Another to keep by the bed

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, Adrienne Rich
(89pp, $24.95/£19.99, W. W. Norton)

I must have read the title poem a dozen times. No, more. Without needing puff or blurb, the dust jacket of Adrienne Rich's new book simply has that poem printed on the back: you can't not read it when the book's lying around. It's a spare poem, stripped down. You could it read as a credo. It's also a big poem (though not long) that asks its readers for a close reading of how its made and what it proposes. And since that's what I've given it, the book itself has remained unopened many times.

     Tonight I think
     no poetry
     will serve

is the poem's turning moment between personal recollection and the conduct of war. From its opening lyric address, you've no idea where the poem will go: 'Saw you walking barefoot / taking a long look / at the new moon's eyelid'. Nor do you expect how it is going to sound after these flowing or longer lines like 'sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair'. (Some commentaries read this opening as addressed to a lover in the past tense; I'd rather think of it as addressed to a younger self.)

But you have to open the book to be reminded of how that word 'serve' might operate in the poem: the book's epigraph is a dictionary definition. 'No poetry will serve' (that is: be sufficient, join the military, be a servant and so on) for what comes next - 'will serve / / Syntax of rendition', and its change of register to where

     verb pilots the plane
     adverb modifies action

which appears simple enough ('noun is choking') until you think about how language serves to describe 'rendition'.

How do you write about war anyway? 'No one writes lyric on a battlefield' is the response to that question given by 'Quarto'. But Adrienne Rich goes ahead anyway: 'I think I can do it if I just lurk / In my tent pretending to / Refeather my arrows'. Through myth might be another response: in 'Reading the Iliad
(As If) for the First Time' the focus turns to horror:
'Hoofs slicken on bloodglaze / /Horses turn away their heads'. And inevitably it comes into the strong chant of a list poem titled 'Ballade of the Poverties':

     Princes of weaponry who have not ever tasted war
     There are poverties and there are poverties

     There's the poverty of wages wired for a funeral you
     can't get to the poverty of bodies lying unburied

The book ranges much more widely than this though, and backwards in 'Axel Avakar', a section addressed to a 'fictive poet, 'counter-muse', which I've not fully grasped yet. Perhaps inevitably since she's now over eighty, age and death and illness have their pages too, illness registering as 'hell' in 'From Sickbed Shores' because she finds it 'exemption from feeling', or

     to un-belonging, being-for-itself-alone, runged
     behind white curtains in an emergency cublicle, taking care of its own

If 'being-for-itself-alone' is Adrienne Rich's hell, she doesn't stay there long, even though in 'Powers of Recuperation'

     She's old, old, the incendiary

     endless beginner

because she is 'A woman of the citizen party', always engaged, and thinking out into the world.

By chance I read Derek Wallcott's White Egrets
just before Tonight No PoetryÉ and I can see that points of contrast with her writing are determining how I read them both now. He and Adrienne Rich are of an age; he too considers age, death, illness - but in taking stock Derek Walcott is looking backwards; Adrienne Rich, forwards. Their styles are as different as could be, Derek Walcott's full, ornate, and highly coloured, a rich dessert compared to the minimally punctuated, stripped down language Adrienne Rich uses. There's much more space for the reader in Adrienn Rich's book - which you have to enter to come to terms with the poems. Which is why I'm still thinking about them.

       © Jane Routh 2011