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I mentioned a month or so ago when I began reading Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth by Adrienne Rich that there was something different about it in comparison with her previous books that I couldn’t put my finger on. Now that I have finished it I think I can take a stab at what the difference is.

I have always loved Rich for her radical feminist politics and her fearlessness in her poetry. I love her for her struggle to find the right words to say exactly what she means, to reclaim words and images and make them something more than demeaning words applied to women by the patriarchy. I love how she found women in history and brought their strengths and failings and sorrows into her poems. I loved her “Dream of a Common Language.”

In the 1990s her poetry began moving away from radical feminism though remained staunchly political, taking on a more global human rights view. In Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth her words and poems remain polished diamonds; ideas and words that can cut to the bone. But, the radical feminist is gone. She is still political but not in a radical way. Her revolutionary feeling has dissipated. In her late seventies, the voice in her poetry feels tired. It is almost as if this book is saying, I have done what I could and things have not changed as much as I have wished, I don’t know what else I can do. There is no sense of giving up, however, I don’t want to give that impression, but as she writes in “Draft #2006” part viii:

They ask me, is this time worse than another.

I said, for whom?

Wanted to show them something. While I wrote on the
chalkboard they drifted out. I turned back to an empty room.

Maybe I couldn’t write fast enough. Maybe it was too soon.

Rich’s poetry has always been deeply personal without being confessional. She wrote from her experience, an experience common to women, something shared. In this way one could not help but conflate the “I” of the poet with the “I” in the poems. While she never explicitly encouraged this, she never discouraged it either. Until now. Interestingly, the epigraph at the beginning of the book is two quotes and a comment. The first quote, by Alan Davies:

Poetry isn’t easy to come by. You have to write it like you owe a debt to the world. In that way poetry is how the world comes to be in you.

Lovely and something that fits in to what we know of Rich from her previous work. But then, a quote from the poet Michael S. Harper quoting poet Sterling A. Brown: “Poetry is not self-expression, the I is a dramatic I.” Followed by Rich’s comment, “To which I would add: and so, unless otherwise indicated, is the You.” What is she up to here? Is she now trying to insist on the distance between the personal “I” and the “I” in the poem as well as the “you?” Why does she feel it necessary I wonder to insist at this time that the “I” is not her and the “you” is not her partner Michelle Cliff, or the reader, or anyone else for that matter? It makes me curious to know what is behind it.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to read some of the poems in the book and not believe the “I” is Rich. It is especially difficult in a poem like “Archaic” which begins:

Cold wit leaves me cold
this time of the world Multifoliate disorders
straighten my gait Minuets don’t become me
Been wanting to get out see the sights
but the exits are slick with people
going somewhere fast
every one with a shared past
and a mot juste And me so out of step
with my late-night staircase inspirations my
utopian slant

Still, I’m alive here
in this village drawn in a tightening noose
of ramps and cloverleafs
but the old directions I drew up
for you
are obsolete

I can’t help but think of her book and poem, An Atlas of the Difficult World. Here she said:

These are not the roads
you knew me by. But the woman driving, walking, watching
for life and death, is the same.

That was written in 1990-1991 and signals the beginning of the changes in her poetry. In Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, all the old maps and directions are gone. But whereas in Atlas she attempts to make at least a sketched map, a snapshot of the moment, in Telephone there is no such attempt. Instead “Image erupts from image/ atlas from vagrancy.” The poet finds herself in “this passage of the labyrinth/ as laboratory” and it is not exactly clear who is the experimenter and what the experiments are.

Adrienne Rich remains an amazing poet, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth proves it. But if you have read Rich over the years, this book is different. I hope there are more poems because I want to see what new passages she finds this labyrinth.