Essays and Conversations

By Adrienne Rich

Norton. 190 pp. $24


Poems 1998-2000

By Adrienne Rich

Norton. 64 pp. $21

Adrienne Rich is an intensely committed poet, fearless in her positions. "I have been a poet of the oppositional imagination, meaning that I don't think my only argument is with myself," she says in the introduction to Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, her fifth prose collection. She looks to create poetry that pushes the boundaries of meaning, that has the power to subvert -- poetry that reaches beyond the self to connect with a wider community. With the publication of Arts of the Possible and Fox: Poems 1998-2000, Rich, with self-described "passionate skepticism," continues the conversation, considering notions of history, social injustice and the responsibility of the writer -- no small issues today.

Arts of the Possible consists of talks, interviews and essays written for specific occasions over a 30-year period. The collection as a whole, however, has greater impact than its parts. Here we find the evolution of Rich's thinking about poetry, about the relationship of poetry and politics, the poet as activist, and, not least, about her commitment to personal change. Looking over these essays, it's clear that Rich has been an effective interpreter of the times, as well as a few steps ahead of the pack. The opening landmark essay, "When We Dead Awaken" (1971), with its bold assertion of women's need for "re-vision . . . entering an old text from a new critical direction," became a rallying cry for second-wave feminism. By the time of "Notes Toward a Politics of Location" (l984), she had read the fault lines, the monolithic and essentially self-referential character of the women's liberation movement in the United States, and sensed the necessity of finding more inclusive ground. And in the concluding title essay, written in l997, she pushes further, indicting a society that is based mainly on the accumulation of wealth, where racial differences are frequently not tolerated, where language is devalued and poetry is often predictable, with neither energy nor passion. What the writer can do, she argues, is name, describe, bear witness, "help question the questions."

The concerns of Arts of the Possible lead directly into Fox, Rich's 20th book of poetry, a challenging collection that should more than satisfy her large and loyal following, and attract some new readers. Intimate, explorative, these are poems with a millennial feel, at once retrospective and forward-looking. The rap against Rich has been that her ideology has overtaken her poetry, diffusing the strength and intimacy that distinguished her early poems. Looking at Fox and more recent books such as Midnight Salvage (1999), it seems that the reverse is true -- that her commitment is first and foremost to poetry, that she wants to mine the range and possibilities of language, through a complex of original images, experimentation with line length, fragmented lines and typography to discover and explore her positions.

With Fox, Rich calibrates the public and private, history with personal memory. Meditations on distant relationships, political turmoil, notions of happiness -- a relatively new theme for her -- interact with longer sequences containing greater historical sweep. The opening poem, "Victory," with its comparison of a seriously ill poet, Tory Dent, to the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, sets the stage for the declaration of female strength and resilience that underlies the collection:


indented in disaster striding

at the head of the stairs

Rich also suggests female endurance and creativity in "Fox," the title poem, which opens with sharp, unambiguous lines: "I needed fox Badly I needed/ a vixen for the long time none had come near me." The poem implies the need to strip away myth, return to sources, and culminates in a graphic primal birth scene, with "the birth yell of the yet-to-be human child/ pushed out of a female the yet-to-be woman." This birth cry of human need, essentially the first breath, the origin of inspiration, suggests, perhaps, the birth (or rebirth) of the poet.

The centerpiece of the collection is "Terza Rima," Rich's ambitious modernization of Dante's intricate poetic form. There's a filmic, kaleidoscopic quality to this 13-part sequence built on a loose Inferno-like framework. Here the speaker (Rich, I assume) is at once Virgil and Dante, guide and novice, "the default derailed memory-raided/ limping/ teacher I never had I lead and I follow." Rich creates a grim, ironic vision of a hell of sorts, where, as both participant and witness, she speaks of celebrating "the death of history," watching "ourselves as giants/ on screen-surround/ in the parking lot." "Terza Rima" glances back at her earlier influential poem "Diving into the Wreck" (l972); in fact, past and present merge throughout the sequence as she revisits her life, looking back to the time when "I thought I was stronger/. . . thought I could be forever// will-ful my sailed filled/ with perfect ozone my blades/ flashing clean into the ice," trying to find the point at which the way was short-circuited, or even lost.

The initial inspiration for "Terza Rima" may have come some years ago when, as Rich says in the sequence, she was "tired of her old poems," and by chance found a poem in a bookstore by Pier Paolo Pasolini "speaking to Gramsci's ashes" (Gramsci was an Italian philosopher and revolutionary), written in that form but with a "vernacular voice/intimately political." This is the voice of "Terza Rima," and it is difficult to read this poem -- or "Fox" -- and not conclude that Rich's overriding quest has always been to tap into the pure sources of the imaginative or poetic act. *

Carol Bere's articles and reviews of contemporary poetry and fiction have been published in numerous journals, magazines and essay collections.

Poet Adrienne Rich in 1993