Salvage: Poems 1995-1998
by Adrienne Rich. Reviewed by Dana Gioia.
Even revolutionaries grow old. Now seventy, Adrienne Rich, the poet laureate of radical feminism, sees the future mostly in terms of her own past. "Looking backward / into this future" becomes the defining gesture of her new book, Midnight Salvage, the seventeenth collection in her long, distinguished career. As the title suggests, Midnight Salvage is a dark work, an unsparing analysis of the authors own legacy of revolutionary advocacy.
Rich, who has lived in Santa Cruz for the past fifteen years, enjoysand also perhaps suffers froma unique status in American poetry. While she is not our only major living poet, her reputation vastly overflows the poetry worlds small pond. Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Gwendolyn Brooks may safely be called major literary figures, but Rich alone ranks as a major cultural figure. No other living poetnot even best-selling Robert Blyhas made such a profound impression on American intellectual life.
Richs preeminence, however, has come at a price. Around 1970, midway through her engagement with feminism, Richs poetry changed. It grew or diminisheddepending on the readers point of viewby becoming more overtly ideological. She still wrote about her own life, but now she portrayed it as an exemplary general story of contemporary women. The authors "I" gradually became the collective and often partisan "we."
Many readers never forgave her transformation from lyric poet to feminist prophet. But Richs radical redefinition of herself attracted many new readers outside the coteries of contemporary poetry. She became our most controversial poet and also perhaps our most influential one, though ironically her impact was rarely seen on other poets. The writers who prized early Rich have mostly left late Rich to the academic theorists.
Midnight Salvage will change no ones mind about Rich. Her partisans will praise the depth and ardor of her meditations on social and psychological revolution. Her detractors will find ample evidence of decline in the books often disjointed poems and grim intellectuality. (Rich is too busy denouncing human folly ever to stop and enjoy it.)
What no one will fault is the poets intensity. If ever a writer fulfilled Walter Paters ideal of burning always with a "hard, gemlike flame," it is Rich. She is a human acetylene torch intent on searing through oppression and convention. This wild intensity, however, often proves her artistic downfall. So keenly focused on the austere agenda of political transformation, she too often neglects the amoral pleasures of the imagination. On the barricades one communicates mostly by shouting.
The new book consists mostly of long sequencesloosely connected groups of short poems centered on a common subject. Significantly, Rich is at her best writing about someone other than herself. She is especially good at portraying the spiritual and psychological inner lives of revolutionary icons. The strongest new work ponders the life of surrealist poet René Char who fought with the French Resistance. Another arresting poem reflects on Tina Modotti, the Mexican photographer and activist, who becomes a heroic alter ego for the poet.
The great blind spot of old revolutionaries is the generation gap. They cannot quite grasp the passions of their own fiery youth no longer burn brightly for todays young. At key moments in Midnight Salvage Rich falls into a sentimental political retrospection. The books final seventeen-page sequence, "A Long Conversation," for example, contains whole paragraphs quoted from "The Communist Manifesto." Once so disdainful of nostalgia, Rich now seems possessed by it.
There are still moments of lyric power in Midnight Salvage but not enough to save the book from didacticism and self-indulgence. Ironically, the writer Rich now most closely resembles is Ezra Pound, a political poet of wildly different creed. In his late Cantos, Pound, an experimental genius turned fascist, fell into earnest incoherence lit by occasional flashes of poetic brilliance. Like Pound, Rich is a major poet overburdened by the role of prophet. She remains an intellectual force, but she has almost vanished as a credible poet, and I for one lament the loss.
1999 Dana Gioia
First published in San Francisco Magazine (January 1999)