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Brightening the Landscape : POETRY : DARK FIELDS OF THE REPUBLIC, Poems 1991-1995. By Adrienne Rich (W.W. Norton: $25; 79 pp.)

February 25, 1996|David St. John | David St. John's most recent book is "Where the Angels Come Toward Us: Selected Essays, Reviews & Interviews" (White Pine Press)

During the past 40 years, as a poet, essayist and political activist, Adrienne Rich has stood as a reminder of what an engaged political life coupled with a supreme poetic gift can offer to a starved culture. Given the bleak landscape of what seems to be our new national political and social agenda, Rich's new collection of poems takes on a prescient resonance.

It would be hard to overstate Rich's influence as a cultural presence. There is no one whose poetry has spoken more eloquently for the oppressed and marginalized in America, no one who has more compassionately charted the course of individual human suffering across the horrifying and impersonal graph of recent history. Rich's extraordinary essays, as everyone must know by now, continue to be essential writings in the ongoing feminist struggle in this country and throughout the world.

The title of Rich's new collection, "Dark Fields of the Republic," is drawn from the book's epigraph, a passage from "The Great Gatsby" that reflects Rich's ongoing concern with the promises made by and failures attendant to the American dream. The realities of class, and the disappointments that many have suffered in their hope for true equality in racial and gender issues, seem mitigated for Rich only by the belief that the struggle for social good indeed continues, even in those--in our--"dark fields."

The poems therefore continue to be works of meditation, harsh reckoning, occasional despair and perpetual hope. Typically, Rich weaves deeply personal, even intimate, details of experience across a larger public tableau. In the poem "To the Days," she writes, "Whatever you bring in your hands, I need to see it." And later in the same poem, "To smell another woman's hair, to taste her skin. / To know the bodies drifting underwater. / To be human, said Rosa--I can't teach you that."

The invocation here of Rosa Luxemburg, the social activist and one of Rich's longtime models, is a way for Rich to enlarge the private world with what she sees as the public resonance of each personal choice. That is why the poem, in addressing a "you" that becomes simultaneously a lover, the reader and a historical time, echoes at its end what the speaker has acknowledged at the poem's opening: "I want more from you than I ever knew to ask."

Yet other questions and demands inevitably blossom throughout "Dark Fields of the Republic," as many of these new poems confront the tension and conflict the poet feels from experiencing a great individual peace and even an intimate satisfaction with her companion, while still feeling the wrenching anguish of the world's daily events.

The book revolves around several powerful sequences of poems. The first, "Calle Vision," is one of Rich's most deeply personal poems, examining the mirrored nature of love and suffering, echoing the transience of any body, any landscape, any history (even the most private). With her familiar defiance, Rich instructs herself and us, "never forget / the body's pain / never divide it."

The brief but troubling sequence, "Then or Now," is an astounding meditation on the idea of political "innocence" or "guilt" among, Rich says in a note, "artists and intellectuals like myself in the United States." The final part of the poem, entitled "And Now," serves as a candid, even explicit, apologia about a life in art and politics:

I tried to listen to the public voice of

our time tried to survey our public

space as best I could--tried to

remember and stay faithful to details,

note precisely how the air moved and

where the clock's hands stood and

who was in charge of definitions and

who stood by receiving them when the

name of compassion was changed to

the name of guilt when to feel with

human stranger was declared obsolete.

Constellated around Rich's longer sequences are many wonderful individual poems, including "From Pierced Darkness." The poem sketches the urban purgatory of New York City in December, though the nearing holidays seem to bring little sense of generosity to the landscape or its figures. One passage notes:

Her pierced darkness. Drag queen dressed to kill in beauty

drawing her bridgelit shawls

over her shoulders. Her caves ghosted by foxes.

For some of her less astute critics (and readers), Rich has also provided the poem "Late Ghazal," a witty and moving ars poetica meant to echo ghazals from an earlier period in her career. It concludes:

I took my body anyplace with me.

In the thickets of abstraction my skin ran with blood.

Life was always stronger . . . the critics couldn't get it.

Memory says the music always ran ahead of the words.

Yet it is in the book's final sequence, "Inscriptions," that we find again the remarkably complex braiding of the personal and public (or historical) that Rich perfected in the title poem of her previous collection, "An Atlas of the Difficult World." Though more compressed than that poem, "Inscriptions" stands as one of the most powerful works of Rich's career.

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