An uneven collection of occasional pieces by one of America’s foremost poets.
For better or worse, Rich (Midnight Salvage, 1997, etc.) has reached a level of literary acclaim that allows her to publish anything she chooses. This collection spans three decades and consists primarily of papers and interviews given in academic settings. Interestingly enough, the strongest piece (“When We Dead Awaken”) is the oldest; originally presented to an MLA forum in 1971, it explores the consequences of being a female poet in a “white, patriarchal society.” As she puts it, “Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.” In discussing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Rich senses a deep frustration: “It is the tone of a woman determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity.” If there is one thing that Rich has abandoned, it’s a desire to please “the patriarchal hierarchy,” and (in her best pre-1989 idiom) she speaks throughout of the “damage” wrought by the advancement of “North American capitalism.” As the collection progresses, the focus shifts from the plight of women generally to the exploitation of the “powerless” throughout history (predominantly represented here, with no apparent irony, by the Sandinistas). Rich calls for the return of a poetry that is politically engaged: “I have deplored the retreat into the personal as a current fetish of mass-market culture.” If, at the dawn of the 21st century, it is easy to scoff at such sentiments, it must be admitted that there is a touching (and very American) optimism here all the same.
A sermon preached to the choir, this is not a good starting-point for those unfamiliar with Rich and her views—but it may be of some interest to those already attuned to her work.