Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson: On "I Want You Women Up North to Know"

Tillie Olsen, who was then writing under her maiden name Lerner, wrote a poem based on a letter that had been published in the January 9th, 1934, issue of New Masses . . . New Masses published the letter under the heading "Where the Sun Spends the Winter," a version of the slogan adopted by a Texas Chamber of Commerce as the motto for a tourist campaign. The letter describes the impossible lives of four women who survive by hand embroidering children's dresses for a few pennies each. The author of the letter, Felipe Ibarro, may well have been a journalist or a social worker or perhaps simply an activist, so the letter is not the direct testimony of the workers described but reported testimony that is already self-consciously rhetorical. Nonetheless, it offers nonetheless one interesting version of this distinctive 1930s genre. It is worth comparing the opening two paragraphs of the letter with the first three stanzas of the poem. Here is the opening of the letter:

I want the women of New York, Chicago and Boston who buy at Macy's, Wannamaker's, Gimbel's and Marshall Field to know that when they buy embroidered children's dresses labeled `hand made' they are getting dresses made in San Antonio, Texas, by women and girls with trembling fingers and broken backs.

These are bloody facts and I know, because I've spoken to the women who make them. Catalina Rodriguez is a 24-year-old Mexican girl but she looks like 12. She's in the last stages of consumption and works from six in the morning till midnight. She says she never makes more than three dollars a week. I don't wonder any more why in our city with a population of 250,000 the Board of Health has registered 800 professional `daughters of joy' and in addition, about 2,00 Mujeres Alegres (happy women), who are not registered and sell themselves for as little as five cents.

Here are the opening stanzas of the poem:


i want you women up north to know

how those dainty children's dresses you buy

    at macy's, wannamaker's, gimbels, marshall fields,

are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,

down in San Antonio, "where sunshine spends the winter."


I want you women up north to see

the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill

    "exquisite work, madame, exquisite pleats"

vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,

    gouging the wages down,

dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,

    stitching these dresses from dawn to night,

    in blood, in wasting flesh.


Catalina Rodriguez, 24,

    body shrivelled to a child's at twelve,

catalina rodriguez, last stages of consumption,

    works for three dollars a week from dawn to midnight.

A fog of pain thickens over her skull, the parching heat

    breaks over her body.

and the bright red blood embroiders the floor of her room.

    White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say,

    white gulls of hands, darting, veering,

    white lightning, threading the clouds,

this is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth,

and her cough, gay, quick, staccato,

    like skeleton's bones clattering,

is appropriate accompaniment for the esthetic dance

    of her fingers

and the tremulo, tremulo when the hands tremble with pain.

Three dollars a week,

two fifty-five,

seventy cents a week,

no wonder two thousands eight hundred ladies of joy

are spending the winter with the sun after he goes down . . .


Olsen works with Ibarro's letter to draw out its drama and intensify the metaphoric power of the suffering it recounts. The title, "I Want You Women Up North to Know," drawn from the letter, serves as a refrain line that becomes a paradigm for North/South relations and for those who benefit, often indifferently and sometimes in ignorance, from economic exploitation. Olsen uses her own metaphors as well as Ibarro's, but her poem remains nonetheless an inventive extension of the original letter. Keeping true to Ibarro's wish to have women up north understand the economic and social relations that are hidden within the clothing they buy, Olsen adds a passage describing a department store where the children's dresses are sold. Notably, however, the poem's most explicit challenge--a challenge built into the original letter--is not to the businessmen who hire the dressmakers or to the department store owners who sell them but to the consumers who buy them and thus fuel the entire set of transactions. Olsen is not alone in focusing on how ordinary people's actions help sustain economic exploitation--Kenneth Fearing, for example, often satirizes the way people's illusions reinforce the ideology of the market place--but attacks on industrialists were certainly more common during the period.

The primary change from Ibarro's text to Olsen's, as with most poems based on worker correspondence, is the generic shift itself, the move from prose to poetry. This is a shift Olsen embraces, but with uneasiness, as her effort to emulate (and thereby critique) a bourgeois poet's lyrical evocation of Catalina Rodriquez's dying efforts at embroidery suggests: "White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say, / white gulls of hands, darting." As Constance Coiner points out in her reading of the poem, Olsen moves "abruptly from a parody of traditional lyrical poetry, which, in her view would ignore or distance the reader from the plight of these exploited workers, to prosaically announcing their low wages and their only available alternative for employment, prostitution." But Olsen's poem is itself, as Coiner demonstrates, "at points sensitive to the richness and rhythm of language. The free verse form and the repetition of words and phrases may represent a debt to Whitman, while a bold central metaphor transforms the women into the clothing they embroider—that is, into commodities" (163). Yet Olsen cannot actually cast out the imagined bourgeois poet's literariness without casting out her own as well. She would reject an obfuscating metaphoricity that substitutes fantasies of birds on the wing for hand movements that are actually painful. Yet one could also take the line as celebrating a deft beauty in the midst of suffering. The poem in short puts forward an argumentative dichotomy which the poem itself simultaneously destabilizes and undermines, making the reader examine his or her own relationship to the moral and political implications of figurative language.

Where Coiner and I differ is in how much weight we are finally willing to place on the poem's reflective self-consciousness about language and about the final effect of its unwavering critique of border capitalism. Coiner's conclusion lays out her doubts:

While the text succeeds in its intention to force us to confront the agony and injustice of these garment workers' lives, it is also unsettling because it preempts our emotional and moral responses. It bludgeons us, its exhortatory language announcing a distrust that the reader will respond appropriately to the garment workers' suffering. The language announces itself, too, as "movement" discourse, which in practice turns back on itself rather than to a general audience—that is, the already converted speak to the already converted in the special discourse of converts. Because those who might have been persuaded are, in effect, excluded by this discourse, the poem's intention is undercut (p. 163).

Yet the audience that Olsen has her doubts about—as the poem makes clear—is the audience of consumers. Will upper middle-class consumers stop buying these dresses? Almost certainly not. The expectation that she cannot reach those consumers is built into the poem's adoption of a revolutionary solution. But the revolutionary context of the poem is not so much armed insurrection as it is the more utopian versions of trade unionism at work in the country just as Olsen was writing. As Coiner points out, "as Olsen began her writing career, workers started pouring into the available unions . . . their strength came in sheer numbers, and those numbers came from other workers willing to join the picket in solidarity" (160). The poem urges this sort of solidarity on sympathetic readers, including workers themselves, and does not seek a transformed upper middle class. Whether one admires the results is partly a matter of taste, politics, class identification, and literary training. One may be hailed or alienated by the poem's rhetoric and by the general rhetoric of 1930s revolutionary poetry; in the case of either response, it is not a matter that can be objectively resolved, despite the temptation to turn our preferences into transcendent values . . . .

For all these reasons I find Olsen's poem aesthetically and politically successful. The concise specificity of its account of exploited labor is persuasive and moving. The continuing existence of such sweat shops around the world nearly seventy years later gives the poem continuing and long-term historical relevance. The poem's final homage to the Russian revolution may seem dated but its detailed story of the garment industry is as current as yesterday's news. A single witness's testimony about four women in one 1930s city becomes synecdochic in four senses: these workers become representatives of their class, their suffering becomes emblematic of a whole range of values the culture should either resist or espouse, their time becomes a figure for economic inequities of long duration, and readers now as then are challenged about their complicity in an economic system and urged to reposition themselves within solidarity. The experience of working people thereby becomes a fitting ground for all the ideological investments the culture makes in literariness, particularly in poetry. Finally, to make poetry out of working-class experience, to return to working people their own narratives (or narratives about them) in poetic form, is explicitly to overturn much of the class prejudice inherent in the culture's hierarchical view of aesthetic value.

In all of this Olsen is effectively Ibarro's agent in the domain of literariness. The first person in the title of Olsen's amplifies what she feels we should know. Olsen thus draws out the structural implications of the underpaid work these women do and of the religious faith that helps keep them positioned as they are. Ibarro reports Ambrosa Espinoza's struggle to "pay rent for her shack, pay insurance, support the Catholic Church and feed herself." Olsen intensifies the ironies and adds an explicit anti-religious commentary:


but the pennies to keep god incarnate, from ambrosa,

and the pennies to keep the priest in wine, from ambrosa,

ambrosa clothes god and priest with hand-made children's dresses.


Olsen also offers a more explicit revolutionary message. Espinoza's crippled brother, who lies "on a mattress of rags" and "dreams of another world" does not quite know that an alternative world "was brought to earth in 1917 in Russia,/ by workers like him." Except for a slight rearrangement of the words in the first line, however, the last stanza (with its revolutionary promise) is quoted directly from Ibarro's letter:


Women up north, I want you to know,

I tell you this can't last forever.


I swear it won't. 

Cary Nelson: On "The Man with a Hoe"

Markham's "The Man With the Hoe" is the one American poem of protest against abusive working conditions almost universally remembered, remembered not only by literature professors but also, for many years, by the general public. For decades every high school student read it and some still do. It was first published in the San Francisco Examiner in January 1899 and soon reprinted in newspaper after newspaper across the country. It was one of several protest poems Markham published and not the only one to receive wide circulation, but its status is nonetheless exceptional. It was eventually translated into forty languages and became one of the anthems of the American labor movement, though in some ways, as I shall show, an atypical one. It also provoked a genuine national debate about its meaning and implications, one of the few times in our history a poem was the subject of such wide discussion and controversy over its proper interpretation. It was admired, attacked, imitated, and satirized repeatedly; it was reprinted in numerous special editions and pamphlets, though apparently there were no successful takers for railroad magnate Collis Huntington's pledge of a $5,000 reward for a poem refuting "The Man With the Hoe" with equal vigor. People argued over its meaning with a dedication usually reserved for specialists. And it is, as it happens, unquestionably the perfect poem to have played the role it played in American culture then and since. One reader wrote to the Examiner (March 11, 1899) worried that the poem's depressing depiction of rural working conditions would lead to "thousands of misguided country youth flocking to our cities," while another a week earlier had castigated it as "the dreamy note of the inaccurate thinker stirred to sentimental sorrow by the appearance of wrong, too careless or unable to distinguish aright the cause of the trouble."

The poem is an explicit response to an oil painting by the French artist Jean François Millet (1814-1875), one of several paintings on contemporary agricultural working-class subjects Millet produced at the middle of the 19th century. It depicts a rough-shod farmer or agricultural worker, probably exhausted and certainly leaning forward on his hoe in a flat scrub landscape as yet untamed and unplowed. Just when Markham first saw the painting or a reproduction of it is unclear; he gave conflicting accounts during the course of his life. In any case, in one of the many ironies surrounding this text and its dissemination and reception, it is worth noting that the painting was first brought to San Francisco, across the bay from Markham's Oakland, California, home, in 1891, by Mrs. William H. Crocker, the wife of the heir to a fortune amassed by one of California's railroad barons. Charles Crocker had been inspired virtually to enslave Chinese laborers to help build the transcontinental railroad. Millet's painting had provoked something of scandal when it was first exhibited in Paris; the artist was accused of being both an anarchist and a socialist. But within a few decades its sentiments seemed acceptable to a wealthy San Francisco patron of the arts. She presumably did not see her family's economic history reflected in the overburdened laborer who fills the central third of the canvas.

While the painting was the decisive stimulus for the poem, Markham also clearly had in mind the great American labor struggles of the preceding decades, notably the coal strikes of the 1860s and 70s, the rail strikes of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, and such historic events as the Haymarket massacre of 1886 and the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of steel and iron workers in 1892. Markham had himself been a farm laborer and had herded sheep as a young boy, so he also had some direct knowledge of the sort of work he was describing. The poem is effective in marshalling moral outrage and linking it to literariness on workers' behalf. Its indictment of the ravages wrought by those in power was decisive for its time, in part because Markham treated exploitation as a violation of God's will. The poem is equally successful at issuing a broad revolutionary warning to capitalists and politicians.

"The Man With the Hoe" also crystallizes a hundred years of American labor protest poetry and song and finally takes much of its message to a broad national audience. Markham no doubt knew some of that tradition, at least John Greenleaf Whittier's 1850 Songs of Labor and Other Poems if perhaps not more ephemeral texts like John McIlvaine's 1799 broadside poem "Address to the Journeymen Cordwainers L.B. of Philadelphia": "Cordwainers! Arouse! The time has come / When our rights should be fully protected." But the tradition in America had long been persistently dual: professional writers taking up labor issues and agitating in verse for decent wages and working conditions and working people themselves producing their own rousing songs and poems. Philip Foner's marvelous 1975 American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century is the most comprehensive collection. The painting that inspired Markham is partly ambiguous: we cannot really know whether Millet's man with the hoe is too crushed to speak or has just stepped forward to tell us his story.

For Markham the question is settled. "Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox," the laborer does not utter a word. His presence is riveting but altogether determined by his victimhood. He has no culture of his own. We see "the emptiness of ages in his face." The laborer's imaged form speaks volumes, but he himself is mute. Despite the fact that the subaltern in this case had repeatedly spoken, Markham retroactively declares him unable to speak. The history of indigenous labor protest and song is forgotten and Markham instead speaks on behalf of mute suffering. It is the poem's address that raises the possibility "this dumb Terror shall reply to God, / After the silence of the centuries." The relentless othering of the worker persists throughout the poem despite Markham's evident outrage at his exploitation. It is that consistent othering of the worker——"Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw? . . . Whose breath blew out the light within this brain"——that made the poem widely acceptable at the time and earned it partial acceptance within the dominant culture's literary canon for so long. As a mute object of sympathy, the worker has no role in establishing the meaning of his suffering.

The impulse to dehumanize or infantilize victims, to deny the existence of their alternative cultures, was hardly new. Americans had done it with Native Americans and with their African American slaves. Nor was awareness of the risks of a racial othering and dehumanization unknown. It is one of the themes of abolitionist poetry and it surfaces again in turn-of-the-century poetry protesting the slaughter by American troops of the people of the Philippines, poems contemporary with Markham's. But the appeal of such power relationships leads us repeatedly to reenact them. In Markham's case, ironically, the implicit reaffirmation of such hierarchies helped give the poem remarkable cultural warrant.

Given the poem's huge and instant success it is not surprising that the Examiner should want to commemorate its pride in being the first place to publish it. So that same year (1899) the San Francisco paper reinvented the poem as an elaborately illustrated supplement to its Sunday edition. It is by far the most memorable reprinting of "The Man With the Hoe." Already oddly positioned within William Randolph Hearst's sometimes melodramatic newspaper, the poem has its inner tensions further exacerbated by the Examiner's richly contradictory fin-de-siècle presentation. Notoriously imperialist, the paper was also by turns sensationalist and antagonistic toward the barons of monopoly capitalism. Markham, wholly in sympathy with the plight of exploited workers, was nonetheless uneasy with organized labor and its aggressive and collective agency from below. All this, curiously, is enhanced by the poem's new incarnation.

The poem is printed on a large sheet of heavy paper about twenty-two inches wide. This broadside in turn had a series of images printed on its reverse side before it was folded in half so as to make the poem into a folder with a front and back cover. Unashamed of stylistic contradiction or cheerfully eclectic, the accompanying images mix elements of a Victorian scrap book with art nouveau and Edwardian book illustration. An oval portrait of Markham, framed in laurel leaves, shares the cover with an engraving after the central figure in Millet's painting [Fig. 1]. On the back cover a skeletal grim reaper rides a horse of the apocalypse down a road past poplar trees straining against the wind [Fig. 2]. Ringing the blade of his scythe is a crown that once perhaps sat on a head of state. Above the image two lines heralding a future of radical change and retribution are quoted from Markham: "When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world? How will it be with Kingdoms and with Kings."

Inside, the poem is presented in two floral frames on opposite sides of the sheet [Fig. 3]. On the lower left, a bat-winged figure, part satyr and part serpent, lies vanquished, his ill-gotten crown beside him on the ground. To his left another snake, this one itself satanically crowned, coils itself around the tripod of science and a book of the law, showing us how culture can be allied with the forces of repression but also potentially evoking a populist anti-intellectualism and values Hearst held in contempt. Above all this, hovering in mid-air, is the agent of their undoing: a goddess of liberty wielding a flaming sword and a wreath of laurel. On her shoulders an adoring eagle is perched to serve as her wings. Below her the river of life, above her the clouds, sweep in harmonious brush strokes toward a redeemed destiny.

Nowhere in the illustration are there factory owners or workers to be seen. The illustration interprets the poem as a symbolic confrontation between abstract, mythological forces. Human agency is imaged out of it. If this presentation underlines the poem's high cultural ambitions, then, it also underwrites its relevance to eternal values rather than immediate (and potentially threatening) historical contexts. It is a version of the poem, needless to say, that the English profession would find more suitable, a properly transcendentalizing interpretation of the poem's idealizations. In a way, it is the version of the poem that generations of high school teachers have found fittingly literary. Contemporary struggles, inequities at arm's distance, are not the concern of this sort of literariness, which awaits a paradise to be regained in the fullness of time but accessible now in unsullied aestheticism.

The poem itself of course had other cultural effects. Despite its problematic curtailment of workers' agency, its condemnation of exploitation made it possible to articulate it to labor reform movements. It was open to multiple interpretations, only one of which is built into this illustrated version. Meanwhile, worker poets themselves would have to write poems suggesting they take matters into their own hands.

Note: see Revolutionary Memory for the full set of illustrations.

Charles Altieri: On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise"

What hope Merwin can derive from the volume's journey is embodied here, but it remains qualified by the appeals of death and the void. . . .

The poem's final question casts us back on other questions raised along its way. What is it that calls him to the mushrooms--is it some common life-process they share which the morning wakes in him, or is it a deep participation in the blankness of death only imaged in "a sleep that was not mine"? What is the other life he remembers--an instinctive childlike sharing in natural growth or a state of nonbeing before life? Do the mushrooms live in or live off the darkness and the decaying chestnut leaves in which they thrive? Finally, does the final question suggest that the speaker envisions those incomplete and fragmented parts of himself participating in a natural process by which the living feed off the dead, or do these fragments seek the complete identity of nonbeing?

Cary Nelson: On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise"

"Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise" offers a fine image of poetry as a response to necessities inhering in language itself. As in many of the most effective poems in The Lice, he retains the sense of a specific topic, while simultaneously making the poem reflect the mood and vocabulary of the rest of his work. Before dawn he walks "on centuries of dead chestnut leaves": the surface of the earth is a matrix of every depleted past. It is "a place without grief," seemingly with no human consciousness present to it:

In the dark while the rain fell

The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine

Waking me

So that I came up the mountain to find them

No sleep, he suggests, is entirely our own; we dream collectively. Our speech then flows from the reservoir of things said. The soft, almost shapeless thrust of new mushrooms rising through darkness is a perfect image of the half-awakened consciousness. But the stanza goes further, hinting that our sleep is not exclusively human, that our sleep is the earth's sleep. So the search for mushrooms is also part of a waning hope that mute, essential substances will continue speaking to us in the light. The day seems familiar, as though the landscape were a tapestry woven of past anticipations: "I recognize their haunts as though remembering / Another life." The poem ends in a spirit of unsettled possibility. It resonates in the mind until we choose to break with it. The conclusion is full of pathos controlled both by verbal economy and by hope indistinguishable from anxiety. "Where else am I walking even now," he writes--and the metrical pause before the next line seems endless--"Looking for me."

Edward Brunner: On "The Room"

In "The Room" he admits that "I think this is all somewhere in myself" and goes on to describe a bird trapped in a room in the stillness before dawn: "the sounds of a small bird trying / From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark / You would say it was dying it is immortal." The note of defiance is a deliberate affirmation, a denial of what could be perceived as failure. Instead of negatively twisting experience that might be positive, as in "In Autumn," he affirms as positive an image that might seem negative. (Imagine "In Autumn" ending with such a strong statement as this: "Those are cities / Where I intend to live.") Merwin's acceptance that the room is within himself allows him to intervene at the end.

Cary Nelson on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

The sequence begins with what sounds like a typical speaking voice in the presence of an American city's decay. "Whenever in this city," she writes, "sirens flicker / with pornography ... we also have to walk" (DCL, 25). The passage may appear to be a complaint, but "have to" actually serves as ethical insistence: "We need to grasp our lives inseparable / from those rancid dreams." The mode, as with so much of contemporary American poetry, is an ironic continuation of the Whitmanesque embrace in a landscape that has degenerated into tenements and "rainsoaked garbage." She does not, however, want the irony to blunt the discomfort of the contradictory impulses, and the last lines state her willed hopefulness dramatically:

No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,  sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,  dappled with scars, still exhuberantly budding, our animal passion rooted in the city.

This tension between desire and actuality persists in Rich's poetry no matter how thoroughly her emotional aspirations are countered by American history. From the negative poems about America in Necessities of Life through the more decisively compromised poems in The Will to Change, her despair and anger at American culture coexists with her wish for a renewed vision of American commonality. It is not until Merwin that we find an unremittingly bleak inversion of the Whitmanesque aesthetic. Yet even Rich's feminist version of Whitman's democratic interconnectedness is convincing only when it is completely interwoven with historical impossibility. Rich works steadily at this effort to depict female power amidst "the earth deposits of our history" (DCL, 13) through the recent poems in Poems Selected and New, and The Dream of a Common Language. One failed version of the effort is "Not Somewhere Else, But Here," which is almost a feminist recapitulation of the technique of "Shooting Script," but with its associations transcribed too loosely:

Death of the city        Her face sleeping     Her quick stride     Her unning Search for a private space    The city caving from within The lessons badly learned     Or not at all The unbuilt world This one love flowing    Touching other lives     Spilt love     The least wall caving

In "Twenty-one Love Poems" we can see where this work must lead. Through most of the sequence, she succeeds in interweaving the ordinary, unspectacular environment, the special social pressures always at the edge of her awareness, the historical forces ranged against two female lovers, and their shared intimacies. The relationship is always "a flute / plucked and fingered by women outside the law." Yet she reserves a privileged site--sexual intimacy--for a poem that voices the desire to break free of public history, their individual past, and the politics of the relationship. Between the fourteenth and fifteenth poems she places "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)." Enclosed, as its title is in parentheses, it is surrounded by and grounded in the twenty-one numbered poems. It is at once protected and threatened by them, and its opening and closing lines provide a passage to and from the concerns of the rest of the sequence: "Whatever happens with us," she writes at first, "Your body / will haunt mine," and closes with "whatever happens, this is" (DCL, 32). The sequence as a whole testifies widely to the paradoxical stresses in whatever happens," but this single poem, like Duncan's "Sonnet 4," reaches for a temporality all its own. The sequence's structure simultaneously gives and denies this poem that inviolability. This is Rich's most overtly erotic poem to date, and she may have simply been unable to politicize its intimacies:

[Nelson quotes "The Floating Poem"]

Except possibly for one excessively sentimental phrase "the innocence and wisdom of," a phrase whose conventionality suggests how difficult Rich found the poem to write "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)" succeeds in being both tender and sensual. The comic playfulness of the alliteration in "half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern" and the edge of comic self-regard in "insatiate dance" give the poem's rapture a tonal complication from which it benefits. We may even hear in these lines a wry echo of the pervasive garden imagery of her earliest work, but in this poem at least we are not altogether removed from those "paths fern-fringed and delicate" of A Change of World where "innocent sensuality abides."

One reads the first part of the sequence wondering if any of the poems will risk more frank physical description. Given that sense of hesitant anticipation, it is emotionally appropriate that this pivotal poem be unnumbered and symbolically free of all historical entanglement. Yet one can also say that Rich has left the sequence with a project unfinished and perhaps still to come, one that would be even more challenging to her audiences historicizing of erotic pleasure. As Foucault has argued, the privileging of sexuality as a special site for authentic self-expression is itself historically determined. Foucault's challenge to our confidence in the ahistorical character of sexuality is implicit in much that Rich has previously written about relations between the sexes. Indeed her recognition here that lesbian sexuality is "outside the law" is historicized exactly as Foucault argues: it is both a prohibition and an inducement to a form of sexuality conceived in opposition to the dominant culture. As Rich herself has written, lesbianism is a conflux "of the self-chosen woman, the forbidden 'primary intensity' between women, and also the woman who refuses to obey, who has said 'no' to the fathers" (OLS, 202); the impulse toward "the breaking of a taboo" cannot be separated from that "electric and empowering charge between women"--"an engulfed continent which rises fragmentedly to view from time to time only to become submerged again." If Rich follows this project through to completion, it may lead her to write poems about female sexuality that have the deconstructive force of poems about American history like "(Newsreel)."

Yet Rich will have to acknowledge the cost of these insights--both to herself and to her audience. For where history and politics are concerned, knowledge does not necessarily produce freedom. And history touches even our simplest pleasures. "The moment when a feeling enters the body," she writes, "is political. This touch is political" (WITC, 24). By focusing on what the poem itself can actually do (or fail to do) in the presence of that unacceptable, undeniable reality, Rich also creates a compelling record of our other human options. They are fewer and they are more problematic than her exhortatory poetry would lead us to believe. Yet we are also more driven to choose that small ground on which some witness can be given, for we are ourselves already being chosen by "the cruelty of our times and customs" (PSN, 234).

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Cary Nelson on: "Diving into the Wreck"

Her better poems always exact a certain price from anyone willing to participate in their vision. The kind of political awareness she advocates may cost a loss of personal freedom. The voyage into new territory may require us to adopt a generalized, mythic identity. The reader who accepts her vision uncritically has probably repressed the real anxieties accompanying self- recognition and personal change. The enthusiasm for her efforts to create a myth of androgynous sexuality is a typical case. To applaud the androgynous psyche or to announce this as its historical moment is easier than actually living out its consequences: "I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams back, the merman in his armored body ... I am she: I am he." We all have more varied sexual impulses than we can act on, but will Rich's romanticized androgynous figure, "whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes," help bring them any closer to realization? While that is not a criterion one would ordinarily apply to all poetry, it is relevant in Rich's case. Unlike Roethke, she cannot take pleasure in the powerlessness of poetic solutions to social and historical conflicts. Her poetry continually testifies to her need to work out possible modes of human existence verbally, to achieve imaginatively what cannot yet be achieved in actual relationships. Moreover, she hopes that poetry can transform human interaction. Yet perhaps that is not, after all, the point, at least in poems like "Diving into the Wreck," despite its call for "the thing itself and not the myth." For what we have here is the myth, as Rich herself has now implicitly acknowledged: "There are words I cannot choose again: humanism androgyny" (DCL, 66). "Such words," she goes on to say, "have no shame in them." They do not embody the history of anguish, repression, and self-control that precedes them. "Their glint is too shallow" (DCL, 66); they do not describe either the past or the life of the present. As Rich has recently written of bisexuality, "Such a notion blurs and sentimentalizes the actualities within which women have experienced sexuality; it is the old liberal leap across the tasks and struggles of here and now." Indeed "Diving into the Wreck" demonstrates that one can suppress difficult feelings by mythologizing them. It may be that both Rich and her readers are relieved to have their fear and their desire conjoined in symbols so stylized and abstract.

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press.

Cary Nelson on: "Trying to Talk with a Man"

The devices that order her poems are the very ones that open the field of associations. In "Trying to Talk with a Man," the first lines seem flatly factual and public: "Out in this desert we are testing bombs, / that's why we came here." As the poem progresses, the recognition that political and interpersonal violence reflect one another grows. Political violence vents personal frustration that may itself be historically determined. Interpersonal violence is political and theatrical; its destructive, explosive testing mimics public antagonisms. In another poem a woman asks a man what he is feeling and his silent response is at once somatic and political: "Now in the torsion of your body," she realizes, "as you defoliate the fields we lived from/ I have your answer." Here in "Trying to Talk with a Man" the final lines bring these recognitions to a conclusion:

talking of the danger as if it were not ourselves as I if we were testing anything else.

These lines bring the poem round to its beginning and thereby make it whole. Yet that very unity is a trap for the poem's readers, one from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. Our pleasure in the poem as a verbal construct confronts us with a conflation of self and history that leaves us no apparent margin of freedom. Helen Vendler argues that in this volume the war is "added as a metaphor ... for illustration of the war between the sexes rather than for especially political commentary," but I believe Rich depicts the relationship between politics and personal life as more complexly interdependent. It is not even a case of two separate domains whose traditional metaphors may be used to illuminate each other. In Rich's best poetry politics and personal life act out an unstable mix of mimesis and determinism.

From Our Last First poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Cary Nelson on: "Shooting Script"

"Shooting Script, a two-part sequence totaling fourteen poems, uses a simple structure quite effectively: a series of separate lines linked frequently by repeated phrases and syntactical forms. Throughout, the language is direct and spare. Recurrent concerns (like the Vietnam war) tie the sequence together thematically. Yet the sequence as a whole also testifies to the way history attacks the poem from the center, fracturing its stanzas into individual fragments: "read there," Rich tells us in the last poem, "the map of the future, the roads radiating from the / initial split, the filaments thrown out from that impasse" (WTC, 67). To apply one of the words Rich uses, the poem is defoliated, its leaves falling from its trunk.

"Shooting Script" begins with a poem, recalling the method of Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," that works variations on its first two lines: "We were bound on the wheel of an endless conversation. / Inside this shell, a tide waiting for someone to enter" ( WTC, 53). Immediately, a cluster of possible readings is suggested. The first line, which is the poem's only complete sentence, may bring to mind a recurrent scene in Rich's poetry: a relationship between two people, closed to outside influence and largely fixed in a pattern of repeated interchanges. This is, of course, an impersonal template for a relationship. Moreover, if we hear an echo of one of the more famous lines in King Lear, "I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire," along with the images of the wheel of fire in medieval legends and the Apocrypha, we will read the line with a typically modernist sense of belatedness and deflation. Thus the line has enough general connotation for us to hear in it reverberations of all contemporary conversation; it is an image of the way we are situated in language, another of Rich's regular concerns. This is the endless conversation which the poem must repeat, even as the poem tries to differentiate itself from it. The "we" of the first line therefore includes the poem's readers as well, and the shell in the second line figures in an infinite number of sites, from the closed circularity of particular interactions to the encapsulation of a period of history in its own verbal repetitions.

The rest of the poem is a sequence of appositives, each echoing the vocabulary of the first two lines and offering a definition of the poem as a text to be experienced: "A cycle whose rhythm begins to change the meanings of words" (WTC, 53) is one of the subsequent lines; "A monologue waiting for you to interrupt it" is another. In a miniature version of a technique comparable to Kinnell's inThe Book of Nightmares, clusters of related words--conversation, monologue, dialogue; tide, waves, ebb and flow; melting, pulsing--are interchanged, interrelated, and finally bound into a net that holds together their differences and similarities. The possibility of change within language is held out to us, but the poem's erosive intermingling of human interaction and natural process tends to take it away. That this aesthetic of opposition becomes echolalia (human speech echoing nature's dialogue of substances) is not entirely negative. The will to change is enacted even as it is undone. And the "meaning that searches for its word like a hermit crab," therein to dwell in isolation, will eventually outgrow its shelter.

The poem extends to us an ambivalent offer to enter this text and its cycle of changes. The imagery of natural rhythms is enticing; even the roughly mock-heroic rhythm of the opening line is appealing. Indeed the whole poem coheres as an appreciative phenomenology of the connotative web woven by its key words. Yet the hermeticism of this phenomenology is also stifling. This "conversation of sounds melting constantly into rhythms," linked to the "dialogue of the rock with the breaker," is also the claustrophobic "turning of an endless conversation," or the apocalyptic stasis of "an ear filled with one sound only." However beautiful we find the poem's rhythmically overlapping meanings, we will also find its entrapment sterile; this "tide that ebbs and flows against a deserted continent" can be picturesque while suggesting, in human terms, repeated contacts that fail to evoke a response. Rich's mixed feelings about the verbal tapestry she weaves amplify the doubts we began to see in Duncan's and Kinnell's comparable efforts.

These affective uncertainties contribute an element of instability to the poem's overall form and to any judgment we might try to make about its originality. The verbal connections worked here seem both to exist before the poem begins, as part of the texture of our language, and to exist only because of the poem's creative energy. As a verbal act, the poem is unresolvably unstable; it must seem at once involuntary and willed. Its field of relationships is neither altogether given nor altogether artificial. We cannot account for this unresolvability by faulting Rich for being indecisive; nor can we recuperate it, in conventional New Critical fashion, by characterizing it as a set of tightly controlled ambiguities.

The whole tone of formal control here is toward increasing our uncertainty, not toward containing it. She begins the sixth poem in "Shooting Script" by writing "You are beside me like a wall; I touch you with my fingers and keep moving through the bad light." The last line repeats this opening, except now she writes of merely "trying to move through the bad light." As she puts it in the middle section, "This light eats away at the clarities I had fixed on." The light is the poem's light as well, a strained light that brings with it the smell of a smell of burning."

More than anything else, it is the issue of history's presence in the poem that accounts for this twice removed, altogether supplementary, but ineradicable scent. History operates as the continual counterpoint to the will to change, to a conviction that individual freedom is decisive in any way.

Consider "Newsreel," the ninth poem in "Shooting Script." Since each of the poems works on its own, the larger structure is not simply used to contain associative formlessness at the level of particular poems. Skeletal structures are frequently more self-conscious and uncomfortable than those articulated through narrative continuity or covert verbal rhythms. Here, the larger structure shows both characteristics--accumulated interpenetrations of private emotion and historical event, as well as an overt structure with, presumably, some claim to more comprehensive vision. As we might expect, the sequence as a whole provides for multiple entrances and interpretations. Yet this very plurality of connections also serves (I think both intentionally and courageously) to undermine the carefully achieved coherence of the individual poems. The two impulses, for coherence and for disjunction, are at war. We cannot rest satisfied in any individual poem because the sequence continually challenges us to a wider and less conclusive perspective. Such risks to our sense of verbal containment and resolution are generally either unpleasant or unwanted. Significantly, political references, too, are generally unwelcome in poetry, so the structural subversions parallel and intensify the subject matter. The form is uniquely suited to its times.

On examination, these verbal and structural qualifications are apparent within the individual poems. "(Newsreel)"--even the title is disquieting. In what political or emotional context is a newsreel parenthetical? As a communication, how can a newsreel be merely digressive, a clarification threatening comprehension? Given the political irony integral to poetry--an irony compounded of relevance and impotence, each inescapable--the word "newsreel" is further compromised as the title of a poem. As it happens, several of the poems are parenthetically dedicated, but only this poem is individually titled. The title echoes the title of the sequence ("Shooting Script") and thereby announces both the poem's method (a sequence of visual images) as well as its subject (our confused internalization of historical process).

Newsreel--the images are so clear, but they vanish and leave us puzzled: "This would not be the war we fought in. See, the foliage is heavier." It is as though we act (and record our actions) through a gray perceptual film, a hopelessly clouded mental newsreel. It is not my war, I know my war. Its images are in me, though I cannot recall whether I fought or not. Yet somehow, in a self I cannot recover, in features I cannot now recall, are assembled those images of my war. Now (and thereby even from the first instant) this newsreel renders those images equitable and properly ordered: "Somewhere there is a film of the war we fought in, and it must / contain the flares, the souvenirs.... Someone has that war stored up in metal canisters, a memory he / cannot use, somewhere my innocence is proven with my guilt." In a few frames, casually recorded, I appear without these muted surroundings. My presence is definitive, even if the image has since been discarded. In some peripheral, ordinary human action, I am set aside and named; inconsequential, like each of my countrymen, I move numb and slow at the center of the vortex of history: "Somewhere my body goes taut under the deluge, somewhere I am / naked behind the lines washing my body in the water of that war."

Extraordinarily, in a single voice, plaintive but unforgivable, Rich summons all the actors in this historical moment: the perplexed foot soldier, taken up by a process he begins to understand only when it is too late to resist; the nation unconsciously pursuing new approval for its past ("I thought of seeing the General who cursed us, whose name they / gave to an expressway") and futilely seeking relief for its collective dread ("I wanted to see the faces of the dead when / they were living"); and even the poet herself, subtly implicated despite any protest. Each of the sentences can be voiced by any of the actors; our roles are interchangeable, our guilt and innocence inextricably mingled.

This collective first-person narrator has its antecedent in a hall of mirrors. Self and history are paralyzed before absolute, irreconcilable needs-to be separate and dependent. And the poem, too, in a voice univocal and omnipresent, collects its lines while giving them over to the fury and boredom of its age. "(Newsreel)" is a poem of merciless aggression, yet a poem also of ambiguous complicity. The historical relevance is immediate but uncontainable. The form--ten prosaic black slats on the page--proceeds through a series of equivalent evasions. Each successive statement seals the poem's moment while at the same time opening the poem to the past and the future. Ironically, then, the poem is genuinely Whitmanesque, certifying his vision of bountiful death in an open form appropriate to our times. One of the very few wholly successful Vietnam poems, it may also be a prophecy of the poetry of the future--cling[ing] tenaciously to their own dissolution.

. . . .

The fourth poem in the sequence begins "In my imagination I was the pivot of a fresh beginning," an assertion that the following lines essentially undo. They juxtapose a series of archeological sites that no longer communicate with a sequence of contemporary acts that are either misguided or unthinking. The result is an image of the present burdened by a totemic silence that makes a fresh beginning impossible. Elsewhere in the sequence history operates to shape individual character into a few unvarying roles. "They come to you," she writes to a young woman, "with their descriptions of your soul." A few lines later, sounding for a moment like Merwin, she adds, "They believe your future has a history and that it is themselves." Here, however, at least a measure of rejection is possible. They may have "old bracelets and rings they want to fasten onto you," but you remain beyond their comprehension. "You are a letter written, folded, burnt to ash, and mailed in an envelope to another continent." She is thinking here both of a woman's indifference to male history and of the process of composition. Yet these options offer only escape or opposition--through either an intense but private consciousness or a ritual gesture of disavowal.

In the last poem, however, she moves beyond these alternatives, as she did in "(Newsreel)," by turning history's devastation into a mode of deliberate composition. History has taken its definitive toll on every option but one--the verbal miming of and implicit mastery of history's own effects. She will "give up the temptations of the projector"; no longer will she replay the images of a past that was never hers in any event. Now she will possess instead the shattered blank ground on which the images were projected, the idealized American field now uniformly splintered, "the web of cracks filtering across the plaster." She presents us with a sequence of aesthetic injunctions--addressed simultaneously to the ruins of our history and to the ruins of the poem's form: "To reread the instructions on your palm; to find there how the /lifeline, broken, keeps its direction"; "to know in every distortion of the light what fracture is." We are given a phenomenology of willed rupture. Its final images are colloquial and playful but nonetheless sobering in their forceful usurpation of both her personal history and Williams's, Olson's and Roethke's notion of the primacy of place in American poetry: "To pull yourself up by your own roots; to eat the last meal in / your old neighborhood." "Shooting Script" succeeds because its disciplined language turns a nearly dismantled form into a vehicle for historical awareness. In the end aesthetics and history converge to become prophecy, as a deconstructed verbal matrix shows us American space in its final form.

Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.