October 2007

Elizabeth Bachner


Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 by Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is tricky, as a poet and as a thinker. The poems in Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth are filled with traps and snares and problems that move in circles. She’s so deft, in some enigmatic way, that she manages to pull off references and turns of phrase that would sink any other poet’s work, that would seem pretentious or overwrought in other hands. In the nine-part “Draft #2006,” which might be my favorite piece in this volume, she quotes Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach in part four, visits a farmer swallowing pesticide in Andhra Pradesh in part six, and talks about the “thereness” of a thing in part nine -- and yet somehow, through something edgier and brainier than magic, the poem is never heavy-handedly political or philosophical. It’s just thought-provoking. And circular. And tricky. You could sit stewing over the first line -- “Suppose we came back as ghosts asking the unasked questions” -- for hours, and then there are ideas and images that provide pure pleasure with their mystery. The “border of poetry” is “dreamfaces blurring horrorlands.” In “rooms of mahogany and leather,/ conversations open in international code. Thighs and buttocks to open later by/ arrangement.” There is something timeless about this poem, even though it’s about timeliness:

They asked 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.

“Draft #2006” made me think about what it would mean to capture this moment in history with a poem. There are poets who have succeeded in grabbing a moment, epically and eternally -- T.S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” does it, and Ginsburg’s “Howl,” and several of Auden’s poems and, maybe most perfectly, Dan Pagis’s “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car.” As I start to think about it, so many strong poems do capture the moment, rigidly and clearly. “Draft #2006,” as I reread it, is one of these -- it captures a time in the world, in the human world, that is slippery, stunning and maybe inevitable.

There are puzzles and their possible solutions throughout this volume, and the dead -- skeletons, ghosts, casualties of war and famine, composers through their music, famous philosophers through their words, William Blake -- emerge again and again to ask questions. They find answers in secret codes -- “ghost limbs go into spasm in the night,” “history as wallpaper/urgently selected clipped and pasted/but the room itself nowhere,” “the exits are slick with people/going somewhere fast, ” “And beneath the skin of boredom/ indecipherable fear.” There are surprisingly apt convergences, unexpected ideas and themes that make sense together, as in “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho”:

These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens

they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze

of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them

These are the works of a mature poet, someone who speaks many metaphorical languages -- math, science, politics, music, grief -- and smoothes them all into one ancient, new language. It is rare that someone in the 21st Century, someone with a fancy education and a radical bent and laurels to rest on, doesn’t lose it as a poet, turning predictable, writing about minutiae without exposing more than what’s on the page. But somehow, Adrienne Rich is trickily managing it, needling at the skin, writing true, real poems. There are so many dreadful directions Rich could’ve gone, following on wrong turns taken by so many other once-great twentieth century poets -- maudlin speeches, off-putting, phony sagas of gooey Californian sex, predictable memoirs. Instead, in her seventies, Adrienne Rich has written a magnetic, interesting masterwork.

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 by Adrienne Rich
W.W. Norton
ISBN: 0393065650
112 Pages