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Adrienne Rich
Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth
reviewed by Jill M. Neziri
108 pp. Norton. US $23.95. 9780393065657 Cloth

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Jill M. Neziri and Jacket magazine 2008.

Too Much Will to Change


Veteran poet Adrienne Rich presented us with her newest volume of poetry, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, late in 2007. In this volume, Rich treats a diverse mix of contemporary issues, both public and private, that range from war to the role of memory in history to impermanence and aging. Never hesitating to reinvent herself as a poet, Rich does so here again, crafting poems characterized by sparse language that rely upon the layering of images as their primary tactic of presentation.

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Yet for all the apparent skillfulness evidenced in this volume, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth fails to deliver the emotional punch characteristic of Rich’s earlier work. Rich’s impulse to reinvent herself ultimately becomes her weakness as she avoids the intersections of the personal with the political that have fueled her poetry for so long. As a result, the poems in Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth give the impression of being smart yet too pared down and reserved to make a lasting impression upon the reader.


Although overall, Rich’s collection lacks a memorable thrust, there are certain moments within the volume when her brilliance breaks through and the reader experiences the power of her poetry. In particular, these moments seem to occur in the poems in which Rich allows herself to recall the past and to confront both the successes and the failures of second wave feminism as well as other political and poetic movements contemporary with the time.


Skillfully crafted, ‘Rereading The Dead Lecturer’ captures Rich’s passion for uniting the personal with the political, yet it does so in a fresh way that neither extols nor debases the political movements of the mid-twentieth century but instead looks back upon them in a sober and engaging manner. The title of the poem references Amiri Baraka, yet the poem itself encompasses the passion and forcefulness of not only the Black Arts Movement but also of all ‘political art.’ In addition to radical politics, ‘Rereading The Dead Lecturer’ also picks up on the poetic notions of Charles Olson who demanded that poets


Shed the dead hand,
let sound be sense.


In ‘Rereading The Dead Lecturer,’ the speaker assumes the momentum and passion that drove all of these movements and she recalls the impetus behind every one of them — to ‘Overthrow.  And make new.’ Rich evokes the power that this ‘idea’ of making new had upon her and her contemporaries who ‘felt it’ and ‘caught it;’ as the poem’s syntax collapses, the reader experiences this passion through the increasing momentum:


                                              Shed the dead hand,
let sound be sense. A world
echoing everywhere, Fanon, Freire, thin pamphlets lining
raincoat pockets, poetry on walls, damp purple mimeos cranking
— the feeling of an idea.  An idea of feeling.


As the speaker looks back, she recalls that these impulses were not altogether successful and that the work done in ‘pre-utopian basements’ did not fully change the world in all the ways its proponents desired. Soberingly, she admits:


There were consequences. A world
repeating everywhere:   the obliterations.


However, the poem does not recast the events of the mid-twentieth century negatively. Recognizing that at certain junctures, everyone was ‘conned,’ the speaker nevertheless ends by opening the poem up to possibilities:


                                                            If we
(book of a soul contending


Here, Rich’s unclosed parenthetical allows the poem to continue past its ending, to do its work out of the basements of the sixties and seventies and to enter the contemporary world freely and openly. The speaker suggests that by zeroing in on the struggle of the individual, be it for women’s rights, for black power or for a new kind of poetry, the struggle is what matters and what ultimately remains.


In ‘This Is Not the Room,’ Rich takes the passion that she has always harbored for the political and uses it to engage contemporary issues. Yet she does so in a manner that is subtle, skillfully focusing upon images rather than touting political propaganda. Responding to Vice President Cheney’s statement that ‘we also have to work, though, sort of, the dark side...use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective,’ Rich crafts a poem that refuses to accept this point of view and that proposes a deep, hands-on engagement with politics as a counterforce to public indifference. Thus, the poem itself becomes a form of resistance to the political realm of complicity where


torsos ben[d] toward microphones
where ears lean hands scribble
‘working the dark side’’


Refusing to be ‘the room’ in which ‘glazed eye’ meets ‘frozen eye,’ Rich insists that her poem is


...the room
where truth scrubs around the pedestal of the toilet
flings her rag into the bucket
straightens up   spits at the mirror  


In this final stanza, Rich transfers the power of ‘polished tables lit with medalled/ torsos’ to the hands of a cleaning woman. As she kneels beside the toilet and scrubs away the filth, this woman takes action, a sharp contrast to the frozen state of those in the conference room. Spitting in the mirror, she refuses to engage in any act of conformity, even with herself. Rich ends the poem with this image of the lowly yet powerful woman, ‘truth,’ who through a hands-on approach, seemingly has the force and where-with-all to counteract political indifference. Here again, Rich’s willingness to engage the political directly and to do so in a passionate way creates a poem that is not only powerful but that is also skillfully crafted. ‘This Is Not the Room’ never reduces itself to a simple anti-Bush administration tirade. Instead, it presents a deep response to political indifference that can be applied to any time and any place.


Unfortunately, the majority of the poems in Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth do not achieve the hard-hitting impact of ‘This Is Not the Room’ and ‘Rereading The Dead Lecturer. For the most part, the rest of the poems in the volume lack the passion of these two, in part because they are overly pared down, and perhaps even more importantly, because Rich eschews the very subjects contained in the aforementioned works that ignite her most impressive poetic responses. Taking to heart certain critical stances that speculate about the relevance of women’s poetry today and that celebrate reinvention of the poet over sticking to what one is good at, Rich moves away from the concreteness of political reaction and engages in a metaphysical exploration that in her hands, makes for bland poetry at best.


In the opening poem of the collection, ‘Voyage to the Denouement,’ Rich explores the impermanence of individual existence. Although the subject itself could be intriguing, Rich distances herself from it so much so that the first stanza of the poem seems to be nothing more than a compilation of fragmentary images that have no true emotive import for the speaker, and necessarily therefore, for the reader:


A child’s hand smears a wall    the reproof is bitter
   wall contrives to linger   child, punisher, gone in smoke
An artisan lays on hues: lemon, saffron, gold
   stare hard before you start covering the whole room
Inside the thigh a sweet mole   on the balding
   skull an irregular island   what comes next
After the burnt forests   silhouettes wade
   liquid hibiscus air
Velvet rubs down to scrim    iron utensils
   discolor unseasoned
Secret codes of skin and hair
   go dim   left from the light too long


Stripped down to the bare minimum and devoid of a recognizable speaker, this first stanza fails to make evident the stakes of the poem. Only in the last line of the piece does Rich allow the import of the subject to connect with the speaking voice:


The opal on my finger
   fiercely flashed till the hour it started to crumble.


Here, the speaker becomes apparent, and the disconnected images of the first stanza are recast against the backdrop of the notion of fading brilliance. Yet this small glimpse of emotional involvement is not enough to sustain the entire piece, especially since it is placed at the end. Nor are Rich’s images and fragmented syntax sufficient fodder for a poem as they fail to present anything unusual or to engage language in an innovative manner.  


In the face of numerous poems such as ‘Voyage to the Denouement,’ the brief instances in which Rich allows her power to shine through prove to be not enough to sustain the entire book. Avoiding personal involvement as well as her passion for the political, Rich delivers a volume that by and large is more ‘theoretical’ than it is passionate. In doing so, she fails to achieve the very goal she sets for herself in the poem ‘Calibrations,’ where she seeks to write


A poem with calipers to hold a heart
so it will want to go on beating

Jill Neziri

Jill Neziri

Jill Neziri is a poet and a PhD Candidate at Fordham University.
She is co-editor of the anthology From the Heart of Brooklyn (Vivisphere 2006).

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