Books: Who did this to us?

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Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-8 By Adrienne Rich

Norton pounds 14.95

Adrienne Rich believes that poetry is a force for moral good. She writes poetry, she often suggests, not just because it is beautiful, or fun, but because it is right to do so. Poetry, she says, "reminds you where and when and how you are living and might live": it is the antithesis to what she sees as the lies of mass media and governments. She takes the fact that we don't read more poetry as a moral failing; she even believes that poetry is now effectively censored in America, simply because people don't take it sufficiently seriously.

But should we take Adrienne Rich seriously when she says such things? Certainly she speaks from a position of strength; at 70 she can look back at an oeuvre that is undeniably rich and lasting. Her early poems displayed a sweet "talent for versification" - as W H Auden said in her praise when she was just 21 - and were reminiscent of Auden himself, but her mature works achieve a resonance that is all her own. Take one of her finest poems, the series called Twenty-One Love Poems, written in 1976, which combines intellectual exploration of women's marginalisation - "the ghosts ... of artists dying in childbirth, wise-women charred at the stake, centuries of books unwritten piled behind these shelves" - with lyrical surges as she addresses her female lover: "Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark / of the blue-eyed grass of early summer". This constant shifting of gear between intellectual and emotional expression is what gives Rich's poetry its force; a poetry that makes real links between the most political and the most private, the most hidden experiences.

Some of the pieces in this new volume have the reach of her best work. The title poem is a case in point. It is written in one of her favourite forms, as a long poem divided into shortish poems that bear little direct relation to one another but whose metaphors and themes seem to comment on one another. It begins with the poet looking for reassurance into the night sky, seeking the light of a "so-called heavenly body" but finding "nothing nothing but a late wind". It continues by considering what the poet has had to abandon recently; from leaving her work in some university - "Could not play by the rules / in that palmy place // nor stand at lectern professing / anything at all" - to losing her hope in political progress: "[I] wasn't deep / lucid or mindful you might say enough / to look through history's bloodshot eyes / into this commerce this dreadnought wreck cut loose / from all vows, oaths, patents, compacts, promises". So Rich expresses, with her controlled, dying rhythms, the tiredness of an older woman who has worked constantly for her causes, only to see them fail. The poem flickers from Rich's yearning over the beauties of the natural world to her political anger, with no sense of strain.

That reminds you of what has been so extraordinary about Rich, that she has combined a subtle talent with grand ambition, unselfconsciously exploring big themes like the marginalisation of women and black people in the United States, or the legacy of the Holocaust. That ambition still works for her in this title poem, but at other times it can fail her.

The most ambitious poem here, "A Long Conversation", almost collapses under the weight of its themes. Here, Rich splices extracts from the Communist Manifesto and passages of prose conversation - "Someone, I say, makes a killing off war. You: - I've been telling you, that's the engine driving the free market. Not information, militarisation. Arsenals spawning wealth" - into her long poem. But this is a clumsy way for a poet to record her anger; Rich seems to be plonking down her fears directly, without transmuting them into something that could make emotional sense to the reader or that packs her usual aesthetic force.

Even less satisfying are the poems in which she uses images of human misery as a way to raise the stakes of her aesthetic endeavour. The poem here called "Shattered Head" shows her least impressive side: the desire, common to other poets who are enraged by the suffering of the world, to mourn that suffering in the abstract without being able to say anything particular or particularly moving about it. This is a beautiful poem, in that its rhythms and images answer each other in a wonderfully woven whole, but it seems somehow spurious to me. It describes a shattered head lying on a wooded hillside, and ends with a tolling sadness: "And the shattered head answers back, I believed I was loved, I believed I loved, who did this to us?" Without even suggesting whose is the shattered head, or where it was seen, Rich makes her picture of human misery too easy; easily enjoyed, easily forgotten.

It would be tempting to sum up by saying that Midnight Salvage shows us the weakening of Adrienne Rich's vision, that her wild confidence is now hitting its limits. But there are poems here that surprise. Take "Modotti", for instance. As Rich reminds us in her footnote, Tina Modotti was a photographer, political activist and revolutionary. But Rich doesn't seek to grapple with Modotti politically: instead she renders in poetry the aesthetic vision Modotti left behind her, the irreducible images that cannot be explained. "Your footprints of light on sensitive paper ... if this is where I must look for you / then this is where I must find you", and there is something oddly moving about this, one female artist following another down the years. Similarly, in her poem about the poet Rene Char, Rich touches on his work in the French Resistance but most fully celebrates the fact that "you held poetry at your lips a piece of wild thyme ripped / from a burning meadow a mimosa twig / from still unravaged country". What is most precious about Rich's work is not always her grand political themes, but her ability to give us those pieces of beauty, those footprints of light, those twigs from unravaged country.