Worth Reading…

Some things (I think are) worth reading:

1. My friends’ new book blog: Take Five. This month, visit them for some summer reading suggestions to hide with in a cool dark room, far from the heat (or alternately to fry with on the beach).

2. This short piece I wrote on Adrienne Rich: The World As It Is: Learning to Read Adrienne Rich. (Also, the other things on JWA’s blog, Jewesses With Attitude, maybe starting with Tara Metal’s piece about Roz Chast’s new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?)

3. I’m sure someone has told you this already, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s novel, Americanah, is probably as good as its best review says it is.

4. Poetry: Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life, and Peter Redgrove’s Sons of My Skin. Oh and Gwendolyn Brooks. All things Gwendolyn Brooks.

5. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic a few weeks ago.


A is for Adrienne

It’s April, which means it is National Poetry Month and I get to spend the next four weeks trying to force everyone around me to pay a little bit more attention to poetry than they usually do.

Granted, I’m usually trying to make people pay more attention to poetry, but over the remaining 26 days of April, I’m going to ramp it up, and I’m going to do so alphabetically, with 26 letters worth of poetry-related posts.

The first letter is “A,” and it’s for Adrienne. The poet and essayist Adrienne Rich died this past Wednesday at age 82. I had no idea she was so old. I thought of her solidly as of my mother’s generation, a good 15 to 20 years younger than she actually was. I think I could have deduced her age if I’d put my mind to it, but her writing has always felt so apt and modern to me that it would have taken an overt temporal marker to shake the youthful, imaginary version of Adrienne Rich out of precedence in my head.

Adrienne Rich

Rich won my favorite poetry prize, the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, in 1951. Again, if I’d known she’d won that in 1951, I probably wouldn’t have imagined that she’d been born in the late 1940s. My knowledge (and my library) of Rich’s work is embarrassingly small, but Diving Into the Wreck and Blood, Bread and Poetry, as well as her well-known refusal to accept the National Medal of the Arts when President Clinton awarded it to her in 1997, have taught me invaluable lessons about the connections between the personal, the poetic and the political, about being a woman and good human being, and a great deal about anger, maybe even more about love. I feel really lucky that I have so much of her work yet to discover. Here’s a poem of hers I’ve always liked.

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

~ Adrienne Rich, from The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001

Connections: Divers

When I asked my friend Rebecca-Ellen to pick a poem for National Poetry Month, she picked a poem by Mary Oliver, and I remembered that earlier in the year she’d recommended another of Oliver’s books to me, a collection of lyrical essays titled Blue Pastures. (Incidentally, in relation to my forthcoming posts on literary awards and prizes, the cover of Blue Pastures notes that Oliver is a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.)

In one of the final essays, “The Poet’s Voice,” Oliver writes poetry is written from a “dark and lustrous place,” a place that is neither “casual” nor “ordinary,” a place that Jung refers to as the collective unconscious. Oliver writes that the poet is like a diver, who “must wear a mask to live” and that “in such a mask, the writer goes down, into the ocean, under its luminous tonnage, and through, and out from the levels of the person life.”

If the writer is like a diver, then “whatever the diver takes with him—and the diver without equipment is soon a drowned diver–is of immeasurable importance.” The writer, like the diver, has tools, and not only tools essential to their trade, but essential to life—as essential to life as oxygen.

This metaphor of writer as diver reminded me of a collection of poems by another awarding-winning (and more famously, award-refusing) woman poet Adrienne Rich titled Diving into the Wreck. The title poem begins

First having read the book of myths,
and loader the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
Rich’s poem is also a metaphor for poetry–for the act of writing poetry, and the experience of being a poetry. Interesting, that two of the greatest contemporary  American female poets both chose this metaphor to express their understanding of their art, and both expressed it with such similar language, albeit one in poetry and one in prose. Rich describes “the book of myths,” the camera, the knife, the diving suit, flippers, and the “grave and awkward mask,” and Oliver writes of the writer’s tools: “a modest attitude, technical adroitness, language skills altogether,” and most importantly, “an abiding and previously thought-out sense of what a poem is, of what its purpose is.”
Rich, again:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.