Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Adrienne Rich. Last Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012. W. W. Norton.

REVIEWED BY DARIN JENSON
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

In her poem “Delta” Adrienne Rich writes, “If you think you can grasp me, think again: / my story flows in more than one direction / a delta springing from the riverbed / with its five fingers spread.” I have always noted those lines as both a warning and an invitation. Her final book, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012, provides a path into that depth and those directions that is at once wonderful and sublime. The poems are enduring snapshots of a lifetime full of many tributaries: teacher, essayist, poet, feminist, cultural critic, public intellectual, mother, lesbian, lover. All of these facets are reflected in myriad ways throughout the collection.

What has always been compelling about Rich’s work is the fierceness with which she faces the possibilities of her and our humanity. Of course, “Diving into the Wreck” is here and central to this journey. The deep dive into collapsing binaries and emerging as whole is one of the most powerful images in any poem of the last fifty years. In “Power” we have the image of a backhoe “divulging” the past, which brings Rich to her meditation on Marie Curie, which now holds a mournful irony. Rich wrote of Curie, “She died a famous woman denying / her wounds / denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Rich died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. I can only imagine that there might have been pain in her hands, the very thing that allowed her to write her words, her power.

This book’s collection of her poems reveals for me, even though I’ve read most of her work over the years, how she returns again and again to the layers of humanity and identity, and how she turns over with a spade and then the fine tools of an archaeologist the stories and history that make up who she was and, by proxy perhaps, who we are too. She turns to these concerns in late poems like “Strata” and “Letters Censored Shredded Returned to Sender or Judged Unfit to Send.” These poems show an enduring chronicling and examination that is beautiful and unflinching by turns.

One of these hard gazes is found further along in the collection. “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve” is a striking poem written late in Rich’s career. The poem’s title plays with the word serve; poetry will not serve the fantasy of war and poetry does not serve to relieve the suffering of “the unslept unsleeping / elsewhere.” Rich examines the “Syntax of rendition” that plagues the last decade of American history. The poem invokes waterboarding: “verb force-feeds noun / submerges the subject / noun is choking / verb disgraced goes on doing” and finishes by asking the reader to “now diagram the sentence,” again playing on the double meaning—here sentence is an authoritative declaration of punishment and a grammatical unit. This poem is an act of witness and an indictment of injustice and is emblematic of Rich’s vision.

In the same vein “The School Among the Ruins” has as its subtitle a list of places where there are schools in ruined, war-torn places: “Beirut, Baghdad, Sarajevo, Bethlehem, Kabul. Not of course here.” The punctuation gives me pause. I am left to wonder if it is ironic and read the poem attentively, wondering, and am drawn into the world of a school in a refugee camp where “All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking / above us somewhere.”

One possibility of age is a mellowing. Rich’s last work shows none of that—her social and political commentary and her deep engagement with the world show through in these poems not as a diminishing arc but instead as a steady and unwavering beam. She writes “For the Young Anarchists,” advising them by providing sage and experienced advice for those who must struggle forward. I wondered agape as I read it if she knew that this would be one of her last poems. Her call to action, the leavening of expectation that the poem carries, is simple and resonates with the ethos of her decades. In “Strata” she writes “the nerve-ends of my footsole / still crave your touch as when / my earlobes glowed between / your quiet teeth.” These poems, carrying the power and strength of age, are a gift of succor. I am reinvigorated by them.

We will have no more new poems from Adrienne Rich. But her voice is clear and bright in this collection. And her voice is important and enduring. In The Nation some sixteen years ago Rich summed up the challenge and power of poetry: “We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out of control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.” She does this for me. As I read “A Woman Dead in Her Forties” the line “but from here on / I want more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening” caught me in the memory of waking with my wife, listening to the news on National Public Radio that Adrienne Rich had died. Sara and I began to weep, to mourn a voice that we wouldn’t hear again—to keen for a life that we admired and had made our world more human. Thankfully, that voice is not silent and, with this book, we can remember.