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Adrienne Rich Symposium

Trying to Keep Faith: Adrienne Rich’s “Usonian Journals 2000”

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.


As in Tendrils a Transparency

The work of Adrienne Rich belongs instead to a legacy that fuses surface effect with affect; whose cultural style, too, can join outrage and joy. Such affirmative promise is what Kenneth Burke referred to as one of shaping attitudes or stimulating action in other human agents; that which, in an expanded sense of the rhetorical, makes palpable the relations of power in such sight and sound activated by the spoken word.

Permeable Membrane

  1. Is poetry, should it be, “political”? The question, for me, evaporates once it’s acknowledged that poetic imagination or intuition is never merely unto-itself, free-floating, or self-enclosed. It’s radical, meaning, root-tangled i [...]

Voyage to Dénouement,

  A child’s hand smears a wall     the reproof is bitter      wall contrives to linger     child, punisher, gone in smoke An artisan lays on hues:     lemon, saffr [...]


  Cold wit leaves me cold this time of the world     Multifoliate disorders straiten my gait     Minuets don’t become me Been wanting to get out     see the sights but the exits are [...]

Plain Sight

  My neighbor moving in a doorframe     moment’s reach of her hand     then withdrawn     As from             & [...]

Behind the Motel

A man lies under a car half bare a child plays bullfight with a torn cloth hemlocks grieve in wraps of mist a woman talks on the phone, looks in a mirror fiddling with the metal pull of a drawer She has seen her world wiped clean, the cloth that wip [...]

Unknown Quantity

Spring nights you pillow your head on a sack of rich compost     Charcoal, your hair sheds sparks through your muttered dreams Deep is your sleep in the starless dark and you wake in your live skin to show me a tulip  [...]

A Change of World: A Friendship

I’ve known Adrienne Rich, in her work, since 1952, when I was eighteen. I was walking down Garden Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one day in my first weeks at Radcliffe College, when a kindly old gentleman spoke to me, and as we talked, he asked me what I was interested in. I said poetry, and he asked if I knew the poetry of Adrienne Rich—she graduated from Radcliffe the year before. She had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award (which I’d never heard of) while still an undergraduate. “We’re very proud of Adrienne Rich here,” he said. Looking back, he reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s grandfather, in her poem “Manners”: