In the three sections of this new book--"Sources," "North American Time" and "Contradictions: Tracking Poems"--Adrienne Rich proves herself, again, a major writer who continues to carve poems out of difficult stone: her own suffering and the suffering of those she identifies with. These are primarily Jews, poets and women; more particularly, lesbians. In her writing, she hopes for a revolution of consciousness, the inclusion within our culture of dispossessed people. She faces both exclusion and the yearning to belong: "Wherever a poet is born enduring/ depends on the frailest of chances:/ Who listened to your murmuring/ over your little rubbish . . . saying: This belongs to you you have the right/ you belong to the song/ of your mothers and fathers You have a people."
In "Sources," she turns to family history--"From where does your strength come, you Southern Jew?/ Split at the root, raised in a castle of air?" Ultimately, there's a release from the past, although a painful one, and out of that, a fierce desire to know the world in a new way, the way Rich has been exploring now for a number of years. Her fate is presented as the need to belong fully to herself but equally fully to the larger world.
Much of the poetry throughout the book concerns the issue of the poet as private seeker set against the necessity to be responsible for broader problems. Poems sometimes address a reader who's willing to follow the conflict to its conclusion: "The body's pain and the pain on the streets/ are not the same but you can learn/ from the edges that blur O you who love clear edges/ more than anything watch the edges that blur." There are no quick answers; there isn't an easy summary of experience here that might tempt a less honest poet. Rich's honesty, even about confusion, puts her poetry primarily in the realm of human paradox rather than in the marketplace of political diatribe.
When she is at her most political, a reader who doesn't agree with her stance will sense the tone of the writing as "them and us" rhetoric. She is too intelligent to allow this tone often and, in her best poems, she's fully aware of the barriers to clear definitions: "Trapped in one idea, you can't have your feelings,/ feelings are always about more than one thing . . . and you long for one idea/ one simple, huge idea to take this weight/ and you know you will never find it, never/ because you don't want to find it. . . ." In her refusal to rely on "one idea," she damns herself to those blurred edges, the continuing attempt to understand what doesn't offer up its meaning easily, if ever. That, though, is her strength. Readers can recognize the conflict in the poems, consider their own easy assumptions, then take heart from the poet's task: to inspire us to wrestle, too, with values of self and culture.
Rich has published 12 books of poetry, been honored with prizes and awards, but has never been tempted to write in forms or language that set her apart from a general reader. Technically meticulous, she doesn't show off. She rejects overly clever devices, decorative pretenses. The difficulties of honing and crafting, of finding precise images, are invisible, so that the poems are lucidly rewarding. Her distillation accomplishes something of what she hopes for philosophically.
These days, poets often represent the outsider, the individual crying out for a home. In our present American poetry, no single writer embraces or speaks for the whole. To listen to the best of the individual voices, such as Adrienne Rich's, does encourage the hope for finding true homes within ourselves and our society. This is, as she says, your native land, your life.