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Unasked Questions

The accumulating impact of Adrienne Rich

In her newest book of poems, Adrienne Rich offers a supposition: suppose we came back as ghosts asking the unasked questions. And yet, Rich doesn’t seem to need to be anyone other than herself to voice what has gone unasked. She has been doing so since the publication of her first book, A Change of World, in 1951. Over the half century that’s followed, she’s charted the under-asked questions of an increasingly globalized world, and Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth (W.W. Norton, $23.95) is no exception.

In the longer poems that make up the backbone of this new collection, Rich juxtaposes an astonishing range of countries and realities. In the powerful poem “Draft #2006,” she jumps from Heidegger in the Black Forest to Andhra Pradesh, India where “another farmer swallows pesticide.” In the eighth section of the poem, she writes, “They asked me, is this time worse than another,” and in typical Rich fashion, she responds with the difficult, unasked question, “For whom?”

One of the most moving poems in the book is about the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. In Rich’s recapturing of the 1928 trial during the Mussolini regime, Gramsci’s questioning of cultural hegemony in a capitalist era seems eerily contemporary. Rich begins her poem with a quote from Gramsci’s prosecutor: “We must prevent this mind from functioning…  which Rich later repeats in fragments to stunning effect.

To prevent the poem from becoming too didactic, she artfully incorporates imagined lines of Gramsci’s life in solitary confinement, his right arm “in sling” while he writes to an unnamed woman. One is left to guess who the woman might be — Gramsci’s wife, or his sister-in-law, Tania, who visited him regularly and played a central role in the covert preservation of his now famous Prison Notebooks.

Rich has an extraordinary ability to pull on histories like Gramsci’s to question the present, and to do so with an unusual balance of nuance and urgency. The Gramsci series, titled “Letters Censored, Shredded, Returned to Sender, or Judged Unfit to Send,” is clearly located in the past, yet it subtly raises questions about the continuing tension between capitalism and culture, and about the role of prisons at a time when one in a hundred Americans is incarcerated.

Few poets have generated as powerful a body of work as what Rich has created over the last 60 years. This new book contains the unasked questions one has come to expect from Rich, along with her characteristic inventiveness and terrific sense of line. In a poem halfway into the collection, she asks: “what’s surreal, hyperreal, virtual / what’s poetry what’s verse what’s new.” The accumulating impact of this book offers a kind of answer.

Idra Novey’s first collection of poetry will be The Next Country, in fall 2008. Recent poems appear in Slate, Paris Review, AGNI and Ploughshares. She teaches creative writing at Columbia and in the Bard College Prison Initiative.