My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In the blurb on the cover of this paperback, Margaret Atwood promises that this book “forces you to decide not just what you think about it, but what you think about yourself.” Rich’s seventh collection, written in the early ’70s, in an atmosphere of intense political protest and the private crises of those for whom the personal was political, Diving into the Wreck is a series of lyrics on war and exploitation, and the poet’s responsibility to bear witness and prophesy a new future.
Women, Rich argues, are subject to the myths and fantasies of men:
A man is asleep in the next room
We are his dreams
We have the heads and breasts of women
the bodies of birds of prey
Sometimes we turn into silver serpents
While we sit up smoking and talking of how to live
he turns on the bed and murmurs
Note the reversal of classic stereotype: irrational man, asleep and dreaming, refuses to heed women’s alert dialectic. As implied, the solution to the problem of male mythology is women’s narration of their own experiences, stories, and sensibilities, as Rich describes in several poems, from “Dialogue,” wherein a woman explains that she has never had pleasure in sex with men—
I do not know
who I was when I did those things
or who I said I was
or whether I willed to feel
what I had read about
or who in fact was there with me
—to “The Mirror in Which Two Are Seen as One,” in which the speaker’s interlocutor, whose mother died in childbed, becomes a midwife birthing herself:
your mother dead and you unborn
your two hands grasping your head
drawing it down against the blade of life
your nerves the nerves of a midwife
learning her trade
Sisterhood might provide a solution, were it not compromised by heterosexuality; a poem called “Translations” imagines that sexual jealousy among women might be remediated politically:
…this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
And, as the poem called “Rape” makes clear, these are not merely cultural problems, but affect every level of experience, and their consequence is unchecked violence: the poem’s second-person addressee has been raped by the very policeman, a friend of her brothers’, to whom she must report the rape. The poet sees into women’s anger and shapes from it a new past—
His mind is too simple, I cannot go on
sharing his nightmares
My own are becoming clearer, they open
which looks like a village lit with blood
where all the fathers are crying: My son is mine!
—and a new future—
I write out my life
hour by hour, word by word
gazing into the anger of old women in the bus
measuring the striations
of air inside the ice-cube
imagining the existence
of something uncreated
But something worse than, even if sprung from, the perennial sexism is haunting Rich:
Taking off in a plane
I look down at the city
which meant life to me, not death
and think that somewhere there
a cold center, composed
of pieces of human beings
by a process they do not feel
is spreading in our midst
and taking over our minds
a thing that feels neither guilt
nor rage: that is unable
to hate, therefore to love.
Rich determines not to shut her eye against the period’s televised violence, as she writes in poem with the Wordsworthian title “From the Prison House”—
Underneath my lids another eye has opened
it looks nakedly
at the light
that soaks in from the world of pain
even when I sleep
—but the poet on the tumultuous ’60s/’70s streets, heaving with the return of what civilized violence represses, must be something other than only a woman if her “visionary anger” is to birth a better world:
my visionary anger cleansing my sight
and the detailed perceptions of mercy
flowering from that anger
if I come into a room out of the sharp misty light
and hear them talking a dead language
if they ask me my identity
what can I say but
I am the androgyne
I am the living mind you fail to describe
in your dead language
She must, as in the title poem, dive into the wreck that is civilization, find what went wrong, and examine what is salvageable. Still, her tools of technology and civilization, made from the exploitation of the oppressed, seem not to avail:
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
For this collection, then, civilization is an unremitting nightmare that begins in rape and leads straight to My Lai and the H-bomb. Hence its conclusion in a long poem saluting the Wild Boy of Averyon, reared outside patriarchy and capitalism and so trailing clouds of glory until his capture by the forceps of his physicians, after which the shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy:
they tried to make you feel
the importance of
a piece of cowhide
sewn around a bundle
of leaves impressed with signs
to teach you language:
the thread their lives
were strung on
In a review essay of Rich’s work-to-date from 1973, Helen Vendler sums up the concluding poem, and the whole spirit of the collection (I quote from the Norton Critical Edition of Rich’s poems and prose):
In [“Meditations for a Savage Child”], Rich forsakes distinctions between men and women, for the most part, and sees us all as crippled creatures, scarred by that process of socialization and nature which had been, when she began writing, her possession, her treasure; tapestries, Europe, recorders, Bach—the whole edifice of civilization, of which she now sees the dark side—war, exploitation, and the deadening of instinct.
Vendler’s final phrase brings me now to my own decision, as prophesied by Atwood, of what I think about myself and the world I live in. I think the three items in Vendler’s list are radically incommensurate; I think war and exploitation are instinct. While human artifice—from the ax and the flame to nuclear weaponry—has often enough abetted this instinct, it has also often proved the best restraint upon it, from language and art to law and science. In the name of a countervailing instinct toward peace and comity? Yes, of course; why not? My point isn’t that instinct, or nature, is only bad, just that it is certainly not only good. Rich shows an awareness of this possibility, but it does not seem to lift the ponderous certainty that weighs down her portentous free verse, its “visionary anger”:
Every act of becoming conscious
(it says here in this book)
is an unnatural act
(“The Phenomenology of Anger”)
If that is so, then why make a belated Romantic fetish of the Wild Boy of Averyon, as if exposing infants conferred an advantage on them? I very much take her point about overweening scientism and the arrogance of physicians, but when she says that “his”—i.e. man’s—mind is too simple and then reduces all history to wounded male pride, when she writes a poem in which Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is “understood” (I think this word is exactly wrong) “as a sexual message,” the furious tantrum of an impotent solipsist, I begin to wonder who is peddling simplicities.
Moreover, the way the poet derives visionary authority from beholding other’s sorrows comes to feel unseemly, sometimes with comical lack of self-awareness. Consider the ludicrous poem (“Burning Oneself In”) that begins with the speaker reading in a bookstore about an old woman murdered in Vietnam and concludes with this:
in bookstores, in the parks
however we may scream we are
Somehow I think the old Vietnamese woman probably got the worst of it, though I don’t doubt that Rich felt genuine pain as she refused to shut her eyes against the television glare (even if she does relate her labors with a certain self-congratulatory relish). Cynthia Haven’s 2013 criticism of Rich puts it well:
At what point is suffering used to fortify one’s sense of self, one’s sense of oneself as a compassionate person? If one is using “transfusions of poetic language” for utilitarian ends, even noble ones, it’s unlikely to remain art.
As some allusions above should indicate, Rich reminds me of my least favorite canonical English poet, William Wordsworth. There is the same humorless somnolent turgidity in each at his and her worst, the same self-impressed and histrionic concern for others placed at the service of self-concern. Wordsworth’s readers noted these flaws: witness the acute parody of “Resolution and Independence” by Lewis Carroll, which could be updated easily for Rich’s work, not to mention Keats’s censure of the earlier poet’s “egotistical sublime,” his dislike of any poetry that has “too palpable a design upon us,” two phrases that come to mind when perusing Rich.
Keats, citing the “chameleon poet” Shakespeare in distinction to Wordsworth, is the patron saint of all us irresponsible apolitical poets. Playwrights and novelists submerge the self in their art as a feature of their chosen form, but even lyric poets ought not simply to be swollen egos and political pamphleteers. Irony, even outright self-mockery, punctures the bubble and lets some afflatus escape. Compare Rich and her “visionary anger” to Emily Dickinson:
They’re here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—
Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums –
I am sure Rich would blame Dickinson’s sly, ironic diffidence, her serious mockery of her own martyrdom, on the Victorian patriarchy that refused to accept a female poet of more robust voice, as if anyone not raving and crying were simply being gagged, as if emotional incontinence were not its own special form of coercion. But what if irony—what if “silence, exile, and cunning”—were signs not of oppression but of intelligence? What if they were protections for the modern individual, he and she and we of the imperial selves living in the monster mega-state, against smothering the earth?
As Camus explained, Rich’s revolutionary tradition has been no less oppressive than the liberal and conservative traditions it warred against. At the conclusion of her titular dive into the wreck that signifies both the unconscious mind and the history of capitalism and patriarchy, the speaker of the title poem disparages the accumulated knowledge and culture she has brought with her as merely “a book of myths / in which our names / do not appear.”
While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.
The left, right, and center will all turn murderous if it’s to their advantage; and the Vietnam War, like the Iraq War, like western imperialism generally, is probably better understood as the violence of the political center rather than that of the right, disproving the so-called “horseshoe theory.” The whole horseshoe is indivisible from tip to tip and useful mainly for striking one’s enemies—unless you play a game with it, which is what poetry is for. This is why we need sensibilities in the Shakespearean-Keatsian-Dickinsonian line: their poetry gives us a livable life—a possible civilization—not determined by the murderous simplicities of almost all modern ideologies and their revolutions that usually return us back to where we started from, stuck in the mire and spinning our wheels.
As to whether one’s name appears in the great books—were we expecting the social register?—well, the names of my obscure ancestors were certainly not known to Shakespeare, and the civilization that reared them he tended to treat as a quasi-Oriental pleasure palace for his imagination, but nonetheless I found and find myself in his book. I would take it as my sole token of civilization to the proverbial desert island, as comfort against the menaces of unadulterated nature and instinct. This expansion of sensibility, this creative collaboration between past and present, is how a better civilization becomes possible—Robert Pogue Harrison calls it juvenescence—not through the mindless, violent bonfire of vanities proposed by puritans of all sects, for whom Rich mainly and unfortunately speaks in this dour, eloquent volume.
But now I am only here reprising Susan Sontag’s classic riposte to Rich from 1975, so I will end with a quotation:
However opposed I am to authority based on privileges of gender (and of race), I cannot imagine any form of human life or society without some forms of authority, of hierarchy. I am not against elders having some authority over young people, not against authority that is publicly accountable, not against all meritocracy. The hope of abolishing authority as such is part of a childish, sentimental fantasy about the human condition.
Adrienne Rich, whom I have always admired as poet and phenomenologist of anger, is a piker compared to some self-styled radical feminists, all too eager to dump the life of reason (along with the idea of authority) into the dustbin of “patriarchal history.” Still, her well-intentioned letter does illustrate a persistent indiscretion of feminist rhetoric: anti-intellectualism. […] For precisely this kind of banal disparagement of the normative virtues of the intellect (its acknowledgement of the inevitable plurality of moral claims; the rights it accords, alongside passion, to tentativeness and detachment) is also one of the roots of fascism…
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!