The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Monday, November 14, 2011

2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

It's not new, this condition, just for awhile
       kept deep
in the cortex of things imagined 
Now the imagination comes of age 
I see ourselves, full-lipped, blood-flushed
in cold air, still conflicted, still
boarding the uncharter'd bus of vanishment.

– taken from "Confrontations" (p. 59)

With the possible exception of Yusef Komunyakaa, Adrienne Rich's collection, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, is the most varied of the five finalists in turns of theme and poetic presentation.  She covers topics such as authority, past and present wars, internal and external conflicts, among other, more personal topics.  She cites other writers such as Chekhov ("Fracture") with lines like this:

This fine clear summer morning/ a line from Chekhov:
it would be strange not to forgive.

(I in body now alive)

All are human/ give/ forgive
drop the charges/ let go/ put away

These lines never follow a determinate scansion but instead are protean in their ability to adapt the lines to suit the mood and tone of the emotions being explored in these pieces.  For most of her poems, Rich captures the subtleties of human interactions.  "Confrontations" is one of my favorites from Tonight No Poetry Will Serve because I can "hear" within its lines those pauses, those little caesurae that allow the reader to hesitate, to ponder not just the word choice but their import within the poem.  The image of boarding the "uncharter'd bus of vanishment" sparks thoughts on how each moment of our imagined, conflicted lives allows us, if only for a moment, to wander through unexplored thoughts before those daydreams burst like soap bubbles. 

Although several of Rich's poems depend upon nuance and slow understanding, in some of her poems, such as "Ballade of the Poverties," she hits the reader full-force with some unsettling images:

There's the poverty of the cockroach kingdom and the rusted toilet bowl
The poverty of to steal food for the first time
The poverty of to mouth a penis for a paycheck
The poverty of sweet charity ladling
Soup for the poor who must always be there for that
There's poverty of theory poverty of swollen bully shamed
Poverty of the diploma or ballot that goes nowhere
Princes of predation let me tell you
There are poverties and there are poverties.

Here she goes beyond the metaphorical and into the realm of the concrete.  Most of us have known others who have experienced these poverties; perhaps some of us have experienced them first-hand.  There is no sidestepping the brutal realities on display here; our world is a harsh, tragic place, sometimes.  When juxtaposed with the more personal pieces, "Ballade of the Poverties" and a few others like it help make Tonight No Poetry Will Serve into a diverse yet uniformly excellent collection that is worthy of its nomination for the 2011 National Book Award.

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