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January 20, 1985, Sunday Late City Final Edition
Section 7 Page 5 Column 1 Desk: Book Review Desk Length: 1618 words
Type: Review


By Carol Muske


Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. By Adrienne Rich. 341 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Cloth, 8.95. Paper, $9.95.

Sylvia Plath, on meeting Adrienne Rich (whose work she greatly admired) in spring 1958, drew her new acquaintance in her journal this way: ''Adrienne Cecile Rich . . . all vibrant short black hair, great sparking black eyes and a tulip- red umbrella: honest, frank, forthright and even opinionated.'' That last adjective packs a little irony in 1985 for anyone remotely familiar with the poetry and politics of Adrienne Rich.

With ''The Fact of a Doorframe'' we confront 34 years of the ''opinionated'' poems of this complex and controversial writer, who began as poet-ingenue, polite copyist of Yeats and Auden, wife and mother. She has progressed in life (and in her poems, which remain intimately tied to her life's truth) from young widow and disenchanted formalist, to spiritual and rhetorical convalescent, to feminist leader, lesbian separatist and doyenne of a newly-defined female literature - becoming finally a Great Outlaw Mother. Her progress makes that Cambridge afternoon so long ago, with the two ambitious young poets politely sizing each other up, portentous as an old newsreel. Both addressed what is referred to as ''a woman's lot,''both became legends, but the none with the opinions has survived to her 56th year.

The next question, of course, looking at 34 years of her work, is: have Adrienne Rich's poems survived her opinions? At times her partisan views have outdistanced her poetry's inventiveness, but we must also consider that she has redefined ''partisan,'' for what other poet in recent memory has spoken of creating a new language, unearthing a lost history, rewriting the sacred texts for her cause? If her tasks sound grandiose, her stated intent does not; it's almost funny. ''To do something very common, in my own way.''

''The Fact of a Doorframe'' has an imposed, retrospective order, as if to give cohesion to autobiography, a common ground to the poems. But her placement of the title poem gives us more insight into her sense of personal history than do her introduction, her notes or the selection and arrangement of the work. Dated 1974, the poem is placed on the frontispiece, a door in a doorframe, inviting us into the nine books (two new since her last volume of selected poems appeared 10 years ago) and a quantity of older and recent uncollected poems. The title poem is about the suffering of entering - birth, death, writing - and it refers to the head of the talking mare, Falada, from the fairy tale, ''The Goose Girl.'' The mare's head was a kind of poetical conscience for the goose girl (in reality a princess), expressing the heart's guilt, putting into language another's suffering. and in a human voice If she could see thee now, thy mother's heart would break said the head of Falada.

Like the head of the magical talking mare, poetry has always been both dilemma and animating principle for Adrienne Rich: ''Now, again, poetry, / violent, arcane, common.'' Her writing has always lifted her naturally toward a unifying transcendental vision, a dream, but a dream simultaneously wrenched and weighted by its moral embodiment, called by her at different stages: love, truth, integrity, commonality, silence. She is a true metaphysical poet, made didactic by force of her politics. She cannot proceed without her principles (and who would ask it of her?) but the dialectical struggle that ensues between her heart and her imagination places her among the suffering she describes.

The Carol Muske's third book of poems, ''Wyndmere,'' will be published this spring. world she aspires to naturally in her poetry is not the world she must embrace for now. She writes in ''North American Time'': ''But underneath the grandiose idea / is the thought that what I must engage . . . / is meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence.''

She has been, from the beginning, a poet of pathos. Even the highly formal and imitative volumes ''A Change of World'' (1951) and ''The Diamond Cutters'' (1955) endlessly tied and retied their charming lyricism to notions of truth. But in ''Moving in Winter,'' an uncollected poem from 1957, we begin to see a bolder integration of pathos. Where love has grown disillusioned, and truth simultaneously more commanding, this young poet of formal melody admits an insistent counterpoint (that of a wronged sensibility), and the poem is ''shocked'' into being:

Their life, collapsed like unplayed cards,

is carried piecemeal through the snow:

Headboard and footboard now, the bed

where she has lain desiring him

where overhead his sleep will build

its canopy to smother her once more.

The poem is its trauma. The regular gait of the four- stress line is rattled by her use of the offbeat, oppositional rhythm of ''headboard and footboard now,'' and ''canopy.'' The separated bed is borne over the snow in a funeral march for intimacy; the poem mocks its own formality and the marriage, like its bed, splits apart before our eyes. What fuels the poem (besides the skillful argument between form and content) is the poignant tug of war between anger and tenderness. It is this kind of poem, the dance of opposites, she does best.

There are many places in Adrienne Rich's work where anger has won the tug of war, and not to her advantage. Nonetheless, this furious passage from the poem ''Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law'' works well: ''The argument ad feminam, all the old knives / that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours, / ma semblable, my soeur! '' The outraged observation approaches glee in the punch line borrowed from Baudelaire and is more effective at its offhand feminization of ''male'' language than the following ''revision'' of Portia's speech, from ''Natural Resources'': ''But gentleness is active / gentleness swabs the crusted stump.'' The poem loses its dramatic tension as it degenerates into namecalling, with gentleness ''bearing witness calmly / against the predator, the parasite.'' Conversely, a rare moment of equanamity is denied in a more recent poem, ''The Spirit of Place,'' in which ''the undamaged planet seems to turn / like a bowl of crystal,'' in Elizabethan beauty and order. The communion of the poet with nature is undercut by a political vigilance that distrusts even the stars: ''All the figures up there look violent to me / as a pogrom on Christmas Eve in some old country.'' In passages like those above, she loses her own argument and the language goes flat, victimized by her ideological impatience.

But at other times her dialectical fire produces poems of transcendent beauty. Her music has not forsaken her, after all these years, through all the transformations. It is at its most versatile, moving from an antiphonal, biblical tone in ''Upcountry'' - ''unable to take forgiveness neither do you / give mercy,'' - to the resonant bittersweetness of old rhymes in ''The Spirit of Place'':

Over the hills in Shutesbury, Leverett

driving with you in spring

road like a streambed unwinding downhill

fiddlehead ferns uncurling

spring peepers ringing sweet and cold.

Inhabiting the spirit of the ''savage child'' of Aveyron, she desires to ''go back so far there is another language,'' but earlier, identifying with Emily Dickinson, she wished to ''have it out . . . on (her) own premises.'' That contradiction has never been clearly resolved in her work, though the confusion has been relegated to the theoretical. On that level, and with a Derridean censure of the nostalgic, she has ''gone back'' to the premises of a new, female language. This language, much-heralded in the collections ''Diving Into the Wreck'' (1973) and ''The Dream of a Common Language'' (1978), and set against the old ''written-out'' tongue with its dialect of sexually-biased metaphor, turns out to be the lost voices of female history.

IN several recent poems, she appears as a kind of medium, passing along to us the diurnal thoughts of deceased women. In these long, jagged-edged, epistolary, ''uncreated'' passages, she manages to talk and listen at once (a uniquely maternal gift) to Emily Dickinson, the novelist Ellen Glasgow, her grandmothers, Ethel Rosenberg, Susan B. Anthony and Mary Jane Colter (a turn-of-the-century architect). These pieces are very uneven. The sections to Dickinson are outspoken, empathetic and apt. The poem to Ethel Rosenberg is awkward and unconvincing in its sentiment.

What I like about them is their wintry but undefeated feel, like letters written home by a longtime expatriate. Adrienne Rich is speaking her lingua materna ; she has answered her timeless question, ''With whom do you believe your lot is cast?''; the last 34 years have been filled with change. Still, she is restless. She writes in ''North American Time'':

When my dreams showed signs

of becoming

politically correct . . .

then I began to wonder.

The wonder saves her. For a poet whose acts of survival have sometimes become ''rituals of self-hatred,'' as she says of all women, this wonder is the source of poetry.

We are going to hear even more from this remarkable poet, whose passionate excesses, whose brilliant, terrifying leaps of faith often affect us more deeply than the ingrown successes of our assemblage of ''approved'' poets. The last poem in ''The Fact of a Doorframe'' ends with the line, ''and I start to speak again,'' and we have no doubt that she will. Sylvia Plath noticed it a long time ago. This is a poet with opinions.