In the “Artworks (II)” section of “Usonian Journals 2000,” Adrienne Rich describes the breakdown of a conversation between a group of friends: “Not a pause but: a suppression. No one is monitoring this conversation but us. We know the air is bad in here, maybe want not to push that knowledge, ask what is to be done? How to breathe? What will suffice? Draft new structures or simply be aware?” The questions are not theoretical, a point Rich makes clear in a vignette concerning a conversation with an academic acquaintance “Described as ‘our Marxist.’” When Rich’s persona asks about the “current British labor scene,” her colleague evades the question with a statement on “the influence of the industrial revolution on Victorian prose.” Rich’s conclusion is clear: “My aim: get clear of this, find another day job.” The poem dissolves into a scene midway between dream and documentary report. Shooting, screams. When the authorities arrive, “We ran in different directions, she toward, I away from, the police.” Aware of the checkered legacies of the twentieth century’s most visible radical movements, political and intellectual, Rich’s work of the last two decades imagines and embodies a jazz-inflected process that bears witness to language’s power to disrupt and dissent, replenish and renew.
Rich is not suggesting that ideas don’t matter. Rather, she sees intellectual work, including poetry, as part of a give and take between concept and social reality. In somewhat idealized form, the process embedded in her poems works like this:
- Drawing on past experience, our knowledge of history, and any available intellectual resources, we formulate a conceptual framework to guide our actions as we enter specific social or political situations (many of which are inaccurately understood as purely “personal”). In “Usonian Journals,” Rich offers a “Mission Statement” which articulates the core aims of her later work: “It is directed toward the investigation and abrogation of cruelty in every form”; “the destruction of despair is still our most urgent task.”
- Entering into the chaotic flux of experience, we articulate and act in accord with these principles, which inevitably prove less clear in practice than they seem in theory. Dozens of Rich’s later poems—“An Atlas of the Difficult World,” “Six Narratives,” and “Dislocations: Seven Scenarios”—focus precisely on individuals encountering the tensions between their beliefs and their worlds.
- In moments of solitude or respite from struggle, we reconsider our ideas in relation to what we have experienced. Taking into account previously unrecognized factors and changing circumstances, we adjust the conceptual framework and return to the struggle.
In actuality, as Rich is intensely aware, the stages blur and overlap. But an awareness of the process can help us avoid two traps facing those who could contribute to the struggle against cruelty and despair. The first trap, which ensnares many young activists, is the naïve repudiation of ideas as the playthings of a hypocritical elite. The second, a dominant motif in the history of twentieth-century radical movements, is blind adherence to a theory which has proven unable to generate real change. In the opening section of “Usonian Journal,” “Citizen/Alien/Night/Mare,” Rich focuses on the persona’s growing awareness that, whatever her theoretical awareness, she has been unable to reverse or even slow the “rapid and flagrant change” transforming America into a temple to greed. Staring into the political abyss, she comes to the realization that “I was no longer connected along any continuous strand to the nature of the change.” The remainder of “Usonian Journals” presents a complex engagement with the problem of how to resist and ultimately reverse the nightmarish changes. In the dreamlike “Incline,” Rich imagines breaking away from a road “that is no road, something designated as ‘commercial space.’” Contemplating the possibility of driving into the desert—understood not as “vacancy or fear” but as “life, a million forms of witness”—Rich reiterates her determination to leave failed paths—conceptual, political, or personal—behind: “The fake road, its cruel deception, is what we have to abandon.”
The political poetics articulated in “Usonian Journals” have taken shape gradually in Rich’s work of the last two decades. Like Yeats and Langston Hughes, Rich has reshaped her vision and voice several times in response to changes in the political and poetic environments. Characterized by a richly ornamented language and density of image and allusion, Rich’s early volumes (most notably A Change of World and Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law) centered on her growing uneasiness with conventions: social, sexual, and formal. Intense, political, and radically experimental, her second period (notably Leaflets, Diving into the Wreck, and The Dream of a Common Language) responded to and shaped the racial, sexual, and aesthetic rebellions of the late 1960s and 1970s. In a situation reminiscent of James Baldwin’s unsought role as literary voice of the Civil Rights Movement, Rich’s germinal contributions to serious discussions of patriarchy and lesbian feminism established her both as an unmistakably major figure and as a spokesperson for a narrowly defined political cause.
In addition to marginalizing her voice on “nonwomen’s” issues such as Vietnam, economic exploitation, and white supremacy, Rich’s public role as “radical feminist” began to affect her poetic process. In “North American Time,” from the transitional volume Your Native Land, Your Life, Rich describes the dangerous moment when political commitment threatens to come unmoored from poetry’s unspoken sources:
When my dreams showed signs
no unruly images
escaping beyond borders
when walking in the street I found my
themes cut out for me
knew what I would not repeat
for fear of enemies’ usage
then I began to wonder
Or, as she writes in “Slashes,” “A map inscribes relation / Only when / underground aquifers are fathomed in.”
The six volumes of Rich’s third period—Time’s Power, An Atlas of the Difficult World, Dark Fields of the Republic, Midnight Salvage, the strangely beautiful and elusive Fox, and The School Among the Ruins—chart a fascinating and profound evolution of political consciousness and poetic voice. Since the mid-1980s, she has dedicated herself to exploring the possibilities of poetry in a time when the first necessity is simply to stave off despair. She has by no means repudiated or abandoned the concerns of her earlier work; her rejection of conventions predicated on patriarchy and white supremacy remains present in the detail and deep texture of everything she writes, as does her belief in the value of embodied political passion. (“Never forget / the body’s pain,” she writes in “Calle Vision,” “never divide it,”) The difference is her central awareness that we are now living in an era of bad faith which permeates our public life and our personal decisions. In the title poem of Midnight Salvage, she images America as “this commerce this dreadnaught wreck cut loose / from all vows, oaths, patents, compacts, promises.” But, as she writes in “The Desert as Garden of Paradise,” “where drought is the epic then there must be some / who persist, not by species-betrayal / but by changing themselves.” On the most basic level, she offers her poetry as inspiration and sustenance for “Those who could bind, join, reweave, cohere, replenish / now at risk in this segregate republic.”
Reflecting her sense that “the music always ran ahead of the words,” the voice of Rich’s recent work has developed in ways that reflect a new phase in her ongoing engagement with African American traditions. Relying on a straightforward syntax and deceptively direct statements, she reworks ideas, themes, and images in a manner reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s description of jazz as a process in which the artist continually redefines her identity “as an individual, as a member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition.” As with jazz, the meaning of Rich’s poetry does not lie within the poem, but results from the call and response between poem and audience. Only the actions of real people testing potential meanings in their own social worlds can bring the work to life.
The call of Rich’s recent period sounds with particular clarity and conviction in the long poems and sequences that keynote each of her last five volumes: the title poem of An Atlas of the Difficult World; “Inscriptions” from Dark Fields of the Republic; “A Long Conversation” from Midnight Salvage; “Terza Rima” from Fox; and, above all, “Usonian Journal,” which circulated widely as a xeroxed and e-mailed pamphlet during the dark days following the reelection of George W. Bush. Taken together, these poems offer a rhythmic field of give and take to poets, activists, teachers, and ordinary women and men doing their best to survive bad marriages, bad jobs, and battered minds. The basic elements of Rich’s calls—each of which should be understood as the starting point in an ongoing process of call and response—can be stated clearly:
- See clearly.
- Make connections.
- Imagine, and act on, ways of abrogating cruelty and despair.
Each of these elements requires responsive readers taking action in the world, and each involves enormous complexities in practice. The “Voices” section of “Usonian Journals” emphasizes how difficult it is to attain clarity amidst the babble of cell phones and omnipresent media. Rich contrasts the contemporary wordscape with older styles of speech: “Pause in conversation when time would stop, an idea hang suspended, then get taken up and carried on. (Then that other great style of conversation: everyone at once, each possessed with an idea. This newer conversation: I am here and talking, talking, here and talking . . . Television the first great lesson: against silence.” The result is a profound isolation: “Private urgencies made public, not collective, speaker within a bubble.” In the “Stranger” section of “Usonian Journals,” Rich images this isolation as a “fog” which “blanks, echoes, blots reciprocal sounds.” Distrusting all responses as part of the constant noise, the persona finds herself questioning the significance of her own experience: “The padded cell of a moribund democracy, or just your individual case?”
Only by accepting the risks inherent in call and response can we hope to connect with potential allies and overcome the debilitating isolation. Only by comparing specific experiences of suffering and resistance can we hope to identify and understand the common enemy. This is why Rich devotes so many poems to exploring specific histories. At different times, she invokes the stories of Catalonia, Yugoslavia, and South Africa; of black children on the front lines of the battle for desegregation, immigrants harassed by La Migra, and Chinese immigrants writing poems on the walls of the Angel Island detention center. “Eastern War Time” chronicles Jewish suffering and resistance in the 1940s; “Six Narratives” the varying approaches of women struggling with patriarchy. Rich is intensely aware that the potential connections frequently fail, that potential allies often wind up enemies, as do the Irish immigrants and African Americans in part 6 of “An Atlas of the Difficult World.”
A brilliant sequel to Rich’s confrontation with white supremacy in “Education of a Novelist,” “Harpers Ferry” focuses on a white woman attempting to respond to the call of African American resistance without denying the specificity of black experience. Writing from the perspective of a Southern white girl fleeing an abusive family in the days before the Civil War, Rich traces her inspiration for resistance to its source:
Whatever gave the girl the idea you could run away
from a family quarrel? Displace yourself, when nothing else
would change? It wasn’t books:
it was half-overheard, a wisp of talk:
escape flight free soil
Yet, just as Rich’s struggle was not identical to that of Audre Lorde or June Jordan, the girl’s struggle differs from that of the fugitives who acknowledge her, then leave to chart their own paths. The girl’s most meaningful response to their call is her determination to build alliances:
This would be my scenario of course: that the white girl understands
what I understand and more …
… when she takes her place she is clear in mind and her anger
true with the training of her hand and eye, her leg cured on the porch of history
ready for more than solitary defiance
Just as she recognizes both her connection with and difference from the girl, Rich imagines readers who respond to her call by adapting it to the circumstances of their own lives. Like Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Rich knows that the world will continue to change when she is no longer present. Like Whitman and Rukeyser in “Then,” she addresses her call to a nonspecific “you,” thereby inviting individual response. “I know you are reading this poem late,” she writes in the “Dedication” section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” In “Sleepwalking?Next to Death,” she casts the conversation in terms of difference and connection, the irreducible elements of all alliances: “I will wrestle you to the end / for our differences (as you have wrestled me).” Political, poetic, and intensely personal, this wrestling informs the contingent jazz of Rich’s recent work. Meditating on the demands of call and response, the foundation of her poetics of process and political change, Rich writes:
My testimony: Yours: Trying to keep faith
not with each other exactly yet it’s the one known and unknown
who stands for, imagines the other with whom
faith could be kept.
The next step, as always, is ours.