A Struggle at the Roots of the Mind

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I don’t know if I’m the only youngish reader to have this chip on my shoulder, but I always sort of assume that poems by older people get mellower. Let me say it again: Rich’s lines are harrowing, are incensed and knifing.

Here’s an embarrassing and odd experience to have to confront: to read Adrienne Rich’s newest collection, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, having never read her work before. I say this as someone who got an MFA and who’s read a fair bit otherwise. Let’s, for now, skip the obvious questions (namely, how the hell does one get to age 32, writing lots of poetry, without having to touch Rich’s stuff, ever) and talk about the poetry.

Let’s start with the book’s title. In a tight sentence, we’re given quite a bit: first, that, whenever it is, there is some present being written in/of/toward, however the reader’s going to be asked to feel it. More crucially, though, dig the message: no poetry will serve. This is, of course, a book of poetry, and so the reader’s fair to ask the obvious: is the poetry within non-poetry—is it trying to fit into the structure of the title, and is there some cleverness at work? Or, scarier, less sure-footed: is the reader to understand that whenever/wherever this tonight is, poetry will not serve—not the poems inside this collection, not any poetry—but that, even still, poetry must go on? Is this some sort of Beckettian can’t-go-on/must-go-on thing?

I’d argue the second. I’d argue Rich, though perhaps linguistically playful at times, is dead serious in her work, starting with the definition of to serve right there before the table of contents. It’s worth quoting:

SERVE (v.t.):

to work for, be a servant to;
to give obedience and reverent honor to;
to fight for; do military or naval service for;
to go through or spend (a term of imprisonment);
to meet the needs of or satisfy the requirements of, be used by;
to deliver (a legal document) as a summons

—Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1964)

Pay particular aspect to two facts: first, that the citation’s from a dictionary of American language, not just English—meaning this book is putting itself in a context, will be looking at American notions of service, American poems, and, second, that, more than likely, whatever the reader was considering serve to mean on first experiencing the collection’s title isn’t enough. Rich is, through this epigrammatic definition, at least pointing at the possibility that poetry could serve a term of imprisonment, but, tonight, cannot. Etc. Go with this to whatever lengths you desire. If all this seems needlessly stuffy and/or analytic, at least be appraised that this book seems utterly best served (ha ha) by this sort of attention to detail, to reading the thing deeply, fully.

For instance: the book’s first three poems, “Waiting for Rain, for Music,” “Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time,” and “Benjamin Revisited.” In each of these poems, Rich puts in serious miles in terms of illuminating for the reader what’s going to be risked, considered, pushed at, wondered over.

Waiting for Rain, for Music

Burn me some music        Send my roots rain        I’m swept
dry from inside        Hard winds rack my core

A struggle at the roots of the mind        Whoever said
it would go on and on like this

Straphanger swaying inside a runaway car
palming a notebook scribbled in

contraband calligraphy        against the war
poetry wages against itself

Though the poem has three sections, this first one reads most straightforward, most clear. On the one hand, the poem opens with what might feel momentarily like an almost cute consideration of the verb now most commonly used in describing the making of music, but it opens fast, hard: what if the verb is more accurate than we realize? The use of water—nourishment, ease—is conflated with that of music, and then, because of the first words of the poem, inverted as well: this music that’s burned can ease like rain does? Of course there’s not easy clarity: instead it’s “a struggle at the roots of the mind.” And then this offered moment, a straphanger scribbling “contraband calligraphy against the war / poetry wages against itself” (!). In 8 lines, with the compression of a diamond factory, Rich is articulating a sense of want, and it’s not objectless desire, but it’s a confused, compromised, overlapping thing she wants—music, water, something to ease her core, the war poetry’s waging against itself to end.

Speaking of poetry and war: all I’ll say about “Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time” is that it’s 1) seemingly an attempt to actually make real the facts of the story involved—death and gore, misery and pain—and to somehow find a balance between those brutal facts and the beauty of the testament, and 2) referenced later in the book, toward the end, and the symmetry will be enough to near completely undo the attentive reader.

“Benjamin Revisited” would seem, on easiest gloss, to be a reference to good old Walter Benjamin, he of the most-cited article ever. The poem, in its entirety:

“Benjamin Revisited”

The Angel
      of history is

        now meet the janitor
in the basement        who
shirtless        smoking

has the job of stoking
      the so-called oast
            into the so-called present

And so now, as of the third poem into the collection, we’re given a view of where and whenever this “tonight” of the title is—it’s when/where the Angel of history has gone, it’s when/where the present’s light/fuel comes from burning the past. Dance out onto the ice of what that implies on your own.

It’d be hard to argue that Tonight No Poetry Will Serve is anything other than an attempt by Rich to square up notions of duty and obligation—yes, service—that she—and, by extension, us—to this moment, this country, this political and social reality. In the second and third sections of the book, each of which feature a single long-ish poem, Rich writes first of a peace protest which is aggravated by security guards (the poem’s titled “ScenesA Str of Negotiation”), and, second, in “From Sickbed Shores,” she writes not only of sickness, but of all acts of transformation, of anything after which “You will have this tale to tell, you will have / to live / to tell / this tale.” The poems, back to back, offer the clearest moment in the entire book of the argument being worked through: namely, how does one bear witness?

The temptation throughout Tonight is to marvel at the political and social commentary being leveled, and certainly that stuff’s moving and good and generative, but it needs to be made abundantly clear, too: Adrienne Rich writes some of the most lethally jagged lines I’ve ever read. I don’t know if I’m the only youngish reader to have this chip on my shoulder, but I always sort of assume that poems by older people get mellower (though I can’t think of why I’ve tended to think or feel that way). Let me say it again: Rich’s lines are harrowing, are incensed and knifing: “I do / not offer I require / close history / of the case apprentice-/ship in past and fresh catastrophe,” she writes in “Emergency Clinic,” and the lines are alive and wild with shine, with flex. I say all of this merely because 1) I haven’t yet touched well on Rich’s actual words, and 2) it’d be unfair to let potential readers be lulled into thinking the collection’s title is somehow retiring, easy.

By the book’s end (and though there are six sections in the book, the collection’s fifth is a series of massive jabs and cuts: it’s as devastating a series of poems as I’ve read anywhere in awhile), the reader will be heightened, pushed into more aliveness: tonight—whenever, wherever we are—no poetry will serve, no verse can wrap neatly around the mess and scramble of things, but someone—Adrienne Rich, any of us—still has to try to make it.

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →