Treasures Reclaimed: The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich

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Collected Poems: 1950 – 2012
by Adrienne Rich.
(W.W. Norton and Co., 1164pp., $50)

Adrienne Rich has been long recognized as a vital force in American culture, as both a feminist activist and a poetic innovator whose vision of art foregrounds politics and identity. Thanks to Pablo Conrad’s judicious editing, all of Rich’s published poems are included in Collected Poems: 1950-2012, so the full trajectory of her poetic development may be appreciated; at the same time, Claudia Rankine’s incisive introduction provides an opportunity for readers to consider the poet’s legacy and to view her work anew. Those eager for a glimpse into Rich’s composition process may be disappointed: following the poet’s wishes, no drafts are included. However, Conrad’s editorial approach preserves his mother’s vision and is “based on similar collected works that she edited at intervals over the course of her career,” including the most recent Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012. One key decision was to omit the forewords that Rich wrote for her “selected” volumes: these Conrad describes as “often self-critical” because they attempt to provide “an account of her experience as the person who wrote those poems and of the world in which she found herself at work.” In fact, Rich’s explanatory notes from various volumes—gathered together at the end of the book—themselves trace the self-critical re-evaluation that fueled her poetry and serve as a powerful reminder of the political self-awareness that became a hallmark of her career.

Rich’s exploration of gender and politics deepened as her activism grew, crystallizing with new force in her best known collection, the National Book Award-winning Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973). In “Trying to Talk with a Man,” we encounter a breakdown of meaningful communication that illustrates the way gender differences become deepened by political rifts. “Out here I feel more helpless, /” the speaker says, “with you than without you, /” as she travels through the desert with a male companion, presumably on a tour of atomic testing sites, and senses the male presence at the birth of a technology that will shatter all civilization with a destructive force that is also a troubling exaggeration of boyhood play. Throughout her career, Rich examined both overt and subtle means of cultural domination, as in “Amnesia,” where a mother considers the way growing to manhood means not only leaving things behind but also obliterating the past. Rich invokes the image of “the snow-scene in Citizen Kane” to remind us of the American dream’s destructive force when it is married to an insatiable, corrupting will to power.

Deeply responsive to injustice, Rich’s poetry reflects a global political awareness. Her note to the title poem of The Diamond Cutters (1955) is a case in point: from a perspective of thirty years’ distance, Rich explains that she had “trouble with the informing metaphor of the poem,” which was initially employed to help her “write about the craft of poetry,” yet its use, she later believed, was irresponsible and unethical since the metaphor rendered invisible the “enforced and exploited labor of actual Africans in actual diamond mines.” The poem, “Hunger,” which is dedicated to Audre Lorde, so deeply influential on Rich’s personal and artistic ethics, is another example. As Rankine observes, their shared feminism and sexual orientation allowed them to “question their own everyday practices with the very systems that oppressed them.” Here, Rich reflects on the suffering of women in North America and throughout the world; as a mother, she feels intimately connected to them. Though she lives “in my Western skin, / my Western vision,” she also feels that she lives “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.

Above all, Rich remained consistent in her belief that art must dismantle myths, not create them, and as Rankine notes, this belief that “words can be held responsible” distinguishes Rich as a poet who would “alter the ways in which we understand the world we live in.”

The desire for revolutionary social change and cultural rebirth remained a constant in Rich’s work, and in Later Poems (2010-2012) she assembles a richly imagistic exploration of a world linked by global trade and technology, a world where the toxic effects of exploitative labor practices corrode the human spirit, though they are resisted by the forces of compassion and erotic love. In these final poems, her characteristic style retains its power. The juxtaposition of lyric description with the colloquial diction of stark meditation provides a means of continued testimony and taking stock. In “Itinerary,” the poet deftly explores time’s passage as she muses on the physical world, “the crucible / where origins and endings meld,” and celebrates “this honey-laden question mark / this thread extracted from the open / throat of existence.” In “For the Young Anarchists,” Rich returns to the theme of hunger to offer counsel about the temptations of anger and the violence it can unleash. Here, closely observed description of the natural world bestows a vivid metaphor—seagulls “hurtling beak-down” to “drop things / smash on the rocks”—that stands in stark contrast to the “oysterman’s / gauging eyes, torqued wrist” and “astuteness honed through generations to extract / the meat.” Her final poems reflect less a guarded optimism than faith in the centrality of poetry itself as nourishment for the human spirit and a cry for justice.

Though Rich is rightly admired for ambitiously essayistic longer poems whose sprawl and range take in the world (I’m thinking here of a few of my favorites, “Shooting Script,” ”Meditation for a Savage Child,” “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” or “The USonian Journals 2000”), the book’s shorter poems offer unexpected pleasures as Rich’s voice acquires a greater focus. One of my favorites is “Moth Hour” (Necessities of Life, 1966), in which the moon-lit sky with its “bleached clouds” becomes a canvas for reflection on love’s dissolution; another is 1992’s “Miracle Ice Cream,” which offers a quieter domestic tableau (“a room’s rich shadow / a woman’s breasts swinging lightly as she bends”) and a vision of a poet poised between life’s joys and its darker realities as “the pearl of dusk dissolves,” “weighing evening news” against “fast food miracles, ghostly revolutions,” and “the rest” of her heart. These poems, too, model a powerful approach: poetry’s witnessing need not always come directly from the headlines.

Yet it is impossible to read The Collected Poems without confronting the headlines of this and the previous century’s persistent violence and on-going wars. Rich was a profoundly anti-war poet, and the personae of earlier poems like “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room” (A Change of World, 1951) and “Charleston in the 1860’s” (Leaflets, 1969) offer vivid reminders of war’s human cost, while others, like “Tear Gas”(1969), “Leaflets, ”and “Burning Oneself In” (Diving into the Wreck) further reflect Rich’s experience of activism. “Char” (Midnight Salvage 1995-1998) is one of many powerful tributes to those whose lives and art serve as resistance to political injustice. “Eastern War Time” (An Atlas of the Difficult World 1988-1991) recalls Rich’s youth as a sheltered Jewish-American girl growing up during the Second World War whose adult life requires she confront the history of anti-Semitism and demonstrates Rich’s stance as both witness and advocate.

Taken together, The Collected Poems: 1950-2012 traces the transformational journey of Adrienne Rich from formalist wife and mother to lesbian-activist whose wide-ranging free-verse poems set the standard of, as Carol Muske famously observed in The New York Times Book Review, “a newly-defined female literature.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Claudia Rankine would find in Rich’s work a companionable spirit. Rankine’s celebrated Citizen has been praised not only for transgressing generic conventions but also for the commanding power of its truth-telling. In her introduction to Rich’s collected work, Rankine notes the influence of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and the voices of activist contemporaries (Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka among them) that shaped Rich. As Rankine affirms, Rich’s singular achievement is “the formulation of an alternate poetic tradition that distrusted and questioned paternalistic, hetero-normative, and hierarchical notions of what it meant to have a voice, especially for female writers.”

That tradition, profoundly rooted in the public and personal history that shaped them, ultimately transcends its origins in a particular era: as Rankine points out, Rich “writes her way through the changes that have brought us here, in all the places that continue to entangle our liberties in the twenty-first century.” “What Kind of Times Are These,” one of Rich’s widely referenced recent poems—a lament filled with foreboding in the face of ecological and historical erasures—locates the realm of the political poem “not somewhere else but here, / our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, / its own ways of making people disappear.” It’s one of many poems that demonstrate how similar questions can be asked in multiple generations and further proof that Rich’s vision will remain relevant and influential long into the future.