Scrubwomen of Truth

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006

By Adrienne Rich.

New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, 109pp., $23.95, hardcover

My Body: New and Selected Poem

By Joan Larkin

Brooklyn, N.Y., Hanging Loose Press, 2007, 149 pp., $16.00, paperback

Reviewed by Alicia Ostriker

In a youth-addicted culture, it is a pleasure to read the work of grown women. Having recently arrived (full disclosure) at threescore years and ten, I find myself less often surging to read prizewinning first novels and books of poems by brilliant young authors, and more inclined to see what maturity has to say. Women’s wisdom, as well as artistic finesse, is what I seek nowadays in poetry. In particular, poets who prove themselves able to face the worst, in the body politic and the body, and to survive unsubdued, win my gratitude. Here are two such poets.

Adrienne Rich has been a heroine to many of us for decades. After two excellent early books of poetry that handled emotion with what Rich has called “the asbestos gloves” of form, Rich’s breakthrough open-form Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), with the title poem’s acute graphing of the external and internal obstacles facing “a thinking woman,” virtually defined feminist poetry for a generation. Subsequent volumes established her political radicalism in an age of struggle for civil rights and against exploitation and war. In a poem remembering her childhood, Rich once wrote that she wanted to “change the laws of history.” As a half-Jew she has written both on the Holocaust and on the oppression of Palestinians. Hers has been an intensely vibrant poetic conscience, responsive to personal joy and misery, and to history’s pulsations, throughout her career. She is a poet for whom the suffering self and suffering world are inseparable. Always a superb craftswoman, she has become increasingly austere, a poet not of statement but of phrase and gesture—gesture that is deeply inward and self-examining yet that ripples outward toward the world and the reader.

A primal motif of Rich’s elegiac Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is time. The poet remembers years of idealistic hope and pleasure, she anticipates mortality, and she locates every present moment in its inescapable frame of centuries. In the opening poem, “Voyage to the Denouement,” Rich evokes an epoch of modernization and forgetfulness in three lines:

Rain rededicates the exhumed

African burial ground

traffic lashes its edges

The poem makes no explicit judgment; but if you listen to its fine resonance of sound—the alliteration of “Rain rededicates” and the ironic half-rhymes of “African” and “traffic lashes”—you will feel what the poet feels. A few lines later comes the personal parallel:

The opal on my finger

fiercely flashed till the hour it started to crumble

Rich can delineate class privilege with a wicked precision:

Propped on elbow in stony light

Green lawns of entitlement

out the window you can neither

open nor close

The reader must untangle the threads of anger, contempt, and pity here. It is the poet’s task to perceive reality and to make the music of language bear the perception. Rich does not preach, rant, glamorize, or sentimentalize. At the other end of the ladder of class,

This is the room

where truth scrubs around the pedestal of the toilet

flings her rag into the bucket

straightens up spits at the mirror

For Rich, “Suffering hidden in plain sight” is all around us, as are the hidden costs of war, “pages of a codex/ in a library blown away.” A poem with images of prostheses and phantom limbs remarks in a single line, “You come back from war with the body you have,” and a note at the back of the book refers us to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s brutal response when asked by a soldier why troops in Iraq didn’t have properly armored tanks: “You go to war with the army you have.” And then there are the hidden costs of global capitalism, as in a poem that begins “Silent limousines meet jets descending over the Rockies./ Steam rooms, pure thick towels...” and ends, “Elsewhere, in Andhra Pradesh, another farmer swallows pesticide.”

Some of Rich’s poems in this book are love poems; some are experimentally rhymed or presented as bitter fragments, such as “Letters Censored / Shredded / returned to Sender / Or Judged Unfit to Send,” that can still say “What’s realistic fantasy?—Call it hope.“ If the labyrinth of the title poem is the no-exit life we live, the telephone rings to remind us of our connection to those we love. Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth embodies the force of a life of unremitting commitment to the Jewish virtue of tikkun olam, mending the world, and makes you want to go and live such a life yourself, notwithstanding its heartache. It makes you want to be another scrubwoman of truth.

Reading the new poems in Joan Larkin’s My Body, you will find yourself thinking you’d like this poet as a friend. Scene after scene, whether she is writing of her daughter’s birth, or a man’s ecstatic testimony at an AA meeting, or the AIDS deaths of friends, or poignant memories of parents, or aging kin, or “faking boredom” as a high school girl starting to be a serious drinker and watching “as Ella in a black gown landed exactly/ on each note of From This Moment On,” or being beaten by her mother, or abortion, or hot sex, or cold sex, or demonstrating at a presidential inauguration while the black Stetsons and draped minks sneer by, “faces smooth and satisfied/ The bullies’ feast was beginning”—every poem is a document of awesomely generous attention and care. Here in its entirety is a poem entitled “The Atheists,” near the end of a gritty sequence about the poet’s brother and his dying wife. Eight lines seem to suggest the whole story of four characters:

I surprised myself calling the priest Father.

He was 5’5”, thin hair combed slant.

He leaned on the syllable us in Jesus

and smiled and nodded through the tapes I played,

Ave Verum corpus and the dead woman singing a lullaby.

And Donald took the brass cross that had touched her coffin

and hung it over his bed for comfort,

choking tears of shame as he told me.

Larkin has not only the clear-sighted compassion of a Chekhov, but also his instinct for narrative and some of his sly wit, especially when targeting self-importance. I remember my glee reading, back in 1975, “Vagina” sonnet, from her first book, Housework.

Here’s the octet:

Is “vagina” suitable for use

In a sonnet? I don’t suppose so.

A famous poet told me, “Vagina’s ugly.”

Meaning, of course, the sound of it. In poems.

Meanwhile, he inserts his penis frequently

into his verse, calling it, seriously, “My

Penis.” It is short, I know, and dignified.

I mean, of course, the sound of it. In poems.

Then came the snappy close, in which the poet decided it was

a waste of brains—to be concerned about

this minor issue of my cunt’s good name.

I enjoy seeing naughtiness done in strict iambic pentameter, and it’s because Larkin (like Rich) was so well trained in traditional prosody that she (like Rich) also handles looser forms so well. Is it because she was so well trained in trouble—abortion, early marriage and divorce, alcoholism—that she handles human pain so well? Larkin’s list-poem “Inventory,” 41 lines long, may be the best single poem I have ever read about AIDS. It includes lines like these:

One who lifted his arm with joy, first time across the finish line

 at the New York marathon, six months later a skeleton

 falling from threshold to threshold, shit streaming from

 his diaper....

one who refused to see his mother,

one who refused to speak to his brother,

one who refused to let a priest enter his room,

and its final line is “one who wanted to live till his birthday, and did.” Numerous elegiac poems to friends and kin create their personalities so clearly and kindly that you think you know them yourself. Also numerous are poems evoking love affairs long and short, “the hot feast” on one occasion and “she smeared the lube/ the way you’d spread margarine” on another, equally precise. An early crown of sonnets on what may or may not have been a rape had me holding my breath, and at the same time burning with admiration for the poet’s acknowledgment of complicity. When Larkin in the title poem of My Body gives us a lengthy list of its flaws, but concludes that it is “still responsive to the slightest touch,/ grief and desire still with me,” and “healed and healed again,” I can only applaud.

Keeping hope alive is a task assumed by both Rich and Larkin. A way to do this for oneself is to attend to others. Rich writes, in an essay in her volume What is Found There (1993) that “someone writing a poem believes in, depends on, a delicate, vibrating range of difference, that an ‘I’ can become a ‘we’ without extinguishing others.” In A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley says, “The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature. . . . A man [sic], to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others.” Poetry, claims Shelley, is exceptionally good at enabling us to do this. Rich and Larkin are manifest, long-haul enablers.

Alicia Ostriker has published eleven volumes of poetry, most recently No Heaven (2005). Her critical books include Writing Like a Woman (1982), Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (1986), and Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (2002). Ostriker is professor emerita of Rutgers University.

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