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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Cary Nelson on: "Twenty-One Love Poems" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Adrienne Rich
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Feb 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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