Adrienne Rich. Later Poems: Selected and New (1971-2012). W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Later Poems: Selected and New: 1971-2012 is Adrienne Rich’s last book—in which she made her own selection of poems from previous books and unpublished poems. The book feels especially poignant, as she knew she would probably never see it published. Still, unlike her nineteenth-century “heroines,” who were born too early to be heard, Rich will live on: her voice is likely to be heard for many years to come. Her legacy to poetry and to women is unsurpassed in the poetry of America in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
What did Adrienne Rich see as her legacy to poetry and to women? Throughout her life she examined causes/sources in her writing: her Jewish ancestry, family, politics, civil rights, politics and lesbianism, but, above all, women and a fervent wish that women should be seen as they are and not as “lesser men.” Rich was controversial and knew it, but first and foremost she was a poet. It would be easy to use this, her last book, to smooth the rough corners of her life, but it would be wrong to do so. Controversy and anger were a part of her inspiration, and it is the poetry that came from these impulses that will immortalize Adrienne Rich as a diverse, innovative, and constantly evolving poet.
The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with Diving Into The Wreck (1971-72) written when Rich was in her early forties. While this book may not appear to qualify as “later work,” its inclusion is important. Published when she was already established, it is the springboard into all her later work. In the title poem, a metaphorical dive, the speaker “put[s] on / the body-armor of black rubber,” but unlike Cousteau and his team she is “here alone.” She represents the loneliness of the woman who has read the myths and is diving to search for truth. Discovering and articulating the difference between men and women, if there is indeed a difference, is the purpose of this powerful poem. In the wreck she is looking not for the myth but the “thing” itself, not for the story of the wreck but the “wreck” itself. This poem hints at the anger for which Rich was often criticised, as well as her passion to discover a real place for women in life and in poetry. Her discovery that, “I am she. I am he,” sweeps myth aside and dives for truth.
Diving into the Wreck is full of suppressed anger and frustration, as shown in “Meditations for a Savage child” (V):
You have the power
in your hands, you control our lives —
why do you want our pity too?
The pent up anger and confrontational stance shown here—and in many of her poems—demonstrate Rich’s long-running bid for a voice for women. Here, the woman asks why men, who have the power, feel the need for even more, while women remain largely marginalized and alienated.
In choosing the inclusions for this book, Rich has been faithful to her poetry and to the causes which informed her life. Dreams Of A Common Language, (1978) which includes “Twenty One Love Poems” (1976), first published as a chapbook, is a selection of the most moving and poignantly beautiful poetry. Written after Rich had embraced lesbianism, the poem expresses how “[T]he suppressed lesbianism [Rich] had been carrying since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.” In the first poem there is a huge sense of release, rebirth and hope.
No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulphuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city.
In Poem 111 Rich comments on the years of waiting:
did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
Joy and love are exuberant after the long years of waiting. One last extract from, (the floating poem, unnumbered), sums up this wonderful collection of love poems:
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine,—tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun.
According to critic Chery Colby Langdell in her 2004 critical work Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change, The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and the books which followed represent “a central rite of passage for the poet as she (Rich) crossed a threshold into a newly constellated life and a ‘new relationship with the universe.’”
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, (1978-81) is mostly devoted to poems about women. In “Heroines,” a poem that is almost a rant, Rich reflects on the nineteenth-century marginalization of women, their lack of rights and their voices struggling to be heard. She is at a complete loss to know how she can on the one hand, “fail to love / your clarity and fury” and, on the other, how she can “give you / all your due / take courage from your courage.” There is a wonderfully evocative line near the beginning, repeated near the end, which encapsulates what Rich identifies as the plight of women: “you draw your long skirts / across the nineteenth century[.]” Further words are unnecessary. What, then, epitomizes Rich’s strength as a poet? It could be diversity of subject, depth of anger, freedom released, identity explored, and passion. It is all of those but the poems themselves speak to us in simple phrases with a passion which raises the simple to the unforgettable; never grandiose, always beautiful.
Rich was political, burning with desire to speak her mind. In the poem “Mary Gravely Jones,” Rich mourns her maternal grandmother, a woman with a brilliant mind, though “no one cared about [her] mind,” for her lack of recognition.” Again there is pent up passion and anger for a woman who “smolder to the end with frustrate life.” In Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems, (1986), a blank verse poem about her father describes Rich’s changing feelings for the man who led her to poetry. Although she “saw the power and arrogance of the male as [his] true watermark,” she now sees him “under a powerful womanly lens that [she] can decipher [his] suffering and deny no part of [her] own.”
A fitting end to what is, in fact, a celebration of Rich’s work must come from the poet herself:
The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame.
In this book Adrienne Rich has given readers now and for the future “a deciphering flame” to help uncover the depth and diversity of six decades of poetry from this remarkable woman and outstanding poet.