Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Adrienne Rich, "Delivered Clean"

Adrienne Rich The School Among the RuinsI checked out Adrienne Rich's new collection, "The School Among the Ruins," from the library and am quite pleased by what I found. I've always been engaged and provoked by Rich's poetry, but this time on a more directly political level. Rich's politics are quite clear with regards to some things (Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but certain other poems (the wonderful "Wait," for instance) are a great deal more ambivalent, or at least seem to be at first pass, which is all I've had time for. One poem that particularly has me transfixed is a meditation on the legacy of 60's era radicalism/bohemianism. There are no shortage of writers now taking stock of such things at the moment, and they have been for some years. But Rich's poem is haunting, partly for its central metaphor—as a note at the end of the book relays, "delivered vacant" is a "developer's phrase for a building for sale whose tenants have already been evicted."

Delivered Clean
You've got to separate what they signify from what
they are distinguish
their claimed intentions from the stuff coming
out from their hands and heads The professor of cultural dynamics
taught us this They're disasters in absentia
really when supposedly working
Look at the record:
lost their minds wrote bad checks and smoked in bed
and if they were men were bad with women and if they were women
picked men like that or would go with women
and talked too much and burnt the toast and abused all
known substances Anyone who says
they were generous to a fault putting change
in whoever's cup if they had it on them always room for the friend
with no place to sleep refused to make what they made
in the image of the going thing
cooked up stews that could keep you alive with
gizzards and onions and splashes of raw
red wine were
loyal where they loved and wouldn't name names
should remember said the professor of cultural
dynamics what
messes they made

The building will be delivered vacant
of street actors so-called artists in residence
fast-order cooks on minimum wage
who dreamed up a life where space was cheap
muralists doubling as rabble-rousers
cross-dressing pavement poets
delivered clean
of those who harbor feral cats illegals illicit ideas
selling their blood to buy old vinyls
living at night and sleeping by day
with huge green plants in their windows
and huge eyes painted on their doors.

[for Jack Foley]

I assume Jack Foley is not the sound effects in film pioneer, but other than that, I find this poem rather difficult to pin down. Rich's tone is marvelously complex, perhaps because when it comes to bohemianism, like war, the very act of description automatically glorifies the subject, even if the author intends something different.* Even anti-war novels or poems (with the exception, quite definitely, of Wilfred Owen) cannot avoid a measure of valorization, mostly because to write a tract against war virtually requires that you participated in and survived one (thus explaining the Owen exception). The effect, then, is rather like that of a recently revived sub-genre: the private school narrative, in which the narrator looks back on the little evils of posh preparatory education (e.g. Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Taylor Antrim's The Headmaster Ritual—which is, by the way, a Smiths reference—yay Moz!). While ostensibly castigating the system for its elitism, etc., the appeal of this genre derives from its own elitism—the fact that, at least fictionally, the author/narrator has undergone an experience (positive or negative) which excludes the vast majority of his readers, which is by its nature unavailable to them. Tales of bohemian lives lived are no different; even if they are told in repentance or rue (and I'm not saying Rich is—I think there is a lot in the poem which suggests otherwise as well), there is still the fact to be dealt with that you'll likely never get to live such a decadent existence.

At any rate, great poem, good volume of poetry—especially, I think, in its first half.

*My friend Meredith wrote a paper last year along the following lines concerning war, or at least we had discussions about this phenomenon; I can't remember if I'm paraphrasing her arguments or not—Meredith, if you're reading, any plagiarism is unintentional.

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