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The Mimesis of Thought: On Adrienne Rich’s Poetry

ISSUE:  Spring 2006

I have no personal anecdotes about Adrienne Rich worthy of recording. She is a friend I know through her public, published writing, one whom I consider “a friend” because of the importance that writing has had for me over the last thirty-five years, whose presence is a presence in printed words, and therefore never at a great distance. I am in Paris, where I live half the time, but where all my books are not. I wanted in particular to reread (but they were absent) An Atlas of the Difficult World and Dark Fields of the Republic, an ocean away from a republic whose fields seem particularly lacking in illumination. Instead I started this morning before dawn, in bed, reading poems in the 2002 edition of The Fact of a Doorframe, all poems that I have read many times before. This is a body of work that (I know I have written this before) redeems poetry—not that redeeming poetry has ever particularly been Rich’s intention. I’m myself a woman of the Left, a feminist, a lesbian, a secular Jew, an American, and a poet, aware how some identities can be chosen or ignored and others constitute facts of one’s life immutable as bone structure, and how even this fact can be modified by history. Because I am a poet, the possibilities, the ramifications of what a poet might accomplish—as a writer and as what we now call a “public intellectual,” an eloquent representative citizen—have been important to me since I began to read and write myself out of childhood. There were, even in the United States, many examples; some of them were distressing. But Rich was a poet less than a generation my senior who was redefining these possibilities in a way I could understand; in a way that was useful. (It seems clear that one intention of Rich as a poet has been, at least since the sixties, to do something useful, and not only useful to younger poets.)

Rich’s body of work establishes, among other things, an intellectual autobiography, which is interesting not as the narrative of one life (which it’s not) and still less as intimate divulgence, but as the evolution and revolutions of an exceptional mind, with all its curiosity, outreaching, exasperation and even its errors. (I don’t know why, in 1968, she thought Montaigne should “rot in hell.” He was, like her, not unfamiliar with intellectuals under house arrest or worse.) Even while Rich was most insistent (and I, her reader, insistent with her) on her particularity as a woman, and an American woman, and on the historical overdetermination of women’s experiences and supposed limitations, she was insisting as well, perhaps less intentionally, and the more successfully for that, that a woman’s intellectual/political/aesthetic development could provide the emblematic narrative for a generation. Could, like the richly referenced self-examinations of, yes, Montaigne, also provide that emblematic narrative for generations to come. It may be difficult in 2006 to realize how revolutionary such an intellectual stance was thirty years ago. Then, we had in our minds Marguerite Yourcenar writing that women’s lives were too secret and too limited to be the subjects of (her) novels, Colette quipping that feminists deserved the harem or the whip; closer to home, the theatrical embarrassment both Millay’s work and Rukeyser’s provoked in New Critics, and the way any woman poet was praised to the detriment of others. A woman writer, a poet in particular, could unsex herself or attempt to, she could oversex herself at her peril, she could be the stunning exception or the modest enabler: here, in contrast, was the presumption that the (humbling and humbled, as culpable as triumphant) human narrative was also, was even in primacy, ours. (Montaigne might rate a few years in purgatory for having received a remarkable education devised by his father, and then written a brilliant essay on the subject while confining his own daughter’s formation to bigoted, largely unlettered servants, because she was not a son. In this respect, Arnold Rich, Adrienne’s father, resembled Montaigne’s, and his pedagogy had comparable results.)*

Because Rich took a woman’s worldview to be emblematic, her inquiries did not stop—as they had not started—at questions of gender. It was with the rage and insights of her feminism that she envisioned, re/vised, to use a word of her creation, Vietnam, World War II, Emily Dickinson, South Africa, Manifest Destiny, the aftermath of the Shoah, and the American Civil Rights Movement. The enormous “however” in her work is that it locates each of these investigations in the poet’s own physical body as it coexists with her body of knowledge, in her own circumstances and surroundings. It is the link she made youthfully and romantically between “Vietnam and the lovers’ bed,” which is equally that between the Sudan and an Oakland jazz club, Fallujah and the Brooklyn Public Library, an old man on the roof of a flooded house in New Orleans and the army recruiter outside Wal-Mart. These juxtapositions, this sense of being, as a poet, necessarily here and elsewhere, elsewhere by virtue of being here, are at the heart of Rich’s poetic project. The here/elsewhere, close up/far off alternations have been the propulsion, the form of her intellectual and aesthetic trajectory, the motion of inquiry that enlarges from book to book. Mentioning this may be “Adrienne Rich 101.” Yet the poet has become so fixed in some critical or youthful imaginations as a feminist political avatar (to the exclusion of other concerns) while the political changes that she strove and strives for are more and more at risk, and poetry itself becomes both more commodified and marginalized, that it seems worth reiterating. (Of Woman Born was translated into French in 1976. Since then, no French publisher has as yet expressed an interest in a book of Rich’s poetry in translation, although a skilled translator wished to undertake the project, and the poetic work was included in the important agrégation examination in English/American literature in 1989. I have heard a prominent French male writer/critic dismiss her poetry—with the word “feminist” not uttered but understood—without ever having read it, although he himself translated Whitman, so can presumably read English, and translations in journals and anthologies exist.)

These are some of Rich’s poems and sequences to which I have returned dozens of times: “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” “The Demon Lover,” “From an Old House in America,” “North American Time,” “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” “Eastern War Time,” “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” “Calle Vision.” There’s an older poem called “Translation”—it’s not in the selected poems or the Norton Critical Edition on my shelf here—from which I once took an epigraph, which I wanted very much to give to a friend still experiencing that “shared, unnecessary / and political” way of grief last week. There’s another poem I don’t have at hand, about a Russian poet returning from exile or prison, pruning the surviving geranium and setting her notebook out on the table, which I remember every time I return to the city and work space I think of as home.

Adrienne Rich expressed in a personal letter in the 1970s the ardent and reasoned wish that I—as a woman and a feminist—would stop writing in metrical forms, a wish I could not fulfill. A poet comes to her work where she finds it and is found by it; I think every kind of poetry possible has its own contradictory social/political history. However, no choice as public as that of poetic form in published work is apolitical. Rich has taught me that, at least. My poetic politics were then a wish to engage in a dialogue with the tradition that formed me as a poet—and to join and affirm the coexistent tradition of women poets using fixed forms in revisionary, adversarial, or indeed revolutionary stances. But I did not have the courage to answer her letter and engage in what might have been another kind of dialogue. I think I have been attempting—by means of poems—to have that dialogue with her since.

Rich herself said in an interview published in American Poetry Review in 1991:

I guess what I’m searching for is a way of staying linked to the past, pulling out of it whatever you can, and continuing to move on. And I’m not sure that a new textual form creates—it certainly doesn’t create a new consciousness. It can equally be said that a new consciousness, a radically divergent one, doesn’t necessarily create a new form either.

It is evident to me as a reader that the carefully conceived formal structures of Rich’s own work are an intrinsic part of its memorability, and thus of its pertinence (a poem quickly forgotten by its readers is less than pertinent, however crucial its subject). Her own genius has encompassed the appropriation and radical transformation of poetic form, as well as the integration within poetry of the possibilities of other arts. While it took Rich some decades to “forgive” the sonnet and acknowledge its radical engagements as close in time and space as Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Muriel Rukeyser, she never closed herself to the possibilities established in the sonnet sequence for the sequential not-exactly-narrative, often meditative poem. “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” the signal poem which marked both the young poet’s focused attention to woman (historically and immediately) as subject and her break with the more deliberately groomed metrical verse of her first two books, is nonetheless empowered by the sonnet-sequence-shadow which informs it. Not, I hasten to write, by reference to the sonnet, but by an aptness for nonlinear progression, for intellectual jump-cutting, for building an argument and a narrative with a cinematic accretion of images and ideas made coherent by the numbered breaks in the poem. This is most obviously true of “Twenty-one Love Poems,” because of the stated subject, which relates it to one strand of the history of sonnet sequences, and the ten- to eighteen-line length of the twenty-one poems. But it also forms and informs the superb “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” from Your Native Land, Your Life, in which the nonlinear discursiveness of such a sequence enables the poet to construct out of eros, chronic pain, the Shoah, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and the canonical changing of the seasons a coherent, kaleidoscopic whole. And it is taken up later, concise, imagistic, and cleaving to the matrix, in “From Corrallitos under Rolls of Cloud.”

While the contemporary poet can, if and when s/he wishes, reclaim some of the territory occupied by fiction (Gwendolyn Brooks, George Szirtes, Marilyn Nelson, even James Merrill), and Auden had opera in mind in many of his sequences, Rich’s method of narrative makes metaphoric, mimetic use of the techniques of cinema, an art to which she refers openly in many of her early-middle-period poems (“Pierrot le Fou,” “I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus,” “Shooting Scripts”): an accretion of detailed visual description of objects establishing a setting or a character; motion in time and place which seems first random and then significant; the alternation of the extreme close-up and long “tracking” shots (found in the “Contradictions” title); the establishment of a narrative and narrative voice as these elements cohere. One might (I might) take this fertile tension between cinema and the sonnet as emblematic of Rich’s work—not an antagonism, but the asymptotic motion toward a synthesis, dialoguing in her own distinctive way with the corpus of American (“Usonian” and other) and European poetry while investigating the permeability of narrative and reportage. One of the tropes that strikes me as “cinematic” (in its visual effectiveness, combination of still/motion) recurring like a leitmotif in Rich’s poems is that of hands turning over small recuperated objects, and beginning to construct something: black and brown bits of pottery dug up on an archaeological site and saved in a dented can (“Shooting Script”); a little toy truck and two dusty but good fuses in a long-unopened drawer (“From an Old House in America”); keys and a glass eye in a compartment of a seventeenth-century wooden chest (“When We Dead Awaken”); a jumble-sale table spread with china saucers, silver shoehorns, a 1930s biscuit tin (“Natural Resources”); bronze feathers glued to wings and smashed green bottleglass (“Marghanita”)—and there are others, all sharing the still-potential energy of recuperation/quilting/collage. There are as many counterbalancing (telescoping) images and evocations of speed and distance, moving across a bleak or deserted landscape in a car, usually alone, or in a plane. (Here/elsewhere, close up/far off.) I think of the films of Godard or Abbas Kiorastami, as well as so many American “road movies” in every register. I think of twenty-two-year-old Muriel Rukeyser driving south in 1936 to interview and write about the miners in Gauley, West Virginia. “There are roads to take when you think of your country.” The poem as road movie. Rukeyser was one of the first poets to relate film to poetry and see the resonances and parallels.

“I’m not interested in form poems [sic],” a student wrote once again this semester; “these formats are not relevant to the expression of black women”—after we’d spent three weeks reading Gwendolyn Brooks. Looking at Rich’s entry in a fairly new anthology, I thought again how inaccurate is the expression “moved to [or toward] free verse”—as if there were two kinds of verse, one “free” and one “formal,” or “fixed”; as if the “free” in free verse were the same as the “free” of release from prison, as if Adrienne Rich’s poems in open/invented forms were somehow equally akin to those of Susan Howe, Robert Bly, Jack Spicer, and June Jordan. Rich’s poems, her sequences especially, are as meticulously constructed as any poem in nonce stanzas by John Donne or Marianne Moore, constructed visually, vocally, dramatically, and prosodically. This is attention she has paid (with a genius for it) since the sixties, all the more so after she expanded on the predominating iambic pentameter of her earliest work. It is the knowing formal alternation, a focus at once fragmented and coherent, that marks the mature poet much more than any preoccupation with meter, or any predictable subject or stance. It is the way these sequences follow and mirror the inquiries of thought, discovering their destinations en route.

It occurs to me that one possible approach to Rich’s work would be in the context of modern and contemporary poets who wrote/write long poems in sequences, including HD, Auden, Rukeyser, Berryman, Brooks, Hayden Carruth, Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, Alfred Corn, Marilyn Nelson. I note that many of these poets’ sequences include or are framed by the political and macrohistorical in their foci: HD’s World War II Trilogy, “Horae Canonicae,” “The Book of the Dead,” “The Sleeping Beauty.” The long sequential poem necessitates a wider lens, which opens out from the lyrical or anecdotal, even if it began there. But most of these sequences, like those of Rich, are initially envisioned as large in scope. And for this reader, the multifocused, kaleidoscopic poems from “Snapshots” through “Tendril” in the 2004 collection The School Among the Ruins are Rich’s most characteristic and powerful work: this large poetry made of small objects placed significantly together and swift concepts in motion; a poetry enacting the mimesis of thought.

*Montaigne did confide the first edition of his work to his “fille d’alliance,” the twenty-three-year-old self-educated Marie de Gournay, who in turn sought the aid of the scorned blood-daughter in transcribing the last marginal emendations to the Essays after his death.


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