March 29, 2012 | by Robyn Creswell
Adrienne Rich’s first poem in The Paris Review was “The Snow Queen,” which appeared in the magazine’s second issue (Summer 1953). Her last, “Itinerary,” was published this spring in our two-hundredth. Rich was twenty-three when she wrote “The Snow Queen,” but she had already been discovered. Her first book, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1951. Rich’s early work is formally impeccable, its ideas and idioms rooted in the poetry of Yeats and Stevens (“The Snow Queen” can be read as a variation on Stevens’s “The Snow Man”). But Rich quickly moved beyond her early style. She found its virtuosity too prim, too imitative—“exercises in style,” as she once put it. In her early thirties, she was already looking back at her accomplishments and measuring their limitations. “Necessities of Life,” the title poem of her 1966 collection, was first published in The Paris Review as “Thirty-Three” (Winter-Spring, 1964), which was Rich’s age when she wrote it. It is a poem of retrospection and prophecy. It begins,
Piece by piece I seem
to re-enter the world: I first began
a small, fixed dot, still see
that old myself, a dark blue thumbtack
pushed into the scene,
a hard little head protruding
from the pointillist’s buzz and bloom.
after a time the dot
begins to ooze. Certain heats
“The pointillist’s buzz and bloom” is still Stevensian, but the oozing and heat—here signaling the onset of adolescence—are heralds of Rich's mature poetry. Her great work of the sixties and seventies, the period in which she came out as a lesbian and a radical feminist, are poems of Eros. Not merely eroticism, though there is plenty of that—and it is important—but a poetry of passionate relation and reinvention. It is also a poetry that values plainspokenness over rhetorical expertise. “Now and again to name / over the bare necessities,” as she instructs herself in “Necessities of Life.”
Like many readers of my age, I first found Rich’s poetry on the bookshelves of my parents and their friends (one of our friends was her literary agent, another radical feminist, Frances Goldin). I read the poems, I now think, because they hinted at what my parents’ life was like before I was born—what it was really like, rather than what they were then willing to tell me. Two of Rich’s great subjects were modern marriage—chiefly its failures, frustrations, and betrayals—and childrearing. I do not think any poet then or since, including Plath, has written about these things with such acuity and ruthlessness and sometimes rage. The tableaux of “Night-Pieces: For a Child,” in which mother and newborn are implicated in each other’s nightmares, tear away all pieties:
Tonight I jerk astart in a dark
Hourless as Hiroshima,
Almost hearing you breathe
In a cot three doors away.
... you and I—
swaddled in a dumb dark
old as sickheartedness,
modern as pure annihilation—
we drift in ignorance.
New York is another of Rich’s great subjects. She lived in the city, on and off, from 1966 to 1979. The city of those days—the good old bad days, with their open political and racial conflicts, antiwar protests, and labor strikes—seems far away now, though when I first read the poems it felt very close. Rich later wrote powerful poems about environmental degradation, evoking what she called “the old / indigenous map landscape / before conquerors horizon ownless.” But she had already learned to study the nostalgias while living in the city (as who does not). “Like This Together,” one of her portraits of a marriage in crisis, gives this picture of New York, as true today as when she wrote it in 1963:
They’re tearing down, tearing up
this city, block by block.
rooms cut in half
hang like flayed carcasses,
their old roses in rags,
famous streets have forgotten
where they were going. Only
a fact could be so dreamlike.
Rich’s later poetry is especially full of allusions to her earlier work, which it revises and sometimes corrects. Life does not turn on points or sudden conversions, she once wrote, but “moves / in loops by switchbacks loosely strung / around the swelling of one hillside toward another.” “Itinerary,” her poem in the current issue, shares its title with a poem from her first collection. The earlier work opens with this stanza: “The guidebooks play deception; oceans are / A property of mind. All maps are fiction, / All travelers come to separate frontiers.” Poems of exploration, of women setting off into the unknown, would become one of Rich’s most fruitful themes. It is reprised at the outset of her second “Itinerary”: “Burnt by lightening nevertheless / she’ll walk this terra infinita // lashes singed on her third eye / searching definite shadows for an indefinite future.” The poem doesn’t suggest a goal for this adventure, but rather a way of being, an attitude of openness and intelligent vulnerability. It allowed Rich to write the poems of her moment, to see and to celebrate what many would prefer not to notice:
In a physical world the great poverty would be
To live insensate shuttered against the fresh
slash of urine on a wall
low-tidal rumor of a river’s yellowed mouth
a tumor-ridden face asleep on a subway train