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One Poem
By Adrienne Rich



   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
May 16, 1999

I was looking for a poem about spring, about the soft, almost-summer weather of mid-May, but it really wasn't what I was hungry for. The news has been so full of violence, and the violence – in Kosovo, in a high school in Colorado – has been so dismaying that I found my mind wandering as I looked through old and new books for a lyric that called up the season. I needed to read something with more salt in it and more darkness. And the book that I found was Adrienne Rich's new volume, "Midnight Salvage" (Norton). Rich is one of our most distinguished poets – this is, by my count, her 16th book of poems – and one of the things that distinguishes her art is a restless need to confront difficulty, a refusal to be easily appeased.

I don't completely understand the poem that follows. I get the outline of it. Someone is walking up a hillside. It's probably fall, there's ground mist and the sun's tongue is "licking leaf upon leaf into stricken fluid." And the speaker comes across what she describes as a "shattered head," a skull, perhaps, such as one finds in the woods, a deer or a racoon, but the description suggests a human head, imagined as the place that spring is going to come from: "tendrils soaked into matted compost." The lines that particularly moved me were the first three lines of the following stanza:

You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or
woods is humid
with beloved matter.

The stanza continues in this way:

the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace

I can think of poets who would end there, but Rich is not a poet to reconcile us, or herself, with the idea of death and regeneration. That is the quality of her mind for which I felt, this week, particularly grateful. In the poem the unappeased skull answers back. Here is the whole poem:

Shattered Head

A life hauls itself uphill
through hoar-mist steaming
the sun's tongue licking
leaf upon leaf into stricken liquid
When? When? cry the soothseekers
but time is a bloodshot eye
seeing its last of beauty its own
foreclosure
a bloodshot mind
finding itself unspeakable
What is the last thought?
Now I will let you know?
or, Now I know?
(porridge of skull-splinters, brain tissue
mouth and throat membrane, cranial fluid)

Shattered head on the breast
of a wooded hill
Laid down there endlessly so
tendrils soaked into matted compose
became a root
torqued over the faint springhead
groin whence illegible
matter leaches: worm-borings, spurts of silt
volumes of sporic changes
hair long blown into far follicles
blasted into a chosen place

Revenge on the head (genitals, breast, untouched)
revenge on the mouth
packed with its inarticulate confessions
revenge on the eyes
green-gray and restless
revenge on the big and searching lips
the tender tongue
revenge on the sensual, on the nose the
carrier of history
revenge on the life devoured
in another incineration

You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or woods
is humid
with beloved matter
the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace

And the shattered head answers back

And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
Who did this to us?

(From "Midnight Salvage," by Adrienne Rich. Copyright by Adrienne Rich. Published by W.W. Norton and Co.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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