Vitreous verse

Midnight Salvage: poems 1995-1998

Adrienne Rich <em>W W Norton, 75pp, £14.95</em>

If poetry, as Auden wrote, "makes nothing happen", what is it for? If it has no public or political function, is it merely fun - just another minority lifestyle choice with which to pad out our "leisure time"; no more than a set of prettified existential musings to browse in the fireside quiet of our armchairs?

This, I suspect, is how most people think of poetry, inasmuch as they think about it at all. For Adrienne Rich, though, writing is an act of political commitment. "A poem can't free us from the struggle for existence," she has written, "but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives." Rich aims for a poetry that can invigorate our lives by shaking us out of mundane complacencies and so act as an instrument of transformation.

As a poet of strong political engagement - she was lyricising the convergence of the personal and the political long before the first-wave feminists - she has suffered more than most from having her work enveloped in wispy abstractions and high theoretics. But as she shows in the fine title poem to her new book, the dry torpor of the academy is alien territory. She cannot spend another term as a visiting professor, sitting "in that borrowed chair/with its collegiate shield at a borrowed desk/under photographs of the spanish steps, Keats' death mask/and the english cemetery all so under control and so eternal".

In "Letters to a Young Poet" she spells out the poet's duty to choose action over passivity: "Beneaped. Rowboat, pirogue, caught between the lowest and the highest tides of spring. Beneaped, befallen/ . . . - Be - infernal prefix of the actionless/ - Be - as in Sit, Stand, Lie, Obey . . ."

Midnight Salvage moves in from the vast landscapes of her last book, Dark Fields of the Republic, to smaller, more intimate spaces and urban snapshots: a New York subway, a Harvard restaurant, the house of the photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti. Rich is a demanding writer who requires her readers to make up a lot of imaginative ground. Her verse has a decidedly vitreous quality: sharp and clear, but with a tendency to shatter into overlapping perspectives that initially confuse as much as they enlighten. The motivation, as ever, is a need to make connections, whether to lost heroines, as in "Modotti", or to her own past self, as in "Seven Skins": "What a girl I was then what a body/ready for breaking open like a lobster . . ."

The tide of anger so evident in earlier work has abated here. It's still bubbling up in poems such as "Shattered Head", but in general this book finds Rich more sombrely reflective than we've known her. Perhaps it's a result of moving towards old age - she's 70 this year - but this "overshoulder backglance flung/at the great strophes and antistrophes" reads at times like an attempt to stave off a sense of aloneness and salvage fragments of consolation from the past.

"Happiness" isn't a word that often passes her pen, but it appears here in the epigraph from Charles Olsen - "the issue is happiness/There is no other issue" - and again in "Camino Real". Rich is out on the road, driving down the California coast, exulting in "the light/on the raw Pacific silks", towards Santa Barbara to visit her son: "at the end of a day/of great happiness if there be such a day/drawn by love's unprovable pull/I write this, sign it/Adrienne". Love's pull might be unprovable, but writing it, signing it, is a way of nailing it down, of cleaving to it. And that is one of the things that poetry can make happen.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong