Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich
What to make of the publication of Rich’s Later Poems: Selected and New? Composed of everything from Diving Into the Wreck (winner of the National Book Award) to new and unpublished poems, this posthumous volume invites us to take stock of a prolific output, created over forty tumultuous, exploratory years.
Many of Rich’s poems found their form in the serial or the sequence, such as “Meditations for a Savage Child.” They are hard to excerpt, because their force builds momentum section by section:
In their own way, by their own lights
they tried to care for you
tried to teach you to care
for objects of their caring:
glossed oak planks, glass
whirled in a fire
to impossible thinness
to teach you names
you did not need
muslin shirred against the sun
linen on a sack of feathers
boxes with coins inside
they tried to make you feel
the importance of
a piece of cowhide
sewn around a bundle
of leaves impressed with signs
to teach you language:
the thread their lives
were strung on
The poem is an address to Victor of Aveyron, the mute “wild boy” who emerged from the French woods in 1800 as a suspected feral child; it transforms into a wide-ranging meditation on language, the Enlightenment and empathy in five brief sections. Victor’s story is powerful, but what Rich’s poem accomplishes is partial. She suggests that his male doctors, who failed to teach him to speak, are obtuse: Why would a wild boy learn the words for tables and stemware and books, those accouterments of civilization? What if nature provided him with his own internal, impersonal (and more interesting) language that the scientists knew nothing of? And more disturbingly: What if women are natural allies of this feral primordiality?
These are provocative questions, but we expect something more from a poem: a moment-by-moment dramatic contest between content and form, theme and prosody. “Meditations for a Savage Child” has no such internal tensions, and no self-delighting qualities. It employs, as all of Rich’s poems do, a fragmented, staccato rhythm, but there are no startling tropes or sharp wit; no humor and no real warmth. A reader would come to such a poem for ideas—and she might uneasily recall Paul Valéry’s words to Edgar Degas: “A poem is not made of ideas, it is made of words.” Likewise, the famous sequence “Twenty-One Love Songs” feels misnamed; these aren’t songs, with a song’s qualities (brevity, musicality), but further meditations, addresses, in a rhetorical mode. They clearly felt necessary to a generation that lacked love poems between women. But if the very syllables can’t generate heat now, we wonder—as with some marriages—if they ever did.
Rich’s signature style—fragmentary (even halting), earnest, direct—did not alter much in the four decades covered by Later Poems. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost warned; I thought of this maxim more than once while reading this thick volume. I also thought of Wallace Stevens’s distinction between the poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination; I thought of Keats writing “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us” and his insistence that the poetic character “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” I thought of Sir Philip Sidney, who died of a gangrenous battle injury in his early 30s, writing of the poet: “he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit.” These were poets who made a strong distinction between art and the world, imagination and reality. Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction. The fact that such poetry attracts large, committed audiences is not lost on either its proponents or its detractors. Even so, most poets are not willing to give up their prerogative to be uncommitted: ambiguous, ambivalent, negatively capable and, yes, playful.
Perhaps Later Poems is just too big and unwieldy. In the future, someone will have to edit it down to a core of work that shows Rich at her epigrammatic best. Essential to include in that selection would be two late poems that offer a sharp pleasure. One, “Quarto,” begins:
Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields. Marathon.
Wounded Knee. Vicksburg. Jericho.
I’ve never seen the metaphor of Sebastian’s arrows applied to a war map. Do these lines “quiver with equivocation,” as Hong suggests lines in a poem should? Not really, but the originality of the trope had its intended effect: it pierced me.
The other poem, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” is concise and memorable for its poetic conceit. It begins: “Saw you walking barefoot/ taking a long look/ at the new moon’s eyelid.” It ends with unusual bite:
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
now diagram the sentence
The conflation of torture with syntax (the executive order to diagram involves disarticulating the parts of speech) recalls the Language Poets’ insistence that the tyranny of syntax mirrors the tyranny of imperialism—and that if we could smash the former, we would free ourselves from the latter (the pun on sentence reinforces this). But the deferred or indeterminate meanings of Language poems don’t have the dramatic power that Rich’s poem does. Here, at last, is the vitality that I’d been missing, and it comes, as I thought it would, with a twist: diagram this, she says—and suddenly I remember that “grammar” and “glamour” share an etymology in the Scots word for “magic.” Try to diagram that.
Our March , 2012, issue, featured five poems by Adrienne Rich.