On Sundays, We Read Poetry

Each Sunday, I post a brief introduction to a collection of poetry I've been loving. I include one poem that I think really sings. No review. No need. If it's here, you'll know I recommend it. If you have one to recommend (yours or someone else's), send it along. I'll do my best to be here every Sunday.

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This collection is really too massive to address as a single experience (the table of contents alone runs to almost 30 pages), but it is a beautiful and elegant book, the physical weight and scent and touch of it a delight. The introduction by Claudia Rankine is also immensely valuable, offering a simple but powerful counterbalance to the work of a long lifetime from an immensely important voice. As Rankine points out, Rich's poetry will always be relevant, as evidenced from passages such as this (quoted by Rankine):

In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing -- disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.

Or this, from her letter to the Clinton administration as she declined the National Medal for the Arts:

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art -- in my own case the art of poetry -- means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.

All that before we even get to the poems! Of the early pieces, I think my favorite is "Stepping Backward," which is longish but includes this wonderful set of lines:


We are a small and lonely human race

Showing no sign of mastering solitude

Out on this stony planet that we farm.

The most that we can do for one another

Is let our blunders and our blind mischances

Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.

We might as well be truthful. I should say

They're luckiest who know they're not unique;

But only art or common interchange

Can teach that kindest truth.


Or perhaps "September 21," which demands to be read aloud:


Wear the weight of equinoctial evening,

light like melons bruised on all the porches.

Feel the houses tenderly appraise you,

hold you in the watchfulness of mothers.


Once the nighttime was a milky river

washing past the swimmers in the sunset,

rinsing over sleepers of the morning.

Soon the night will be an eyeless quarry


where the shrunken daylight and its rebels,

loosened, dive like stones in perfect silence,

names and voices drown without reflection.


Then the houses draw you. Then they have you.


This poem, as it breaks its self-imposed structures, seems to be raising a new question. It's as though Rich is asking, "I'm going somewhere new, and soon. Are you coming with me?"


And the answer, of course, is yes.


By the time she gets to Contradictions: Tracking Poems, you feel the enormity of her power, each facet shining and sharp, like #5:


She is carrying my madness and I dread her

avoid her when I can

She walks along I.S. 93 howling

in her bare feet

She is number 6375411

in a cellblock in Arkansas

and I dread what she is paying for that is mine

She has fallen asleep at last in the battered

women's safe-house and I dread

her dreams that I also dream

If never I become exposed or confined like this

what am I hiding

O sister of nausea of broken ribs of isolation

what is this freedom I protect how is it mine


This is no collection to swallow whole. It is a lifetime collection, hers and mine.

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