Too reflective, too fierce, too engaging

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth:  Poems 2004-2006,
Adrienne Rich
(108pp, $23.95, Norton)

The last time I read anything by Adrienne Rich (apart from her widely-anthologised poem 'Diving into the Wreck') was twenty years ago, when, as a new mother, I found my way to her feminist text Of Woman Born.  I loved the book - its tenderness, and intellectual fierceness, and ambition - and the way Rich combined autobiography with social and historical analysis, to issue this plea:

     In arguing that we have by no means yet explored or understood our
     biological grounding, the miracle and paradox of the female body and its
     spiritual and political meanings, I am really asking whether women cannot
     begin at last, to
think through the body, to connect what has been so cruelly
     disorganized - our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly
     developed tactile sense; our genius for close observation, our complicated,
     pain-enduring, multi-pleasured physicality.

A delight then, but no surprise, to find her now in her very late seventies writing politically engaged poetry that is also visceral, tactile, full of pain and pleasure.  And in spite of the cultural retrenchment she deplores in contemporary America, poetry continues to present itself as a paradigm of what Rich was appealing for; a way of reconnecting 'what has been so cruelly disorganized' - the intellectual and sensual, the personal and political. The appeal remains feminist, but carries its political and environmental burden more urgently than ever.

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is divided into 6 sections, and as has long been her practice Adrienne Rich dates each poem by the year of its composition. A sprinkling of endnotes refines the contextualization, and greatly amplifies the resonance of certain poems.  'Calibrations' (2004) for example has as end-note and sub-text Donald Rumsfeld's statement in December, following the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war, that 'you go to war with the army you have'.  Describing a prosthetic hand, and offering itself as 'A poem with calipers to hold a heart/ so it will want to go on beating' Rich's lines

     Ghost limbs go into spasm in the night
     You come back from war with the body you have

reads powerfully both as statement and rebuke. 

Strategically placed at the centre of
Labyrinth is a collection of fragments entitled  'Letters Censored, Shredded, Returned to Sender, or Judged Unfit to Send'. Taking as its epigraph the words of the prosecutor sentencing Gramsci on June 2, 1928 - we must prevent this mind from functioning - the poem assumes the ongoing reality of cultural hegemony and at the same time honours Gramsci's own resistance, combining quotes from his prison letters and diaries with fragments written by 'various imaginary persons' to demonstrate an unintimidated  capacity for passionate connection.   The paradigm is one of struggle in which freedom is continuously tested and re-defined and it has specific stylistic implications: the writing must be experimental, pushing its boundaries and asserting its freedoms at least within the poet's own oeuvre. So here in the space of a single poem Rich reduces an idea to a mathematical formulation

     History = bodies in time-

     or, in your language:

     H= T

and lineates Gramsci's own exquisitely poetic prose;
and writes with a tenderness and eroticism for which the word is surely 'quick' in the Biblical sense - ie. the polar opposite of dead.

But if 'Letters' is a kind of credo, as well as an offering up of credentials, the collection as a whole is specifically a product of the years in which Rich wrote it - the George Bush years, although his name is never mentioned - of the Iraq war, Homeland Security, Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans, adding up to a sense of impending global catastrophe that measures on every scale:

     the city a scar a fragment floating
            on tidal dissolution
     The opal on my finger
            fiercely flashed till the hour it started to crumble
                                                                        (from 'Voyage to the denouement')

Commentators have noted how throughout her career Rich has repeatedly torched her own style. In the poem 'Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth' she insists that this be understood as a response to the human predicament as she has found it, and not confused with linguistic experiment or the escape of art for art's sake:

     Éa different turn   working
     this passage of the labyrinth
     as laboratory

     I'd have entered, searched before
     but that ball of thread   that clew
     offering an exit choice was no gift at all

For all its apocalyptic urgency and scope, this collection conveys awesome humility as Rich looks back frequently over her life in the light of her political commitment, and asks what has been achieved:
     A room papered with clippings:
     newsprint in bulging patches
     none of them mentions our names
     gone from that history then    O red

     kite snarled in a cloud
     small plane melted in fog:    no matter:
     I worked to keep it current
     and meaningful:     a job of living I thought

     history as wallpaper
     urgently selected clipped and pasted
     but the room itself    nowhere
                                                            (from 'Wallpaper')

However, the bleak clarity of this and other poems in the collection (e.g. 'Draft#2006', 'Midnight, the same day', 'Re-reading
The Dead Lecturer') is matched by a persistent basic faith in human beings and in language:

     If the word gets out if the word
     escapes if the word
     flies if it dies
     it has its way of coming back

     The handwritings on the walls
     are vast and coded

     the music blizzards past

And there are delightful and refreshing images in this book, accurate observations, flights of fancy ('If/ as though') and a strand of laughter running through, with one poem - 'Hotel' that strikes me as purely playful - and a lot of recollected laughter, 'bed-laughter', and the laughter of shared understanding that late-night conversation turns into.

If the collection does have a characteristic mode, it is that of montage - Rich creating a sense of expanded connectedness not by writing about connections, but by juxtaposing moments, glimpses, thoughts and feelings and leaving the reader to make the running. The technique appears open, non-prescriptive - but its conscious artfulness, even manipulation is not shirked from either, and is held up for scrutiny. 'Director's notes' speaks of keeping 'dislike' and 'boredom' as values, as deliberate risks, with the intention that the audience will 'breathe a sigh, not so much relief/ as finally grasping/ what all this was for'.  As readers of this book we are invited to engage on every level, becoming more aware in the process of our own position and responses.

In a
Guardian article (November 18, 2006) Rich writes of

that in poetry which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our late-night arguments.  There is always (I am quoting the poet/translator Americo Ferrari) 'an unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides'.

Telephone ringing in the labyrinth has such a nucleus. It is not a book one can read, or review, and then put down and have done with. It is too reflective, too fierce, too engaging for that, and on so many levels. A live call, hungry for connection, it just won't stop resonating.

       © Meredith Andrea 2008