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Five Poems by Adrienne Rich | The Nation

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Five Poems by Adrienne Rich

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(AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)

Adrienne Rich, a major figure in the recent history of American poetry and a frequent contributor to The Nation, died on March 27. In addition to the twenty-two poems she contributed over fifty years, she also wrote essays and reviewed for the magazine; a remark in her review of John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs could serve as self-analysis: “One is conscious, as in few other poets, of a steely thread of strength running through the dislocation and the ruin.”

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She also spoke up as a reader: in a 1993 letter to the editor, she urged the magazine to refuse “to drift toward the so-called center, a nerveless, benumbed position produced by the very financial and political interests that need to be called to account.” In the first of ten reviews the magazine ran of her work, Cheryl Walker identified the best qualities of her work, and their likely source:

This poetry is deadly serious, but it is not, like so much of women’s poetry in the past, death-enamored. For it is the poet’s appetite, her undeniable life force, which sustains these operations.

Through the years the reviews were positive, if cantankerously so: in 1978, Donald Hall noted that “she has a gift for being herself, much the way certain film actors possess the rare and difficult genius—which looks easy—of always seeming natural.” The same year, Hayden Carruth said that “The Dream of a Common Language may be a masterpiece.” A decade later, Marilyn Hacker observed that the crowds of hundreds that packed Rich’s readings may not “like, or even totally comprehend, what they hear that is new,” but almost every audience member “will carry, in memory, at least one poem of Rich’s that resonated, that made a difference in her or his life.” Lawrence Joseph summarized her project best:

For Rich, the poet inside a wrecked society must will an imagined common language to get to human love, which is for her the central subject of any personal or social order. A poetry of ideological commitment must enter the heart and mind, become as real as one’s body, as vital as life itself—that’s what makes it poetry.

—Jordan Davis, Poetry Editor

In memory of Rich's contributions to progressive politics and poetry, The Nation features below some of her poems published in the magazine in over five decades of writing.

At Willard Brook
November 18, 1961

Spirit like water
moulded by unseen stone
and sandbar, pleats and funnels
according to its own
submerged necessity —
to the indolent eye
pure wilfulness, to the stray
pine-needle boiling
in that cascade-bent pool
a random fury: Law,
if that's what's wanted, lies
asking to be read
in the dried brook-bed.

 

For Example
November 23, 1963

Sometimes you meet an old man
whose fist isn't clenched blue-white.
Someone like that old poet

whose grained palm once travelled
the bodies of sick children.
Back in the typed line

was room for everything: the blue
grape hyacinth patch,
the voluntary touch

of cheek on breast, the ear
alert for a changed heartbeat
and for other sounds too

that live in a typed line:
the breath of animals, stopping
and starting up of busses,

trashfires in empty lots.
Attention once given
returned again as power.

An old man's last few evenings
might be inhabited
not by a public—

fountains of applause off
auditorium benches,
tributes read at hotel banquets—

but by reverberations
the ear had long desired,
accepted and absorbed.

The late poem might be written
in a night suddenly awake
with quiet new sounds

as when a searchlight plays 
against the dark bush-tangle
and birds speak in reply.

 

Translations
December 25, 1972

You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language

Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow
enough to let me know
she's a woman of my time

obsessed

with Love, our subject:
we've trained it like ivy to our walls
baked it like bread in our ovens
worn it like lead on our ankles
watched it through binoculars as if
it were a helicopter
bringing food to our famine
or the satellite
of a hostile power

I begin to see that woman
doing things: stirring rice
ironing a skirt
typing a manuscript till dawn

trying to make a call
from a phonebooth

The phone rings endlessly
in a man's bedroom
she hears him telling someone else
Never mind. She'll get tired.
hears him telling her story to her sister

who becomes her enemy
and will in her own way
light her own way to sorrow

ignorant of the fact this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
and political

 

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
May 26, 2008 

Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid

later spread
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping
elsewhere

Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb disgraced goes on doing

there are adjectives up for sale

now diagram the sentence

 

Quarto
June 8, 2009

1.
Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields. Marathon.
Wounded Knee. Vicksburg. Jericho.
Battle of the Overpass.
Victories turned inside out
But no surrender

Cemeteries of remorse
The beaten champion sobbing
Ghosts move in to shield his tears

2.
No one writes lyric on a battlefield
On a map stuck with arrows
But I think I can do it if I just lurk
In my tent pretending to
Refeather my arrows

I'll be right there! I yell
When they come with their crossbows and white phosphorus
To recruit me
Crouching over my drafts
lest they find me out
and shoot me

3.
Press your cheek against my medals, listen through them to my heart
Doctor, can you see me if I'm naked?

Spent longer in this place than in the war
No one comes but rarely and I don't know what for

Went to that desert as many did before
Farewell and believing and hope not to die

Hope not to die and what was the life
Did we think was awaiting after

Lay down your stethoscope back off on your skills
Doctor can you see me when I'm naked?

4.
I'll tell you about the mermaid
Sheds swimmable tail Gets legs for dancing
Sings like the sea with a choked throat
Knives straight up her spine
Lancing every step
There is a price
There is a price
For every gift
And all advice 

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