‘In­vent­ing New Ways to Be’

The New York Review of Books - - News - Mark Ford

Se­lected Po­ems, 1950–2012 by Adri­enne Rich, edited by Al­bert Gelpi, Bar­bara Charlesworth Gelpi, and

Brett C. Mil­lier. Nor­ton, 421 pp.,

$17.95 (pa­per)

Es­sen­tial Es­says: Cul­ture, Pol­i­tics, and the Art of Po­etry by Adri­enne Rich, edited by

San­dra M. Gilbert. Nor­ton, 411 pp., $27.95

Although Adri­enne Rich (1929–2012) never con­sid­ered her­self an epic poet, it’s hard to think of a more ap­po­site def­i­ni­tion of her vast and var­ied oeu­vre than the phrase with which Ezra Pound summed up his con­cept of the mod­ernist epic (speak­ing, in his case, of The Can­tos): “a poem con­tain­ing his­tory.” Schol­ars look­ing to chart the de­vel­op­ment of Amer­ica in the six decades spanned by Rich’s ca­reer will dis­cover in her work an in­ter­mesh­ing of po­etry and his­tory more ex­ten­sive and search­ing than that to be found in any of her con­tem­po­raries. Her first col­lec­tion, cho­sen by W.H. Au­den for the Yale Younger Po­ets Prize of 1951, was pre­sciently ti­tled A Change of World, and the twenty vol­umes that fol­lowed all reveal her as­ton­ish­ing power not only to cap­ture the shift­ing spirit of the times but to an­tic­i­pate the dilem­mas of the fu­ture. In­deed the short epony­mous poem of that first vol­ume now reads like an eerie prophecy of our most press­ing catas­tro­phe:

Fash­ions are chang­ing in the sphere.

Oceans are ask­ing wave by wave What new shapes will be worn next year;

And the moun­tains, stooped and grave,

Are won­der­ing si­lently range by range What if they prove too old for the change.

The tren­chant fi­nal cou­plet of this el­e­gantly phrased twelve-line poem goes on to in­sist, as if in pro­lep­tic de­fi­ance of all those who still deny the facts of cli­mate change: “They say the sea­son for doubt has passed:/The changes com­ing are due to last.”

In the light of Rich’s sub­se­quent ca­reer, the terms that Au­den used to praise her early work in his in­tro­duc­tion to A Change of World came to seem al­most com­i­cally mis­guided: her po­ems, he sug­gests, are “neatly and mod­estly dressed, speak qui­etly but do not mum­ble, re­spect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Yet Au­den’s some­what pa­tron­iz­ing pré­cis of the virtues of Rich’s de­but vol­ume cap­tures some of the cul­tural as­sump­tions that ini­tially shaped her, as both a poet and a per­son, and against which she would in time so spec­tac­u­larly rebel.

As she her­self tells it, in au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal po­ems like “Sources” or “Af­ter Dark” and in prose pieces such as “Split at the Root: An Es­say on Jewish Iden­tity,” the pres­sure to con­form dom­i­nated her up­bring­ing in Bal­ti­more. Her fa­ther, Arnold Rich, whose own fa­ther was a Jewish im­mi­grant from Aus­tria-Hun­gary, was a renowned pathol­o­gist at Johns Hop­kins and com­mit­ted to the high­est ideals of cul­ture. He was also, as Rich tells it, some­thing of a con­trol freak: “He prowled and pounced over my school pa­pers, in­sist­ing I use ‘grown-up’ sources; he crit­i­cized my po­ems for faulty tech­nique and gave me books on rhyme and me­ter and form. His in­vest­ment in my in­tel­lect and tal­ent was ego­tis­ti­cal, tyran­ni­cal, opin­ion­ated, and ter­ri­bly wear­ing.” Her mother, He­len, a Protes­tant from the South, had sac­ri­ficed a promis­ing ca­reer as a con­cert pi­anist to de­vote her­self to her hus­band’s am­bi­tions and to raise her two daugh­ters, who were brought up as Epis­co­palians.

It is telling that Au­den praised the pol­ished man­ners of Rich’s early po­etry, for it was by re­ject­ing good man­ners, and ex­plor­ing all that man­ners con­ceal, that she dis­cov­ered how to move be­yond the for­mal con­straints of her first two vol­umes. “‘Man­ners,’ ” she notes in her re­flec­tions on her child­hood in “Split at the Root,” “in­cluded not hurt­ing some­one’s feel­ings by call­ing her or him a Ne­gro or a Jew—nam­ing the hated iden­tity. This is the men­tal frame­work of the 1930s and 1940s in which I was raised.”

In her in­tro­duc­tion to the mas­sive Col­lected Po­ems of 2016—it runs to over 1,150 pages— Clau­dia Rank­ine spoke elo­quently of Rich’s “de­sire for a trans­for­ma­tive writ­ing that would in­vent new ways to be, to see, and to speak.” Rich’s oc­ca­sional later at­tacks on the po­etry that she had pub­lished in the 1950s can be seen as at­tacks on her own in­her­ited re­straint and cau­tion, on her man­nerly eva­sion of po­etry’s mis­sion to chal­lenge and trans­form. The dilemma of the cre­ative woman seek­ing to ex­press her­self in a cul­ture shaped to grat­ify the needs and de­sires of men is, nev­er­the­less, bril­liantly cap­tured in an early poem such as “Aunt Jen­nifer’s Tigers”:

Aunt Jen­nifer’s tigers prance across a screen,

Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.

They do not fear the men be­neath the tree;

They pace in sleek chival­ric cer­tainty.

Aunt Jen­nifer’s fin­gers flut­ter­ing through her wool

Find even the ivory nee­dle hard to pull.

The mas­sive weight of Un­cle’s wed­ding band

Sits heav­ily upon Aunt Jen­nifer’s hand.

When Aunt is dead, her ter­ri­fied hands will lie

Still ringed with ordeals she was mas­tered by.

The tigers in the panel that she made

Will go on pranc­ing, proud and un­afraid.

The poem’s lightly de­liv­ered ironies are suf­fused with a del­i­cate pathos, while its tone of faux naiveté con­veys to the know­ing reader a deft and so­phis­ti­cated wit; yet with hind­sight it can also be read as an­tic­i­pat­ing the de­vel­op­ment of Rich’s own fu­ture po­etry, which, like these pranc­ing tigers, proud and un­afraid, would speak out force­fully against all the as­sump­tions and con­ven­tions and in­sti­tu­tions that “mas­tered” Aunt Jen­nifer.

Snap­shots of a Daugh­ter-in-Law (1963) is often pre­sented as ini­ti­at­ing Rich’s quest to cre­ate a po­etry be­yond the deco­rous sonori­ties, the clever con­ceits, and the Frost-in­spired char­ac­ter stud­ies of A Change of World and The Di­a­mond Cut­ters (1955). The col­lec­tion’s ten-part ti­tle poem also shows Rich in the act of defin­ing a ge­neal­ogy of in­spir­ing fe­male pre­cur­sors: Boadicea, Mary Woll­stonecraft, Emily Dickinson, and Si­mone de Beau­voir are all in­voked in a series of linked vi­gnettes that cul­mi­nates in her vi­sion of a mes­sianic fe­male lib­er­a­tor, “de­liv­ered/pal­pa­ble/ours.” On the other side of the ledger, var­i­ous misog­y­nis­tic state­ments by men such as Diderot and Sa­muel John­son (“Not that it is done well, but/ that it is done at all”) are held up for ridicule.

The poem’s most haunt­ing mo­ments, how­ever, are fraught with a more con­fused and con­fes­sional charge—it was com­posed be­tween 1958 and 1960 and seems to me to reveal the in­flu­ence of Robert Low­ell’s own wa­ter­shed se­quence, Life Stud­ies (1959). As in Low­ell, these mo­ments ex­plic­itly dra­ma­tize what would be­come a 1960s slo­gan: The per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal. The frus­trated daugh­ter-in-law has “let the tap­stream scald her arm,/a match burn to her thumb­nail,//or held her hand above the ket­tle’s snout/right in the woolly steam.” Her im­pulse to­ward self-harm is fig­ured as an in­ter­nal­iza­tion of the cul­ture’s in­stinc­tive vi­o­lence to­ward women: “A think­ing woman sleeps with mon­sters./The beak that grips her, she be­comes.” This poem is Rich’s first de­lib­er­ate act of re­sis­tance against these mon­sters and the beaks that would grip her; it’s her rad­i­cal an­swer to Yeats’s rhetor­i­cal ques­tion at the end of his son­net “Leda and the Swan.”

It is not from a man, how­ever, but from the sti­fled and eti­o­lated moth­er­fig­ure so mov­ingly dra­ma­tized in the open­ing sec­tion of “Snap­shots of a Daugh­ter-in-Law” that Rich must first lib­er­ate her­self, while the poem must es­cape from the ca­dences and aura of Low­ell’s “Skunk Hour.” The par­al­lels be­tween the two po­ems’ open­ings are par­tic­u­larly strik­ing, for Rich’s Shreve­port belle, her mind now “moul­der­ing like wed­ding-cake/heavy with use­less ex­pe­ri­ence,” is the south­ern coun­ter­part of Low­ell’s self-ma­rooned her­mit heiress, an iso­lated ec­cen­tric who buys up all the eye­sores on the Maine shore op­po­site her home on Nau­tilus Is­land, only to let them fall. In a later poem, “Re-Form­ing the Crys­tal” (1973), Rich tersely ob­served, “The woman/I needed to call my mother/was si­lenced be­fore I was born,” and “Snap­shots of a Daugh­ter-in-Law” also tal­lies up the salient dif­fer­ences be­tween two gen­er­a­tions of women.

It is her di­ag­no­sis of ma­ter­nal “moul­der­ing” that first sets Rich on the path to au­ton­omy: “Nervy, glow­er­ing, your daugh­ter/wipes the tea­spoons, grows an­other way.” In her prose study Of Woman Born: Mother­hood as Ex­pe­ri­ence and In­sti­tu­tion (1976), which an­a­lyzes in de­tail the ways in which the pa­tri­ar­chal mind-set warps the mother–daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship, Rich of­fers a telling gloss on the strug­gle to es­cape a mother’s com­plic­ity in her own state of pow­er­less­ness that is so del­i­cately anat­o­mized in “Snap­shots of a Daugh­ter-in-Law”:

Many daugh­ters live in rage at their moth­ers for hav­ing ac­cepted, too read­ily and pas­sively, “what­ever comes.” A mother’s vic­tim­iza­tion does not merely hu­mil­i­ate her, it mu­ti­lates the daugh­ter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman.

Like Sylvia Plath—who iden­ti­fied Rich as her main ri­val, and even re­solved to put more phi­los­o­phy into her own po­ems so as not to “lag be­hind ACR”—Rich be­longed to a gen­er­a­tion of women po­ets whose cre­ative am­bi­tions and tal­ents by no means ex­empted them from the ex­pec­ta­tion that they would also be ex­em­plary 1950s house­wives and moth­ers. She mar­ried the left-wing Har­vard econ­o­mist Al­fred Con­rad in 1953, and by the time she had fin­ished “Snap­shots of a Daugh­ter-in-Law” in 1960, she was the mother of three sons un­der the age of six. She ben­e­fited, like Plath, from the schol­ar­ships avail­able in that era for those iden­ti­fied as gifted high­achiev­ers, trav­el­ing to Europe on a Guggen­heim in 1952–1953, and then again in 1961–1962.

But most of the pe­riod from 1953 to 1966 she lived as a fac­ulty wife and young mother in the leafy purlieus of Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, and the di­ary en­tries she in­cludes in Of Woman Born sug­gest more than a lit­tle frus­tra­tion with all that this en­tailed. “This is one of the few morn­ings on which I haven’t felt ter­ri­ble men­tal de­pres­sion and phys­i­cal ex­haus­tion,” she records of a good day in Au­gust 1958, while to­ward the end of this pe­riod, in April 1965, she laments: “Anger, weari­ness, de­mor­al­iza­tion .... I weep, and weep, and the sense of pow­er­less­ness spreads like a can­cer through my be­ing.”

The dis­ap­proval of her own par­ents weighed on her too; Con­rad (born Al­fred Co­hen) came from an ob­ser­vant Jewish fam­ily based in Brook­lyn, and her choice of hus­band ran starkly counter to her sec­u­lar, in­deed athe­is­tic fa­ther’s nar­ra­tive of as­sim­i­la­tion. “I limped off, torn at the roots,” Rich re­flects in a poem of 1964 ad­dressed to her fa­ther, who had re­fused to at­tend her wed­ding; “stopped singing a whole year,/got a new body, new breath,/ got chil­dren, croaked for words.” The im­age of­fered here of the singing poet re­duced to a frog or toad, able only to croak, sug­gests a gen­uine fear. In the event, how­ever, Rich was rarely inar­tic­u­late for long; in­deed one of the most star­tling as­pects of her ca­reer as a whole was her abil­ity to find, seem­ingly ef­fort­lessly, forms and id­ioms ap­pro­pri­ate to each new phase of her de­vel­op­ment. The sheer elo­quence of poem af­ter poem, what­ever style or decade they hap­pened to be writ­ten in, can take one’s breath away. Still, like many Rich ad­mir­ers, I would prob­a­bly ar­gue that it was dur­ing her mid­dle pe­riod—from, say, 1966, when she set­tled with her fam­ily in New York, to 1977, when she pub­lished The Dream of a Com­mon Lan­guage—that Rich’s po­etry was at its most grip­ping and re­source­ful. From the mid-1960s on she be­came in­volved in the civil rights and anti–Viet­nam War move­ments, and her work be­gins to ex­pound ex­plicit polem­i­cal ar­gu­ments and re­fer to ad­mired po­lit­i­cal thinkers or ac­tivists. She be­gan teach­ing in the SEEK (Search for Ed­u­ca­tion, El­e­va­tion and Knowl­edge) pro­gram at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York (where Con­rad had taken up a post); this was aimed at the eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged, and the writ­ers whose work she taught there in­cluded James Bald­win (whose es­says had a gal­va­niz­ing ef­fect on her), Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (who, she as­serts, “wrote an English purer than Mil­ton’s”), Mal­colm X, Frantz Fanon (about whom she wrote a poem pub­lished in Leaflets), Langston Hughes, Eldridge Cleaver, W. E. B. Du Bois, and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), for whom she also wrote a poem.

The con­flu­ence of po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal events charted in the po­ems col­lected in Leaflets (1969), The Will to Change (1971), and Div­ing into the Wreck (1973) en­abled Rich to dra­ma­tize her ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing those tu­mul­tuous and trou­bled years with the ur­gency and clar­ity of a great au­to­bi­og­ra­phy or doc­u­men­tary. At the con­clu­sion of “Planetarium,” com­posed in 1968, she suc­cinctly de­fined the pres­sures shap­ing her sense of po­etry dur­ing this pe­riod, in re­la­tion both to her per­sonal crises and to the up­heavals con­vuls­ing the na­tion:

I am an in­stru­ment in the shape of a woman try­ing to trans­late pul­sa­tions into images for the re­lief of the body and the re­con­struc­tion of the mind.

She is in the­ory here de­scrib­ing the life of the fe­male astronomer Caro­line Her­schel (1750–1848), but the lines also per­fectly cap­ture her own sense of mis­sion; for in these years it be­came in­creas­ingly clear to her that only whole­sale “re­con­struc­tion” of the val­ues and sys­tems that de­ter­mined Amer­i­can cul­ture and pol­i­tics could re­deem the na­tion, and grant its cit­i­zens re­lief.

Her own cri­sis reached its ghastly apogee in Oc­to­ber 1970, when Al­fred Con­rad, who had for a time been suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion, com­mit­ted sui­cide. By this time he and Rich had sep­a­rated, and in the course of a trip to Ver­mont that au­tumn he shot him­self fa­tally in the head. In a poem of 1972, “From a Sur­vivor,” Rich muses on “the leap/we talked, too late, of mak­ing,” and at­tempts to an­a­lyze their re­la­tion­ship from a so­cio­his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. The fail­ure of their mar­riage is placed against the back­ground of “the fail­ures of the race”—by which she means her gen­er­a­tion of the hu­man race (“The pact that we made was the or­di­nary pact/of men & women in those days”):

Lucky or un­lucky, we didn’t know the race had fail­ures of that or­der and that we were go­ing to share them

But Rich con­cludes this grieved but bat­tling poem, one of a num­ber of mov­ing ele­gies for her hus­band, by ar­tic­u­lat­ing her own sur­vivor’s leap into “a suc­ces­sion of brief, amaz­ing move­ments//each one mak­ing pos­si­ble the next.”

Her hus­band’s vi­o­lent and pre­ma­ture death may also be sub­lim­i­nally present in the much-an­thol­o­gized “Div­ing into the Wreck,” the ti­tle poem of the vol­ume that in­cludes “From a Sur­vivor.” It is, at any rate, a poem about sal­vaging what can be sal­vaged from a dis­as­ter, and the poet’s ag­o­nized de­scent in­volves, like “From a Sur­vivor,” both ter­ri­ble phys­i­cal pain (Rich her­self suf­fered from her early twen­ties un­til her death from de­bil­i­tat­ing at­tacks of rheuma­toid arthri­tis) and an in­flux of en­ergy and pur­pose: “I am black­ing out and yet/my mask is pow­er­ful/it pumps my blood with power.” “Div­ing into the Wreck” is often read as one of the most po­tent il­lus­tra­tions of sec­ond­wave fem­i­nism’s ideals and strate­gies, but it is worth not­ing that Rich’s gen­der­less nar­ra­tor fig­ures her/him­self as both mer­maid and mer­man (“I am she: I am he”), thus al­low­ing the poem to speak for the dis­en­fran­chised in gen­eral.

In­deed, what is often strik­ing about Rich’s con­cept of “trans­for­ma­tive writ­ing,” to bor­row Clau­dia Rank­ine’s for­mu­la­tion, is its Whit­ma­nian in­clu­sive­ness, as well as its use of rhetor­i­cal strate­gies de­rived from one of her ear­li­est en­thu­si­asms, Wal­lace Stevens. “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing It­self” runs a typ­i­cal Stevens ti­tle, and cru­cial to Rich’s re­demp­tive vi­sion of po­etry is the act of clear­ing away the myth­i­cal ac­cre­tions, the in­her­ited nar­ra­tives, that pre­vent anal­y­sis and un­der­stand­ing and lib­er­a­tion: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing it­self and not the myth.” The poem, ac­cord­ingly, fore­grounds its aware­ness of its own myth-mak­ing pow­ers (“The words are pur­poses./ The words are maps”), al­low­ing this self-con­scious­ness to bal­ance a nar­ra­tive that re­sem­bles a Spense­rian al­le­gory, or Robert Brown­ing’s em­bit­tered fan­ta­sia of knightly quest, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”: hav­ing crawled, “like an in­sect,” in the modern “body-ar­mor” of a black rub­ber wet­suit, and in crip­pling flip­pers and an ab­surd mask, rung by rung down to the water, the pro­tag­o­nist sinks through the “deep ele­ment” to a reef and then to the wreck it­self, where she or he dis­cov­ers “the dam­age that was done/and the trea­sures that pre­vail.”

These trea­sures are what is worth pre­serv­ing from the wreck of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion—whose flot­sam in­cludes “half-de­stroyed in­stru­ments,” a “water-eaten log,” and a “fouled com­pass.” Like Brown­ing, Rich won­ders whether it is “cow­ardice or courage” that has im­pelled her pro­tag­o­nist to this con­fronta­tion with a whole his­tory of de­ceits and fail­ures, of loss and pain; and while Brown­ing’s knight raises his “slug-horn” to his lips to sig­nify the on­set of bat­tle, Rich’s heroic diver bran­dishes “a knife, a cam­era,” and “a book of myths,” a book “in which/our names do not ap­pear.”

The 1970s also saw the pub­li­ca­tion of many of Rich’s most in­flu­en­tial and vig­or­ously ar­gued prose polemics. In these she in­scribed the names sup­pressed or elided from the book of myths, and force­fully out­lined the pro­cesses that aimed to keep them in­vis­i­ble, and hence pow­er­less. Oc­ca­sional utopian fan­tasies of­fer mo­ments of up­lift in these texts, but in gen­eral Rich trains a beady and unil­lu­sioned eye on the out­ra­geous­ness of the crimes suf­fered by women, as well as on the enor­mity of the task con­fronting the ac­tivist seek­ing change.

“Com­pul­sory Het­ero­sex­u­al­ity and Les­bian Ex­is­tence” (1980), writ­ten some four years af­ter she came out as a les­bian her­self, soberly con­cludes: “It will re­quire a coura­geous grasp of the pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics, as well as the cul­tural pro­pa­ganda, of het­ero­sex­u­al­ity to carry us be­yond in­di­vid­ual cases or diver­si­fied group sit­u­a­tions into the com­plex kind of overview needed to undo the power men ev­ery­where wield over women, power which has be­come a model for ev­ery other form of ex­ploita­tion and il­le­git­i­mate con­trol.” That last clause again in­di­cates the widean­gled na­ture of Rich’s com­pre­hen­sion of the on­go­ing con­flict be­tween the pow­er­ful and the dis­pos­sessed. The fo­cus of her work as a cul­tural critic was on the pol­i­tics of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, but she also in­sis­tently looked be­yond “in­di­vid­ual cases or diver­si­fied group sit­u­a­tions” to an “overview” that, once grasped, would, she hoped, make change in­evitable. Given her opin­ions, and the pas­sion with which she held and pro­pounded them, it is al­most a com­fort to re­flect that Rich never lived to see Don­ald Trump in the White House.

It was prob­a­bly her “Twenty-One Love Po­ems” of 1974–1976 that most de­ci­sively en­sured that Rich’s own les­bian love life would not be cen­sored from the record: these po­ems in­clude ex­plic­itly erotic scenes be­tween the “two lovers of one gen­der”—“your strong tongue and slen­der fin­gers/ reach­ing where I had been wait­ing years for you/in my rose-wet cave”— and it is in­ter­est­ing to con­trast her frank­ness with El­iz­a­beth Bishop’s more cryptic ref­er­ences to her re­la­tion­ships with women. In a 1983 re­view of Bishop’s Com­plete Po­ems in­cluded in Es­sen­tial Es­says, Rich pon­ders the ex­tent to which Bishop’s gift for alien­ated de­scrip­tion—her “eye of the out­sider”—and her fre­quent drama­ti­za­tions of acute self-di­vi­sion de­rived from her ret­i­cence about her sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, from the fact that she was a “les­bian writ­ing un­der the false uni­ver­sal of het­ero­sex­u­al­ity.” Rich bril­liantly in­ter­prets “A Cold Spring,” which con­sists en­tirely of a de­scrip­tion of the com­ing of spring in Mary­land, as a coded les­bian love poem, and in the re­view’s fi­nal para­graph de­fi­antly claims that Bishop, who re­fused to al­low her po­ems to be in­cluded in women-only an­tholo­gies, should be read “as part of a fe­male and les­bian tra­di­tion rather than sim­ply as one of the few and ‘ex­cep­tional’ women ad­mit­ted to the male canon.”

Rich also re­calls giv­ing Bishop a lift from New York to Bos­ton in the early 1970s. “We found our­selves talk­ing,” she re­mem­bers, “of the re­cent sui­cides in each of our lives” (Bishop’s Brazil­ian part­ner of some fif­teen years, Lota de Macedo Soares, had killed her­self in 1967), “telling ‘how it hap­pened’ as peo­ple speak who feel they will be un­der­stood.” How must Bishop’s nu­mer­ous ex­egetes and bi­og­ra­phers have wished that a more de­tailed ac­count of this con­ver­sa­tion had been pre­served! It’s pos­si­ble that Rich made a fuller record of their ex­changes, which she found so fas­ci­nat­ing that she missed the turnoff at Hart­ford, but the ma­jor­ity of her let­ters are em­bar­goed un­til 2050, in the hope of dis­cour­ag­ing any “pub­lish­ing scoundrel,” to use Henry James’s phrase, from writ­ing her life in the near fu­ture. In the same spirit, Rich re­quested, shortly be­fore she died, that fam­ily and friends re­frain from col­lab­o­rat­ing with any prospec­tive bi­og­ra­phers.

Rich’s po­etry has not yet spawned a se­condary lit­er­a­ture as ex­ten­sive as that gen­er­ated by Bishop’s, in part, per­haps, be­cause it lacks the ret­i­cence and mys­tery im­plicit in the work of “a crea­ture di­vided” (to quote from Bishop’s fi­nal poem, “Son­net”): as she aged, and im­proved, Bishop bril­liantly dis­cov­ered new ways of de­ploy­ing the for­mal re­sources of the lyric to de­pict land­scapes or to recre­ate en­coun­ters— such as that with the moose—that half-con­ceal and half-reveal her in­ner mo­ti­va­tions, whereas Rich’s de­vel­op­ment in­volved ex­per­i­ment­ing with more open, Whit­man-in­spired forms, and more em­phatic kinds of lan­guage, in or­der to present “an at­las of the dif­fi­cult world,” to bor­row the ti­tle of a col­lec­tion from the early 1990s. In­deed, much of Rich’s po­etry from the mid-1960s on­ward com­mu­ni­cates an in­tox­i­cat­ing sense of free­dom and pos­si­bil­ity—can be thought of as “fly­ing,” to quote again from Bishop’s fi­nal poem, “wher­ever/it feels like, gay!” In much of this post-1960s work, even when Rich presents her­self as em­bat­tled or en­raged or con­sumed by doubt, which she often does, the reader rarely loses faith in the po­etry’s abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late and ne­go­ti­ate the prob­lems and is­sues that it charts. “De­spair falls,” a poem may be­gin (“Dreams Be­fore Wak­ing”), but it ends by dis­cov­er­ing a re­verse per­spec­tive on the grim­ness of its open­ing mood:

Though your life felt ar­du­ous new and un­mapped and strange what would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of de­spair?

It is the re­silience and ebul­lience of Rich’s po­etry that lingers in the mind, as much as her scathing di­ag­noses of the ills be­set­ting the West. And her own fi­nal poem, “End­pa­pers” (2011), con­cludes with an im­age that at once sum­mons up and en­cap­su­lates the on­go­ing re­la­tion­ship with her read­ers that makes the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of en­gag­ing with Rich’s imag­i­na­tion such a com­mu­nal and af­firm­ing process:

trust in the wit­nesses a vial of in­vis­i­ble ink a sheet of pa­per held steady af­ter the end-stroke above a de­ci­pher­ing flame

This flame might burn, but it doesn’t; rather, even af­ter her “end-stroke,” it al­lows us to de­ci­pher the words writ­ten in in­vis­i­ble ink, and then to ap­ply them to the world as it changes around us.

Adri­enne Rich, New York City, 1973; pho­to­graph by Nancy Cramp­ton

Adri­enne Rich at a read­ing, circa 1986

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.