Problems with Humans

A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008, Adrienne Rich
(180 pp. $24.95, Norton)

A general retrospective collection of essays by a major writer usually casts a helpful light on influences and touchstones in their career: Seamus Heaney's essays on Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, for example, allow him to define and play off against them his own inherited landscape of a nation-state. To take a more remote example, T.S.Eliot's critical mastications on Marvell, Donne and other contemporaries allow him to develop his own stringent range of views on society, form in poetry and imagery. Often, these collections represent a lifetime's thought and reaction, guided by the voices and examples of others, or challenging them: so it is with this brief collection of essays by Adrienne Rich.

Some of the areas of social justice and American imperialist tactics discussed herein might be problematic for a British reader, but their lucidity of the essays guides the curious. 'Jewish Days and Nights', for instance, is a valuable piece defining Rich's racial background: elegiac descriptions of her father's library lead on to wider definitions of Jewishness and, finally, a penetrating exploration of the Middle East conflict and the situation of American Jewish opinion. Lest this sounds too heavy, the essay ends with a light touch, a brief glimpse of Solomon Burke, the soul singer.

Other essays deal in a more detailed manner with poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, James Baldwin and the publication of the lengthy correspondence between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. The first of these acts as a valuable introduction to Rukeyser's corpus, the New York poems of apartment blocks and bridges being constructed in the first half of the twentieth century making me want to investigate her work further and read more. 'Permeable Membrane', a tiny essay of three pages explores the nature of the poet's relationship with society, the need to 'reach beyond interior decoration' in the 'culturally stunned, dystopic states of North America' and the faith and commitment required. Needless to say, political commitments are also explored, in carefully selected interrogations of Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara, but I found these less vivid than some of the other pieces.

The concluding three essays deal with gender politics (and gender poetics), the challenges facing the poet in American society today and the poetry of LeRoi Jones. Taken together, these often beautifully phrased pieces create a multi-faceted picture of a major poetic figure in American letters today. Rich assumes she has a public role, privileged as a poet, and seeks to define it precisely. Any admirer of her recent poetry will find this collection essential, but it is the deeply-wrought disquisitions on poetics which I will return to.

     M.C. Caseley 2009