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Critical Review by Denis Donoghue
SOURCE: "Poetic Anger," in The New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1996, pp. 32-3.
In the review below, Donoghue faults the themes and tone of Dark Fields of the Republic, claiming that "each of the poems is interesting mainly because [Rich wrote it."]
Adrienne Rich publishes a new volume of her poetry every three or four years and, less frequently, books of prose on major concerns, especially themes ad feminam. Her readers treasure these books, I imagine, as a series of journals or notebooks, leaflets—evidence of Ms. Rich's desiring, thinking and feeling, her distinctive ways of being alive. As she wrote in The Dream of a Common Language, "The story of our lives becomes our lives."
It hardly matters, then, except to the history of American poetry, that few of her new poems achieve the autonomy of a work of art, floating free of their autobiographical contexts. Each of the poems is interesting mainly because she wrote it: the words return to their speaker and document her public life. I find her new poems hard to memorize; they slip in and out of my mind as many of her earlier poems don't, the poems that generations of readers continue to recite for pleasure and companionship. My short list of those includes "Ideal Landscape," "The Middle-Aged," "Holiday," "Necessities of Life," "In the Woods," "The Roofwalker," "Face to Face," "Like This Together," "Open-Air Museum," "Two Songs," "The Demon Lover," "Night Watch" and "After Dark."
Ms. Rich's first book was A Change of World (1951). In his foreword to it, W. H. Auden said that "poems are analogous to persons" and that "the poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs." Since then, Ms. Rich has exercised her will to change. The poems in Dark Fields of the Republic are not notable for modesty of dress, they never mumble but they do not always speak quietly, they repudiate their elders as if on principle, and if they do not tell fibs they sometimes say things that are not true.
It is not true, for instance, as Ms. Rich says in "Food Packages: 1947," that "Europe is trying / to revive / with the Jews somewhere else." That is not what Europe was trying to do in 1947. It is not true—or at least not adequate to a complex truth—that there was a moment in American public life
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.
Declared by whom? I wish the poet would name names instead of resorting to the diffuse incrimination of the passive voice. Nor is it true of "our country" that it has "its own ways of making people disappear." Ms. Rich well knows that "disappear" is an emphatic word in the vocabulary of state-enforced murder, and not only in Latin America. "Our country" is not justly to be compared with China, the Soviet Union, Chile, South Africa, Guatemala, Bosnia or any other state that has effected the disappearance of millions. But perhaps a poet is not on oath when she is angry, as Ms. Rich regularly is.
Over the course of many books, she has been turning her life into poetry, her poetry back into her life. She has written of herself as child, daughter, wife—the woe that is in marriage, "this sin / of wedlock"—and mother. "Mother I no more am, / but woman, and nightmare."
She has interrogated the values of home, homelessness, homesickness and shelter. She has also written of the body in pain, of living in a bad world ("a land-mass / puffed up with bad faith and fatigue") and of sundry fears oppressive in "turbid America." In many poems and essays, too. Ms. Rich has been reflecting on her most insistent theme, "the naked and unabashed failure of patriarchal politics and patriarchal civilization." Writing of these difficult ordinary matters, she has become a heroine to many, a representative woman—feminist, socialist, lesbian. Readers who do not share these avocations and commitments still like to have them articulated: it is a matter of conscience. Ms. Rich's poems in Necessities of Life (1968), Leaflets (1969) and Diving Into the Wreck (1973) keep us alert to feelings we may no longer otherwise hold. Her more recent books are not as pointed as those, though each of them has fine poems. As a poet, Ms. Rich has had difficulty coping with the fact that it is no longer 1968 or 1974: the exacerbations are different now and not quite answerable to the rhetorical means she devised for those gone occasions. The dark fields of the republic—F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase in The Great Gatsby—are sufficient grounds of dismay, but not of anger immediate enough to hurt Ms. Rich into her most telling poetry. As in previous books, she is determined to be glum, but the engaged poems of the new book haven't found enough to be engaged by; they are abstracted from detail no longer there in the old way. Ms. Rich says of the new sequence "Then or Now" that "the poems owe much … to the continuing pressure of events," but she hasn't made us see the events or feel their pressure.
It is not surprising that the themes of the new book have not impelled Ms. Rich to mine all the resources of the language. She has long chosen to speak directly and simply, though she knows that "obscurity has its tale to tell." She has put her language on a thin diet, as if she associated the plenitude of her old music with triviality and corruption. I can't reconcile myself to the loss, and I read aloud "The Loser" to remind myself of poetic pleasures Ms. Rich has now largely disavowed. In this poem from Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), a man speaks of the woman he once loved:
Your wedding made my eyes ache; soon
the world would be worse off for one
more golden apple dropped to ground
without the least protesting sound,
and you would windfall lie, and we
forget your shimmer on the tree.
"Windfall lie" may echo the "leafmeal lie" of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall." But that is not a flaw, the stanza moves to its own rhythm. In another early poem, "Continuum," Ms. Rich speaks of someone
I may never hear, but go on hoping
to hear, tonight, tomorrow, someday,
as I go on hoping to feel
tears of mercy in the of course impersonal rain.
Ms. Rich is mindful of a degree of the pathetic fallacy in "tears of mercy," but mindful also of the due claim of that hope: she respects the feeling just as much as her vigilance in guarding against its presumption.
I have quoted these passages to indicate the sacrifice Ms. Rich has made in securing the thin lines of her recent poetry. She has elected to do without copiousness, ambiguity, historical weight and density, "the old masters, the old sources," humor, wit, the play of word upon word. "We are our words, and black and bruised and blue." she wrote in "The Demon Lover." But in Dark Fields of the Republic it is hard to feel that the words are black and bruised and blue when they appear for the most part self-protected, insured against catastrophe as against joy:
I was telling you a story about love
how even in war it goes on speaking its own language
Yes you said but the larynx is bloodied
the knife was well-aimed into the throat
Well I said love is hated it has no price
No you said you are talking about feelings
Have you ever felt nothing? that is what war is now
Then a shadow skimmed your face
Go on talking in a normal voice you murmured
Nothing is listening.
One of the attractions of Ms. Rich's poems has been the sense that they are conversations from which you and I are not excluded; but I wouldn't want to take part in this one. The fluency of the poem is gained by making its words weightless: war and love are not experiences burdened with particular fear, actual pain; they are notions between which the speakers glide. I don't believe in the knife, the larynx or the throat: they, too, are mere notions. Nor do I believe the fib that war has become nothing. It is not nothing to those who suffer it, or return home, homeless, destroyed by it.
This section contains 1,401 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)