indispensable; we still have a great deal to learn from her explorations of the cultural roots of oppressions based on sex and gender. But her poetry of the last few decades, widely overlooked, is also a gift–and provocation–for those interested in the dynamics of local and global responsibility and the possibilities and limits of art. Rich’s work suggests, especially in an age of drones and sound bytes, the importance of poetry as a site of struggle, of praise and pleading, tenderness and protest, imagination and self-interrogation. More people should be reading Adrienne Rich, and Later Poems is a commendable place to begin.




C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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