Adrienne Rich's work has long challenged social plausibilities built on violence and demoralizing power. In Midnight Salvage, she continues her explorations at the end of the century, trying, as she has said, "to face the terrible with hope, in language as complex as necessary, as communicative as possible - a poetics which can work as antidote to complacency, self-involvement, and despair. I have wanted to assume a theater of voices rather than the restricted I. To write both for readers I know exist and those I can only imagine, finding their own salvaged beauty as I have found mine." These are risky poems, infused with the cruelty of history, the presence of the body, the beauty of the natural world, with human love and longing. In the course of these poems, Rich invokes the poet and Resistance fighter Rene Char and the photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti and conjures Julia de Burgos, Hart Crane, and Miles Davis in an urban underworld.
W.H. Auden chose Adrienne Rich for the Yale Younger Poet series when she was a mere 21. In Midnight Salvage
, a half century later, in an act part homage, part defiance, Rich challenges the reader to reconsider whether poetry matters:
if a woman as vivid as any artist
can fling any day herself from the 14th floor
would it relieve you to decide Poetry
doesn't make this happen?
As we've come to expect from a writer who insists that "all kinds of language fly into poetry, like it or not" and "real acts are not simple," Rich sparks necessary epiphanies. Her Whitmanesque embrace of the silenced--the homeless woman, the drag queen, the paraplegic--forces us to question and redefine who and what poetry is for. This desire to widen art's access, to reject the "death mask / and the english cemetery all so under control and so / eternal," this refusal to play by the rules, infuses every poem. In "The Art of Translation," for instance, Rich celebrates the translator who allows access to the canon-excluded, to the poet whose work is itself an act of translation, and to any reader who speaks from the heart, "a zone that remains otherwise untranslatable."
Daring in their passion to inform and incite, these poems remind us that complacency is never an option. "I wanted to go somewhere / the brain had not yet gone," she confesses in "Letters to a Young Poet." Midnight Salvage is evidence of a destination reached. --Martha Silano