Guest Review: Naomi on Rich

Katrina Naomi reviews
A Human Eye - Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008
by Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich’s essays over the last decade are wide-ranging in scope and inclusive in nature. They are clever, yet accessible.

A Human Eye contains 13 essays, which broadly cover the politics of gay and lesbian poetry; modern Iraqi poetry (and who does and doesn’t gets translated); Jewishness; Adrienne Rich’s poetic imagination; essays on Muriel Rukeyser; James Baldwin; Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara; June Jordan; James Scully; LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka); and on the correspondence between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.

Apart from the essay on Marx, Luxemburg and Guevara, which added little to what I would imagine most politically-aware people would know, this is an inspiring collection of essays. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of James Baldwin ‘The Baldwin Stamp’, partly because I’ve long been a fan of his prose and partly because Rich shows new ways of considering his work. I read it with delight. I loved her little digs, for example, about Black History Month being ‘the shortest month in the year’. She has a talent for choosing forward-looking excerpts from Baldwin’s prose. It is hard to believe that so much of what she discusses here was written so long ago. How about this, from The Harlem Ghetto (1948):

‘In America…life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and
each generation is promised more than it will get; which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find
solid ground beneath their feet’.

Or this from Many Thousands Gone (1960):

‘Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all
bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform
their moral contradictions or public discussion of such contradictions, into
a proud decoration such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.’

As Rich points out:

‘Baldwin was a moralist, a role with which many writers today are apparently uncomfortable, since morality has become the hostage of various fundamentalists, or Hollywood TV “good guys” and “bad guys”…’.

His take on nationalism is of particular importance, as Rich discusses:

‘Baldwin held…that the artist needs to dwell “within the experience and outside of it at the same time”. His own awareness of this difficult positioning
(if I am, despite all, an American, what does this mean for me and for America?)
was, I think, a supreme artistic strength…’.

I was also particularly interested in the ‘Permeable Membrane’ essay, in which Rich discusses some of her own poetic practice. I found myself underlining as ‘essential’ for this review something in almost every paragraph, so have had to be sparing in my choices:

‘Working on a draft, I move by touch through what I can’t see clearly. My finger on the shoulder of the ghost who first touched mine. As my eyes adjust
to dimness, the shape of what I’m doing declares itself. The poem makes its
needs felt, becomes both my guide and my critic.’

And perhaps my favourite quotation here: ‘Art is a way of melting out through one’s own skin…A poem is not about; it is out of and to’.

When I began reading this book, I hoped to learn a good deal about poetry and the art of it, according to Rich; reading closely, I wasn’t disappointed. In her essay on ‘Thomas Avena’s Dream of Order’, a poet I hadn’t previously heard of, whom Rich discusses in relation to his poetry on HIV/AIDS, she states that: ‘Poems in very short, broken lines can become tedious’ but argues that Avena’s poetry doesn’t seek to soothe, ‘it keeps producing tension in the poem, tension in the reader’ and she finds a solid integrity to his work. I imagine most poets would wonder how far their work fitted within definition of integrity: ‘Integrity is hard to isolate or measure except in negatives: the absence of posturing, manipulating, claiming what isn’t earned.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rich isn’t afraid of sacred cows. While she admires Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’: ‘Howl transposed despair and alienation from individual pathology onto that society itself. In this it is one our great public poems,’ but she goes on to denigrate other Beat poetry in a way that I found I agreed with:

‘But a lot of Beat-influenced poetry, catching on to the expressive open-form
Whitmanic model and the un-Whitmanic machismo, minus Howl’s social
insights, easily devolved into self-indulgence, penile narcissism, tantrum.’

British and North American audiences, will find many new voices being promoted in these essays, and I wonder if this isn’t one of the main points behind this collection: to challenge the mainstream, to search for inclusivity. See excerpts from the long poem ‘A Woman is Talking to Death’ by Judy Grahn, whom Rich describes as ‘a working class lesbian’. An early section from the poem includes these immensely powerful lines: ‘death sits on my doorstep/cleaning his revolver…’. I also responded to a question in the poem ‘have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?’: And in response: ‘Yes I have/committed acts of indecency with women and most of them/were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.’

Rich says of Grahn’s work:

‘What’s notable is the freedom of line and voice, a colloquial diction with surges of intensity. A great public poem, emerging from a new and vital
women’s movement, expanding the political imaginary of Whitman and
Duncan, enlarging the potentialities of gay and lesbian poetry.’

From these essays, I am left with the impression that Rich has that knack of seeming to know about every poet who has ever existed anywhere in the world, and extracting the finest quotations from their writings/interviews. After a discussion on why poetry is important, Rich uses Rukeyser’s words, who said (Rich’s italics): ‘Poetry can be: an exchange of energy, which, in changing consciousness, can effect change in existing conditions’.

Rich argues for the importance of inclusivity within art (primarily poetry and to a limited extent, prose) and wider society. She is impassioned and convincing in her thesis, and in her arguments about the importance of poetry, this ‘exchange of energy’. In a bid to embrace Rich’s sentiments, I would like to conclude with this gem from Edouard Glissant (taken from her essay ‘Poetry and the Forgotten Future’): ‘This is why we stay with poetry…We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone’.

Katrina Naomi’s first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake is published by Templar Poetry. She is currently the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s first writer-in-residence.

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