Your Native Land, Your Life by Adrienne Rich (W. W. Norton: $14.95)
There are not so very many of our confessional poets left. Like prize photographers who move right up to the gun to get war's image, they set their perches on foolhardy overhangs for the sake of immediacy. Some topple into the pain they survey. Robert Lowell died of a heart attack after a life in and out of mental hospitals; John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton killed themselves.
Adrienne Rich has survived, but everything in her poetry tells us: barely. She maintains her "I" in the confessional tradition, but it writhes. If she has not gone under, perhaps it is because, more than the others, she has transmuted part of her anguish into anger.
Effect of Anger
Anger preserves--the most dangerous thing for an old man, we are told, is to have his last enemy die--but its effect on poetry is mixed. While it gives impetus and a theme, it can also coarsen the vision.
No wish without a wishbone. Anger muddies some of the poems in Rich's new collection, but it is the vehicle that has got her there. The finest things from this damaged but powerful poet come at moments when she pauses to reflect, remember or notice; and before her impatience at reflecting, remembering and noticing overwhelm her.
"Your Native Land, Your Life" is in three parts. They are in a sense three portions of autobiographies. In another sense, they are three quarrels, not necessarily lovers', with life. "Sources" takes on the poet's childhood and her family's glossed-over Jewish background. "North American Time" questions the act and presumption of artistic creation in the teeth of the world's outrages. It is the angriest, and sometimes the murkiest of the three parts. The final section, "Contradictions: Tracking Poems," is to some degree a quarrel with old age and current history but, as the title implies, it is various and unexpected.
With a simple and unforced diction, sometimes edging into prose, "Sources" evokes and questions the efforts of Rich's father, living successively in New England and Virginia, to stress his community with their neighbors and downplay his Jewishness.
I saw my father building
his rootless ideology
his private castle in air
in that most dangerous place, the
we were the chosen people.
She tells of her efforts to discover her blurred heritage, to concentrate her thoughts upon the concentration camps.
Reading of the chimneys against
the blear air
I think I have seen them myself
Fog of Northern Europe licking
along the railroad tracks.
But as she rebels against her family's blurring, she rebels against her discovery. She finds it too narrow to serve her, too closed in. "Zion is not enough," she writes.
It is the New England settlers she refers to when she writes that "the persecuted, pale with anger/know how to persecute," but she seems to be thinking of Israel as well. What she is certainly thinking of is the pridefulness of elites and their fence of superiority to a teeming world. As her father thought to lose his heritage in a broader American world; she, ironically, looks for a wider confraternity or, more exactly, sisterhood, with women and the Third World.
In the second section, Rich expends her militancy. She writes of breaking out of feminine isolation into comradeship and love for other women. She writes of changing her life, of discovering her strengths, and of other women who have done these things. Sometimes denunciation takes over entirely. At other times, a kind of ambiguous light breaks through.
She goes back again to her childhood in a poem that fiercely denies its remembered gold yet betrays a note of regret.
What if I tell you, you are not
It's the family albums that lie
in the wake of home
building a complicated house
a tree-house without a tree
...the child's soul musters
where the holes were torn
but there are no miracles.
She evokes an armed world, one in which even the making of art must be questioned for its consequences.
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love
... We move but our words stand
for more than we intended .
She writes in "North American Time." It is a conflict, not a conclusion; she identifies part of herself to those who would subordinate everything, including their writing, to a political, social or sexual struggle. But she can't identify herself completely.
In the midst of an angry poem we get such a line as "the trout's hooked stagger/across the lake." In "Poetry III," she writes of art as inherently immoral and edges toward the immorality. If the world were just and peaceful, she asks,
Would we give ourselves
More calmly over--feel less
When the thing comes--as it does
and the fixed and mutable stars?
In the last section, weariness creeps in. She writes of perpetual pain from what sounds like arthritis, of stays in hospitals, of approaching old age.
She essays straight political poems; one about migrant workers, another about dioxin contamination. But there is a touching, perhaps a liberating sense of distance. Anger is not gone; it is beginning to transform back into pain.
I have been wanting for years
to write a poem equal to these
and I have always failed
I wasn't looking for a muse
only a reader by whom I could not
Rich, struggling a lifetime with her martial art, seems to have found in these last poems, not victory and certainly not peace; but something resembling what once was known as the warrior's rest.