Thursday, May 15, 2008

Adrienne Rich, TELEPHONE RINGING IN THE LABYRINTH, Poems 2004-2006

I've come to this collection a bit late, and there's a raft of reviews already out there: They wrangle over what Rich represents and what she has become in this collection. Some sputter over the handful of notes at the back, and the need to know the war news that Rich alludes to in the poems. Others assert she's lost her feminist stance, by taking a political one that assails the Iraq war and occupation without specifically claiming a woman's perspective on the disaster. Reading a dozen essays on the book gave me the notion that read established poets with a mirror in one hand, looking for similarities. Perhaps it's easier to directly experience the words when the poet is less painted into our own interiors.

Rich, now 80, spoke on April 28 at her alma mater, Radcliffe. The article provided by the college (here) recaps the poet's awards, including the one she declined in 1997 because of her profound abhorrence for the actions of the nation's politics and its Administration. It outlines her continued tie to Radcliffe through poet Elizabeth Alexander, and gives honor to the Radcliffe poet/professor who mentored Rich, F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950). Please do read the article, in full.

Then, if possible, I recommend reading the poems of this newest collection, reading them for themselves, not trying to link them to past volumes or statements. The jagged lines, insistent rhythms, and fierce breaks beg to be read aloud. A sample from "In Plain Sight":

... Ice-thin. Cold an precarious
the land I live in and have argued not to leave
Cold on the verge of crease
crack without notice
ice-green disjuncture treasoning us
to flounder cursing each other
Cold and grotesque the sex
the grimaces the grab

This is fresh language with a fierce edge -- and in fact, the one thing the reviewers agree on is that Rich is not writing "like an old lady" but like a powerful poet. Even when "Ever, Again" calls up at a summer spent in Vermont when her sons were boys, the crisp images and sensory overload have nothing to do with nostalgia.

Most of all, these two years of poems frame protest against the war, and The War: every one that Rich has witnessed. That includes America's disastrous failures in the war on poverty, too, as displayed after Hurricane Katrina (the poem is "The University Reopens as the Floods Recede").

But it's the finale I love most, the poem "Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth," which makes up the sixth of the books six section. The tension in it of I and you, of desire and distress, of a myth come alive in urgency and breath, this shakes and awakens me. The final section of this final section is:


I would have wanted to say it
without falling back
on words Desired not

you so much as your life,
your prevailing Not for me
but for furtherance how

you would move
on the horizon You, the person, you
the particle fierce and furthering.


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