$39.95, 544 pages
The first time I read Adrienne Rich was in 1979, a high school essay on "Storm Warnings," an old-fashioned extended metaphor in one of those anthologies English teachers love to assign.
"Weather abroad/And weather in the heart alike come on/Regardless of prediction." The restraint and careful rhythms belie its message: there is no control; everything will explode.
"Storm Warnings" doesn't appear in "Later Poems: Selected and New 1971-2012." Rich may have seen it as an immature effort, the then-obedient daughter copying conventions and forms of male forebears. But to me, son of an alcoholic father, growing up in a house haunted by inarticulate moods, the poem resonated. "These are the things we have learned to do/Who live in troubled regions."
Lines from her poetry, like her iconoclastic essays, reverberate throughout my life. For a prolific writer such as Rich, I cannot imagine the challenge of deciding which poems to include in this volume. At 544 pages, "Later Poems" spans the last four decades of her creative life, characterized by political radicalism, feminist and sexual awakening, and an unrelenting deconstruction of North American white privilege. Because much of her work dealt with identity politics -- she was a woman, a lesbian, Jewish, a child of privilege who became a voice of radical witness and dissent -- others who identify in those ways often lay claim to her. But for myself, who resides in none of those identities, Rich has been a beacon of progressive wisdom.
My second encounter with her was in 1983, a college class on feminism. "Today we're going to talk about --" and the teacher spat the f-word. The students all twitched, eyes wide, having never heard a professor use it. We read and debated and wrung our hands over the essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in which Rich deconstructed heterosexuality as an institutional brainwashing that women are at risk to assimilate. It was one of those classes in which at first the two men talked more than the 20 women until we figured out that we needed to listen if we wanted to learn. "It is an old-fashioned, an outrageous thing/to believe one has a 'destiny'/ -- a thought often peculiar to those/who possess privilege -- "
When seven years later I married a fellow student from that class, a friend barely concealed her smirk when she read: "Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live/I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun." It wasn't pretty or fawning or decorated, like wedding poems often are, but it spoke to one of Rich's urgencies: that two people together is a collaborative journey, a "miracle," an exploration on the edge of language. Lovers must continually refine the truths they tell each other, teased out from streams of history and political context that distort our sense of who we are.
Throughout these four decades, Rich excavates the language of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the marginalized. Her poetry has been embraced by outsiders who felt their experience denied, invalidated or unspoken. But that "eye of the outsider" also speaks to men. In "Twenty-one Love Poems," Rich tells her lover about a letter from a political prisoner recounting his experience of physical torture. It ends with: "my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds/break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly,/and they still control the world, and you are not in my arms." Even though it is the man's experience of torture that triggers this grief, she recognizes a them of which he is both connected and separate. And later, speaking to her dead father, she observes in a prose poem:
"I saw the power and arrogance of the male as your true watermark; I did not see beneath it the suffering of the Jew, the alien stamp you bore, because you had deliberately arranged that it should be invisible to me. It is only now, under a powerful, womanly lens, that I can decipher your suffering and deny no part of my own."
The same men who participate in these Hydra-like institutions of capitalism and patriarchy are also its dupes. And so, in spite of everything it has suffered under male oppression, this radical feminist intelligence holds onto an acute and paradoxical sense of compassion, regardless the object of her witness. "How I've hated speaking 'as a woman'/for mere continuation/when the broken is what I saw." It's ironic. Reading this one radical feminist's writing has taught me more about being an authentic man -- about disowned and unexcavated parts of my experience -- than any other role model.
In "Diving Into the Wreck," she intones, "The words are purposes/The words are maps." This month, one year after her death at 82 from complications of rheumatoid arthritis, I am still stunned to think there will be no new maps. "Later Poems" compiles so many essential guidebooks, codes and compasses: a mind seemingly without end. For many of us, they're already inscribed in collective memory: a potent spiritual legacy.
-- Wayne Scott
Storm Warnings by Adrienne Rich
And knowing better than the instrument
What winds are walking overhead, what zone
Of grey unrest is moving across the land,
I leave the book upon a pillowed chair
And walk from window to closed window, watching
Boughs strain against the sky
And think again, as often when the air
Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,
How with a single purpose time has traveled
By secret currents of the undiscerned
Into this polar realm. Weather abroad
And weather in the heart alike come on
Regardless of prediction.
Between foreseeing and averting change
Lies all the mastery of elements
Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.
Time in the hand is not control of time,
Nor shattered fragments of an instrument
A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,
We can only close the shutters.
I draw the curtains as the sky goes black
And set a match to candles sheathed in glass
Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine
Of weather through the unsealed aperture.
This is our sole defense against the season;
These are the things we have learned to do
Who live in troubled regions.
“Storm Warnings” seems to describe not only weather conditions, but also a major event in the life of the poet, Adrienne Rich.
The poet describes a change in readings in a barometer or thermometer as glass falling, informing her that a storm is coming. Alternatively, “glass has been falling” suggests a certain degree of unrest or destruction. It is important to note that this is not just a storm in the meteorological sense of the word, but also in an emotional or mental sense for the poet. We do not know if the poem regards her escape from the control of her father, her increased social activism or her realisation regarding her sexuality, but we are aware that it is something that puts her outside her comfort zone. This is shown to us when she describes leaving her comfortable chair, or comfort zone, to confront this storm that threatens her life as she knows it.
As she anticipates the approaching storm, she begins to reflect on the nature of the troubles that approach her. Rich hints that she has experienced these troubles in the past through her use of the words “again” and “often”. She creates a sense of expectation, but there is also perhaps a sense of dread for what is to come. Having experienced such problems before, she is somewhat philosophical about them. One can reflect on the fact that one might not always know the precise cause of the difficulties now confronting her. The degree of the difficulty is hinted at through her use of the word “polar”. In the last few lines of this stanza, both literal and metaphorical meanings of the word “storm” come together. Even though Rich hasn’t used a personal pronoun in these lines, it is nonetheless unmistakably private. Rich is quite fatalistic at this point, anticipating the difficulties will not prevent them from happening.
Rich’s spirits seem to recover or rally a little, as she begins to consider how one might deal with the momentous change and turmoil that accompany the storm. This is registered in the phrase “mastery of elements”. Rich falters again, and becomes dispirited in the face of such turmoil. Even though one might know of the troubles in advance, one cannot stop time or the troubles. She uses an image of destruction and violence to remind the reader both of the inevitability of the storm and of its destructive power. Meanwhile, the reader is very much aware of the metaphorical reading of the poem. The use of “shattered fragments” is significant and might just as easily be applied to her life as to the meteorological instruments used to measure the storm. When her response finally does come, it seems somehow pathetic and inadequate - “we can only close the shutters”. Clearly, this particular storm has had a terrible toll on Rich.
Rich feels that all she can do in this situation is shut out the problems as best she can and try to get on with her life, safe inside from the storm. However, as the storm disimproves and changes from grey to black, there is only one small glimmer of hope. This tiny, insignificant glimmer of hope is fragile and although Rich tries her best to protect it from the violent onslaught of the storm, the storm is finding its way in to her safe place. This glimmer of hope that Rich is trying so hard to protect must be taken care of, as taking care of it is the only way to survive in such troubled times.