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A Human I

Adrienne Rich, A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997–2008 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2009, 192 pp, $24.95 hardbound).
Adrienne Rich, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006
(New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2007, 108 pp, $23.95 hardbound; 2009, $13.95 paper).

In the germinal essay “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (1984), Adrienne Rich tracked the historical continuity within which she sees her own work. She paid homage to mentors (most particularly James Baldwin) and contemporaries who created art “not produced as a commodity, but as part of a long conversation with the elders and with the future.” In her role as public intellectual, Rich has championed the work of many poets from outside the Anglo-American cultural mainstream, thus opening the dialogue to writers most North American readers have had little knowledge of and scant access to. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997–2008, sustains that “ardent conversation among the quick and the dead, different generations, histories, temperaments” about the role of poetry in the world at large. It introduces, or reintroduces, the reader to a selection of writers, among them Baldwin, Thomas Avena, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, June Jordan, James Scully, Walt Whitman, Judy Grahn, Hugh MacDiarmid, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), while giving insight into Rich’s own work and the moral aesthetic that drives it. Collectively the essays constitute a multifaceted reflection of Rich’s current thinking on the question of “art and political transformation.”

The book’s title derives from Karl Marx’s 1844 manuscript Private Property and Communism: “The eye has become a human eye only when its object has become a human, social object. When art—as language, music, or in palpable, physically present silence—can induce that kind of seeing, holding, and responding, it can restore us to our senses.” In an essay that was originally the preface to Manifesto: Three Classic Essays on How to Change the World, Rich introduces to “new readers” a very human Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Ché Guevara to whom revolution was an “act of political creation.” In the context of A Human Eye, revolution is the necessary condition for making what Antonio Gramsci termed “a world intimately engrained in ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art.’”

Rather than reprise individual essays, all but one of which were written between 2003 and 2008 and several of which were first delivered as speeches, I will try to track the argument Rich develops in the book as a whole. Her analysis is founded on James Scully’s definition of poetry as a “social practice” that “talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it.” He distinguishes this “dissident poetry” from a “protest poetry” that is “conceptually shallow” and “reactive”—to which she adds “predictable in its means [and] too often a hand- wringing from the sidelines.”

For Rich, Muriel Rukeyser was an exemplary practitioner of dissident poetry through the activism that produced such work as The Book of the Dead. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser describes the poem’s work as a “transfer of human energy,” which she equates with “consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.” “Poetic thinking,” in Rich’s paraphrase, “like scientific method, [is] one of the essential elements of human power, inseparable from the remaking of society.” Rich associates herself, as did Rukeyser, with the “Jewish tradition of secular heretics and radicals who have repeatedly emerged at the crossroads of culture and thought”—a tradition she first encountered in her father’s library: “There are many worlds with many texts worth reading.”

These many worlds—particularities of “individual and shared experience, above all an experience of location”—constitute the source of a poetry as “varied as faces are.” Communication across cultures is essential to the creation of “an ongoing future” whose “elementary condition is the recovery and redistribution of the world’s resources”—including those of attention and voice. “Poetry, like silk or coffee or oil or human flesh, has had its trade routes” of cultural plunder, determining who is read and who is silenced. The inclusion in A Human Eye of Rich’s review of the anthology Iraqi Poetry Today is one such act of redistribution, allowing us to hear Fadhil al-Azzawi’s perspective on what Americans call “the Iraq war,” now in its seventh year: “Ah! Every morning the war gets up from sleep. / So I place it in a poem, make the poem into a boat, which I throw into the Tigris.”

Culturally induced fear, complacency, and despair have atrophied “the great muscle of metaphor. . . . The great muscle of the unconstricted throat.” They blind us to our “forgotten future: a still-uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded . . . on the continuous redefining of freedom.” Rich summons “the ghostly presences . . . of those who have written against the silences of their time and location” and the “unappointed, unappeased, unacknowledged” artists and activists who live “within every official, statistical, designated nation” as agents of rebirth.

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What, then, does the engaged poetics Rich theorizes in A Human Eye look like in her own poetry? What are the aesthetic implications of dissident engagement for her latest collection, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth? For a starter, let’s look to the pronouns. The I of her poems, she warns the reader in an epigraph, is not to be mistaken for the author engaging in “self-expression.” Rather, it is “a dramatic I”—in Dickinson’s phrase, “the Representative of the Verse.” Rich’s I is a poet figure, a reflective figure, a thinking being in the world, a mirror held up to the conditions of our lives. It is in dialogue with the self and the you of her poems, who, the subsequent epigraph also warns us, is likewise a dramatic figure. We are to read these poems not as an opportunity for literary voyeurism but as a drama we ourselves are engaged in—as she put it in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry,” “a kind of action, probing, burning, stripping, placing itself in dialogue with others out beyond the individual self.”

Paradoxically, Rich’s reconception in 1956 of her poetic output as one “long, continuous process” rather than discrete creations (dating her poems by year is emblematic of this) made it possible for thousands of feminist women and men who came of age in the 1950s–70s to develop a sense both of long-term intimacy with a dramatic I they followed from one of her volumes to the next and of that I as representative, as witness and actor in the historical moment. In the poems and in her public presence, Rich’s relentless insistence on questioning, “How should we live in this world?” has clarified our political and existential dilemmas. David Wojahn observes in a recent Field symposium that Rich has held us “to the same austere standards that she holds for herself.” Her travels through the labyrinths of antiwar politics, feminism, lesbian consciousness, Jewish identity, class politics, and worlds outside the Anglo-American mainstream have paralleled many of our own. Though she cautions in A Human Eye that “Poetry is not . . . . a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard,” the questions her poetry has raised have been ones we needed to answer. It has afforded us a view of one vulnerable, courageous self in a continual process of overturning (in the sense of turning over garden soil) and renewal: “If you have taken this rubble for my past / . . . / know that I long ago moved on / deeper into the heart of the matter” (“Delta”).

The human eye makes a conspicuous appearance in Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth in a poem which reads like the embodiment of Marx’s observations:

THIS IS NOT THE ROOM

of polished tables lit with medalled
torsos bent toward microphones
where ears lean hands scribble
“working the dark side”

—glazed eye meeting frozen eye—

This is not the room where tears down carven
cheeks track rivulets in the scars
left by the gouging tool
where wood itself is weeping

where the ancient painted eye speaks to the living eye

This is the room
where truth scrubs around the pedestal of the toilet
flings her rag into the bucket
straightens up spits at the mirror

In this declaration, Rich lets us know where her poetic explorations will take place, not in the realm of force, not in the realm of faith and miracles, but in the “truth” of the relations of power, in the figure of a woman who claims agency in her life by straightening up and spitting at a mirror—a gesture that combines contempt, disgust, anger, and propulsive force.

Still, Telephone wears its convictions with more layers of complication than A Human Eye. The “laser eye of the poet” is also “blind” and “moment-stricken.” It’s delicious to see Marx himself make a cameo appearance in which he comprehends what ails humanity but not what pleasures us:

Marx the physician laid his ear
on the arhythmic heart

felt the belly
diagnosed the pain

did not precisely write
of lips roaming damp skin

hand plunged in hair bed-laughter
mouth clasping mouth

The I of these poems is both vulnerable and fierce, the eye at once fierce and tender, the mind ever aware of its location within the dystopic country Rich refers to in The School Among the Ruins as USonia and the reaches of its empire. Often, the I/eye observes from a distance, The reader leans in, listens closely to hear the timbres of its dissenting voice.

More than any other of Rich’s books, Telephone is (pre)occupied with dissolution and disappearance. As the title of its first poem, “Voyage to the Denouement,” suggests, its speaker is meditating on the fact that all things come to a conclusion:

Velvet rubs down to scrim iron utensils
    discolor unseasoned
Secret codes of skin and hair
    go dim left from the light too long

The Rich persona who for half a century has been engaged in a continual process of undoing her own certainties owns up to how those certainties have blinded her:

Because my wish was to have things simpler
    than they were memory too became
a smudge sediment from a hand
    repeatedly lying on the same surface

“Call it / haplessness of a creature not yet ready / for her world-citizen’s papers,” she offers in explanation. The new, still more difficult perspective she has achieved allows no point of resolution in the poem beyond juxtaposed images of cultural, environmental, and personal dissolution: an “African burial ground” lashed by traffic, a flooded city, the opal set in a ring on the speaker’s finger, that “fiercely flashed till the hour it started to crumble,” her own death implicit in the metaphor. The first- person pronoun has all but faded out; its only two appearances in the poem take the form of the possessive pronoun. The attention paid to the principle of mortality renders the speaker’s death one more passing in the general order of being.

In Telephone, the dialogue of self with other, self with self, and self with reader that Rich initiated in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and that constitutes for her the heart of engaged poetry is focused on leave-taking. Often it can be read as between two or more of these pairings. Telephone welcomes in personal ghosts—former lovers, dead friends—affording the speaker new perspectives on old relationships and opportunities to continue truncated conversations so that the past opens a door to a re-membered future. In the strange and beautiful “Via Insomnia,” the speaker is “called up in sleep” by the voice of a recently dead friend, who has become a “white fur hat unstitched” that the dreamer is stroking. She imagines the unspooling of the soul in death and in anticipation of death, “electricity unsheathing / from the cortex, light-waves fleeing / into the black universe.”

An electric I, light pulsing from the cortex. Within and beyond the Rich persona searching for righteousness on earth there has always been the impersonal cosmos, both solace and source of power. In “Planetarium” (1968), dedicated to the then-unsung astronomer Caroline Herschel, she described herself as

a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
luted that a light wave could take
years to travel through me

She turns her gaze skyward once more in “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho.” In the Sappho original, the poet dissents from the militarized aesthetic of sixth century BCE Greece—and here I’ll quote from Willis Barnstone’s translation rather than the prose translation in Rich’s notes:

Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is

the one you love.

Rich’s version pays homage to Sappho and to the beloved while turning Sappho’s poem delightfully on its head:

It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die

walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something

more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary

but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time

into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
. . . .
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze

of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them

For the moment, what’s most desired—and this is, tellingly, desire, the whole body yearning, more explicit than the love of Sappho’s poem—is respite from the weight of caring, the absorption of the self into the gorgeous indifference of the cosmos—“as if / our true home,” Rich wrote nearly thirty years earlier in “Transcendental Etude,” “were the undimensional / solitudes, the rift / in the Great Nebula.”

In addition to the response to Sappho, Telephone contains a lyric translation of a poem from the French of Élise Turcotte, an improvisation based on a poem by Edwin Muir, two folk-idiom poems that make conspicuous use of rhyme, “director’s notes,” short free-verse lyrics, and longer poems in sections. Many incorporate the juxtaposition of disparate elements and multiple perspectives. One form that has appeared in Rich’s recent volumes and recurs here is the set of loosely related sketches that read like entries in a poet’s notebook, the stuff of poetry before it is fleshed out and ordered into received poetic genres. The openness of these sets is a fitting formal expression of Rich’s vision of a multivalent and “still-uncreated” world.

Telephone contains three such sets, telegraphic dialogues across time among the living and the dead. Each section is a scene, a situation, a problem, a proposition. In “Draft #2006,” the interior sections sketch identifiable scenes: a figure wakes early, reassembles herself to begin the day; a solitary figure stands “on the stone causeway. Baffled and obstinate. // Eyes probing the dusk. Foot-slippage possible”; the speaker remembers an evening with an old philosopher friend who might have become a lover; the speaker looks out from a condemned health clinic in “the disensoulment projects”; a teacher fails in her attempt to pass on necessary knowledge; a chambermaid “wrestles a huge duvet, resheathes heavy tasseled bolsters” in a ski resort for the rich and powerful.

The opening and closing sections suggest the concerns that underlie the poem as a whole. In the first, voices emerge from death “asking the unasked questions”: “(What were you there for? Why did you walk out? What would have made you stay? Why wouldn’t you listen?)” Failures in personal relationships give way to failures of the social compact: “—But you were supposed to be our teacher—” and internalized failures to rescue the victims in a violent world: “(One-armed, I was trying to get you, one by one, out of that cellar. It wasn’t enough.)” The poem’s last section places these—our— hauntings within a world empire whose “sheer mass” and “excruciating contempt for love” make envisioning a transformed reality nearly impossible. But here, out of “landfill, closed tunnels, drought-sheared riverbeds” emerge the “unappointed, unappeased, unacknowledged” artists and activists of A Human Eye:

Teachers bricolating scattered schools of trust. Rootlets watered by fugitives.
Contraband packets, hummed messages. Dreams of the descendants, surfacing.

In “Draft #2006,” the shifts of perspective from character to character, sleep to waking life, broad to narrowly focused shots are integral to Rich’s world view and aesthetic. They generate provocative ambiguities, bring the reader into intimate relationship with the speaker then disabuse her of the illusion of easy intimacy, “other” the self to get a broader view, and invoke the other to talk back, challenge, accuse. The title—and final—poem in Telephone deftly employs similar shifts in perspective and relationship. In the first of the poem’s five sections I and you catch each other’s eye in a hypothetical moment, first through a rearview mirror and an instant later in the “convex reflection” in a shard from a just-shattered bowl. In the second section a diploid I is alternately a “sensual peninsula” and “scaler into thin air,” two poles we have become familiar with in Rich’s persona. The disappearance of the I after the first lines of this section trains the reader’s attention on the metaphors themselves, which culminate once more in a loss of the personal, the poet ultimately reduced to “a mat of hair webbed” in a burning bush, a “violent lithography.”

The poem’s third section is an ars poetica. The I does not appear until the final stanza, and so the reader visualizes the process of creation without visualizing the creator: “Image erupts from image / atlas from vagrancy / articulation from mammal howl.” We read these as acts of resistance in a world

that heaps contempt on creation itself:
one more Troy or Tyre or burning tire
seared eyeball genitals
charred cradle

The pronoun we appears for the first time in the following section, where you is I’s mirror and partner, co-creator and resister by “design.” In the final section, the I addresses the (same?) you from a distance, like one of her own ghostly presences speaking from beyond the grave:

I would have wanted to say it
without falling back
on words Desired not

you so much as your life,
your prevailing Not for me
but for furtherance

In this moment of candor, a final truth-telling, what the speaker desires is not the beloved but that the beloved should live, prevail, “fierce and furthering.” Reading these lines, which might serve as a summation of the motive force of Rich’s work, we feel included in that you, fierce with possibility, and blessed.

 

© 2010 Beloit Poetry Journal       Design by Jim Parmenter