Adrienne Rich, a major figure in the recent history of American poetry and a frequent writer for The Nation, died on March 27 at the age of 82. In addition to the twenty-one poems she contributed over fifty years (five of which are reprinted below, with their original date of publication), Rich also wrote essays and reviews for the magazine. A remark in her review of John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs could serve as a description of her own work: “One is conscious, as in few other poets, of a steely thread of strength running through the dislocation and the ruin.”   —Jordan Davis

* * *

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:
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