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Guest Review: Smith On Rich

Barbara Smith reviews
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007 - 2010
by Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is a poet whose work has had a profound influence on many poets emerging through the 60s, 70s and beyond to the present day. The Irish poet, Eavan Boland, has referred to Rich’s Diving into the Wreck (1971-1972), as ‘a cornerstone volume’ in her own development, and indeed both poets have been described as having ‘similar trajectories’ in terms of poetic growth: they both shared an early facility with form and a feminist perspective that questioned the perceived ‘normal’ patriarchal influences of their day, as well as an ambition to push the boundaries of ‘self-scrutiny’.

It is hard to believe that Rich was born in 1929, making her contemporary with Levertov, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Ashberry, Sexton – even stretching it slightly forward to Plath. Rich’s poems in her new volume Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007 – 2010 are fresh and challenging with that expected/unexpected Rich fizzle that leaves you amazed, puzzled and perplexed – that ‘how did she do that’ feeling that leaves you staring at the page, shaking your head, re-reading and admiring her audacity. This is no book of regrets or things left unsaid; it is a direct engagement in the present – good, bad or indifferent, and Rich has much to share.

As ever in this new volume, pared-back, fragmented compression sits alongside longer forms such as ‘Ballade of the Poverties’ and ‘Scenes of Negotiation,’ and sequences like the intriguing ‘Axel’ sequence. One of the opening shots of the collection, ‘Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time’, the quintessence of compression, sets a tone for the entire book, as well as showing Rich’s skilful analysis and weighing of every single word. ‘As If’ – how many times have I heard this short, clipped phrase in the mouths of teenagers and young adults, and wondered at how the tone of voice can change its meaning? But as ever, it is what Rich leaves off the page; what is between the silences and the white space.

It isn’t the language of the expressable, it is the language of emotions and images that has been dictated by the driving force behind the poem – not a poem about experience, but an experience itself, to paraphrase Rich. The bloody and beauty-as-truth – harking back to Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ as well as ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ – are filtered through the cipher of experience. The sibilant esses and sh sounds pace the words (all that male language, dissected and reordered into the mix) – ‘shore chariots shields greaved muscled legs / horses rearing    Beauty!’ –  and slows them down to  something like a slow-mo film scene, before we are sent reeling to the before-and-after reality of war: ‘flesh before gangrene’, and the aftermath:  ‘Ugly glory: open-eyed wounds / feed enormous flies / Hoofs slicken on bloodglaze // Horse turn away their heads / weeping equine tears.’ Somehow, (Homer’s) horses’ tears are far more eloquent than any human’s could be – horses being so much a tool/slave of man.

Getting inside something that makes us uncomfortable isn’t just seen in ‘Reading the Iliad...’ We are inveigled inside illness itself, in ‘From Sickbed Shores.’ The ‘room sound of the universe bearing / undulant wavelengths to an exhausted ear’ makes me think strongly of all the times I’ve been bed-ridden, where only my mind could do the wandering/wondering about how good living feels and what dying might be like. Rich wanders from ‘All, all is remote from here:       yachts carelessly veering’ to the ‘slicked encircling waters’ and on to ‘wired wrists     jerked back heads / gagged mouths      flooded lungs’ – this is quite close to the idea of waterboarding; that sense of drowning, or being  outside of the world.  Both are juxtaposed with the idea of remoteness, distance, as though because these things don’t happen here, we can’t have to face them – a lot like how you feel when seriously ill. A distorted sense of reality in sickness is one I can identify with, but it takes a sure poet to navigate this, make sense, invoke a deeper wisdom in the poem and not have the reader turning the page quickly.

Throughout this poem there is also a sense of  ‘disconnectedness’ that Rich questions: are we so divorced from reality by the daily repetition of the language of rendition, cliché and ‘matter-of-course’ that we don’t hear it anymore, don’t care, don’t understand  or want to? ‘You will have this tale to tell, you will have to live / to tell / this tale’ she concludes, we still have to get on with bearing witness and living beyond bearing witness – moving forward.

This is also explored in a more sculpted fashion in the title poem ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.’ Inside the front cover of the volume, a definition of serve is given: six different meanings and it is up to you, dear reader to choose which is meant. The poem begins with an image, an observance of someone at night looking at the ‘new moon’s eyelid // later spread / sleep-fallen’ and moves quickly to the ‘unslept unsleeping / elsewhere’.  The poem rips down the ‘Syntax of rendition:’ where ‘verb pilots the plane ... verb force-feeds noun / submerges the subject / noun is choking / verb   disgraced   goes on doing/’. The language describes a shocking action/shocked reaction, far more forcefully than any fuller language or description could do. It is strongly worded criticism compressed in a shot glass – and it doesn’t taste good, nor should it.

Buy this volume (hard back if you can), leave it on your nightstand face down and allow the title poem printed on the back cover to worry you. You won’t be able to help yourself – you will read this book.

Barbara Smith recently judged the Eyewear poetry competition.  She is a widely-published, award-winning Irish poet.

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