I read somewhere that Adrienne Rich’s 1978 book, The Dream of a Common Language, has come to be considered a classic of poetry. This despite the rule (arbitrary, like all rules) that “classics” must steep for at least 50 years before anyone dare designate them canonical.
Curious, I took Rich’s book out of the library yesterday. It’s cloth binding and strong stitching speak to its age. This is not the type of book that falls apart like its modern-day brethren, where pages often leave the nest early, floating to the foreign ground and leaving behind non-sensical jumps in a soiled nest.
In the Billy Collins interview I posted comments about Saturday, Sir Collins stated that poetry books should always start with their strongest poems first, and if you don’t know which of your poems are strong, perhaps you shouldn’t be attempting publication.
Here, then, as a test of the best-foot-forward rule, is Rich’s lead-off batter. It is a poem called “Power” in an eponymous section, the first of three in the book.
Living in the earth-depositis of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
Compact and powerful, no doubt. Distinctive, too, is Rich’s neglect (spare one colon) of punctuation and her use of spacing. At first I was confused about the spacing’s purpose. Was it to signify a pause, to emphasize, to replace punctuation gone on holiday (I picture commas and periods holding hands, sipping from drinks with tiny paper umbrellas coming out of them), all of the above?
As is true with Zbigniew Herbert, the missing punctuation certainly helps to slow readers down, a function often served by longer lines and sometimes achieved by a dearth of stanzas. And though this opener isn’t as personal as many of the poems that follow (I am still mid-read), it does set the stage for a theme important to Rich, a feminist.
“Power” also shows no small sense of irony–like radiation, an element of modern-day life to be reckoned with due to its undeniable power.