Anger and fear rotating on an axle of love

Four poems by Adrienne Rich, from the book Midnight Salvage (1999):


Plaza Street and Flatbush

On a notepad on a table
tagged for the Goodwill
the word Brooklyn

on the frayed luggage label
the matchbox cover
the name Brooklyn

in steel-cut script on a watermarked form
on a postcard postmarked 1961
the word Brooklyn

on the medal for elocution
on the ashtray with the bridge
the inscription Brooklyn

in the beige notebook
of the dead student’s pride
in her new language

on the union card the love letter
the mortgaged insurance policy
somewhere it would say, Brooklyn

on the shear of the gull
on the ramp that sweeps
to the great cable-work

on the map of the five boroughs
the death certificate
the last phone bill

in the painter’s sighting
of light unseen
til now, in Brooklyn

If you had been required
to make inventory
of everything in the apartment

if you had had to list
the acquisitions of a modest life
punctuated with fevers of shopping

— a kind of excitement for her
but also a bandage
over bewilderment

and for him, the provider
the bandage of providing
for everyone

if you had had to cram the bags
with unworn clothing unused linens
bought by a woman

who but just remembered
being handed through the window
of a train in Russia

if you had had to haul
the bags to the freight elevator
if you had been forced to sign

a declaration of all
possessions kept or given away
in all the old apartments

in one building say
at Plaza and Flatbush
or on Eastern Parkway?
Art doesn’t keep accounts
though artists
do as they must

to stay alive
and tend their work
art is a register of light

The painter taking her moment
— a rift in the clouds “
and pulling it out

— mucous srand, hairy rootlet
sticky clew to the labyrinth
pulling and pulling

forever or as long
as this grain of this universe
will be tested

the painter seizing the light
of creation
giving it back to its creatures

headed under the earth


A Long Conversation

warm bloom of blood in the child’s arterial tree
could you forget? do you
remember? not to
know you were cold? Altercations
from the porches color still high in your cheeks
the leap for the catch
the game getting wilder as the lights come on
catching your death it was said
your death of cold
something you couldn’t see ahead, you couldn’t see
(energy: Eternal Delight)

a long conversation
between persistence and impatience
between the bench of forced confessions
hip from groin swiveled
young tongues torn in the webbing
the order of the cities
founded on disorder
and intimate resistance
desire exposed and shameless
as the flags go by

Sometimes looking backward
into this future, straining
neck and eyes I’ll meet your shadow
with its enormous eyes
you who will want to know
what this was all about
Maybe this is the beginning of madness
Maybe it’s your conscience…
as you, straining neck and eyes
gaze forward into this past:
what did it mean to you?
to receive “full human rights”
or the blue aperture of hope?

Mrs. Bartender, will you tell us dear
who came in when the nights were
cold and drear and who sat where
well helmeted and who
was showing off his greasy hair
Mrs. Bartender tell me quickly
who spoke thickly or not at all
how you decided what you’d abide
what was proud and thus allowed
how you knew what to do
with all the city threw at you
Mrs. Bartender tell me true
we’ve been keeping an eye on you
and this could be a long conversation
we could have a long accommodation

On the oilcloth of a certain table, in the motel room of a certain time and country, a white plastic saucer of cheese and hard salami, winter radishes, cold cuts, a chunk of bread, a bottle of red wine, another of water proclaimed drinkable. Someone has brought pills for the infection that is ransacking this region. Someone else came to clean birds salvaged from the oil spill. Here we eat, drink from thick tumblers, try to pierce this thicket with mere words.
Like a little cell. Let’s not aggrandize ourselves, we are not a little cell, but we are like a little cell.

Music arrives, searching for us. What hope or memory without it. Whatever we may think. After so many words.

A long conversation
pierced, jammed, scratched out:
bans, preventative detention, broken mouths
and on the scarred bench sequestered
a human creature with bloody wings
its private parts
still trying to speak

A hundred and fifty years. In 1848, a pamphlet was published, one of many but the longest-read. One chapter in the long book of memories and expectations. A chapter described to us as evil; if not evil, out-of-date, naïve and mildewed. Even the book they say is out of print, lacking popular demand.
So we have to find out what in fact that manifesto said. Evil we can judge. Mildew doesn’t worry us. We don’t want to be more naïve or out-of-date than necessary. Some old books are probably more useful than others.
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…it creates a world after its own image.
In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class developed–a class of laborers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.
–Can we say if or how we find this true in our lives today?
She stands before us as if we are a class, in school, but we are long out of school. Still, there’s that way she has of holding the book in her hands, as if she knew it contained the answer to her question.
Someone: –Technology’s changing the most ordinary forms of human contact–who can’t see that, in their own life?
–But technology is nothing but a means.
–Someone, i say, makes a killing off war. You: –I’ve been telling you, that’s the engine driving the free market. not information, militarization. Arsenals spawning wealth.
Another woman: –But surely then patriarchal nationalism is the key?
He comes in late, as usual he’s been listening to sounds outside, the tide scarping the stones, the voices in nearby cottages, the way he used to listen at the beach, as a child. He doesn’t speak like a teacher, more like a journalist come back from war to report to us. –It isn’t nations anymore, look at the civil wars in all the cities. Is their a proletariat that can act effectively on this collusion, between the state and the armed and murderous splinter groups roaming at large? How could all these private arsenals exist without the export of increasingly sophisticated arms approved by the metropolitan bourgeoisie?
Now someone gets up and leaves, cloud-faced: -_I can’t stand that kind of language. I still care about poetry.
All kinds of language fly into poetry, like it or not, or even if you’re only
as we were trying
to keep an eye
on the weapons on the street
and under the street
Just here, our friend L.: bony, nerve-driven, closeted, working as a nurse when he can’t get teaching jobs. Jew from a dynasty of converts, philosopher trained as an engineer, he can’t fit in where his brilliant and privileged childhood pointed him. He too is losing patience: What is the use of studying philosophy, if all that it does is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic etc. and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends?
You see, I know that it’s difficult to think well about “certainty,” “probability,” perception, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life and other people’s lives. And thinking about these things is NOT THRILLING, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s MOST important.
His high-pitched voice with its, darker hoarser undertone.
At least he didn’t walk out, he stayed, long fingers drumming.

So now your pale dark face thrown up
into pre-rain silver light your white shirt takes
on the hurl and flutter of gulls’ wings
over your dark leggings their leathery legs
flash past your hurling arm one hand
snatching crusts from the bowl another hand holds close
You, barefoot on that narrow strand
with the iceplant edges and the long spindly pier
you just as the rain starts leaping into the bay
in your cloud of black, bronze and silvering hair
Later by the window on a fast-gathering winter evening
my eyes on the page then catch your face your breasts that light

….small tradespeople,
shopkeepers, retired tradesmen, handicraftsmen and peasants–
all these sink gradually into the proletariat
partly because their
diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which
modern industry is carried on, and is swamped in the
competition with the large capitalists
partly because their specialized
skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production.
Thus, the proletariat is recruited
from all classes of the population…

pelicans and cormorants stumbling up the bay
the last gash of light abruptly bandaged in darkness

1799, Coleridge to Wordsworth: I wish
you would write a poem
addressed to those who, in consequence
of the complete failure of the French Revolution
have thrown up all hopes
of the amelioration of mankind
and are sinking into an almost epicurean
selfishness, disguising the same
under the soft titles of domestic attachment
and contempt for visionary philosophes
A generation later, revolutions scorching Europe:
the visionaries having survived despite
rumors of complete failure
the words have barely begun to match the desire
when the cold fog blows back in
organized and disordering
muffling words and faces
Your lashes, visionary! screening
in sudden rushes this
shocked, abraded crystal

I can imagine a sentence that might someday end with the word, love. Like the one written by that asthmatic young man, which begins, At the risk of appearing ridiculous…It would have to contain loses, resiliences, histories faced; it would have to contain a face–his yours hers mine–by which I could do well, embracing it like water in my hands, because by then we could be sure that “doing well” by one, or some, was immiserating nobody: A true sentence, then, for greeting the newborn. (–someplace else. In our hopes.)

But where ordinary collective affections carry a price (Swamped, or accounted worthless) I’m one of those driven seabirds stamping oil-distempered waters maimed “by natural causes.”
The music pirated from somewhere else: Catalan songs reaching us after fifty years. Old nuevos conciones, after twenty years? In them, something about the sweetness of life, the memory of traditions of mercy, struggles for justice. A long throat, casting memory forward.

“it’s the layers of history
we have to choose, along
with our own practice: what must be tried again
over and over and
what must not be repeated
and at what depths which layer
will meet others”
the words barely begin
to match the desire
and the mouth crammed with dollars doesn’t testify

…the eye has become a human eye
when its object has become a human, social object


…the Arts, you know–they’re Jews, they’re left-wing,
in other words, stay away…

So, Bo Kunstelaar, tell us true
how you still do what you do
your old theories forgiven
–the public understands
it was one thing then but now is now
and everyone says your lungs are bad
and your liver very sad
and the force of your imagination
has no present destination
though subversive has a certain charm
and art can really do no harm
but still they say you get up and go
every morning to the studio
is it still a thrill?
or an act of will?
Mr. Kunstelaar.

–After so long to be asked an opinion, most of that time opinion’s unwelcome,
but opinion anyway was never art. Along the way I was dropped by some, others could say I had dropped them. I tried to make in my studio what I could not make outside it. To even have a studio, or a separate room to sleep in was a point in fact. In case you missed the point: I come from hard-carriers, lint-pickers, people who hauled cables through half-dug tunnels. Their bodies created the possibility of my existence. I come from the kind of family where loss means not just grief but utter ruin–Adults and children forced into prostitution, orphanages, juvenile prisons, emigration–never to meet again. I wanted to show those lives designated insignificant as beauty, terror. They were significant to me and what they had endured terrified me. I knew such a life could have been my own, I also knew they had saved me from it.

–I tried to show all this, and as well to make an art as impersonal as it demanded.

–I have no theories. I don’t know what I am being forgiven. I am my art.
I make it from my body and the bodies that produced mine. I am still trying to find the pictorial language for this anger and fear rotating on an axle of love. If I get up and go to the studio–it’s there I find the company I need to go on working.

“This is for you
this little song
without much style
because your smile
fell like a red leaf
through my tears
in those fogbound years
when without ado
you gave me a bundle of fuel to burn
when my body was utterly cold
This is for you
who would not applaud
when with a kick to the breast or groin
they dragged us into the van
when flushed faces cheered
at our disgrace
or looked away this is
for you who stayed
to see us through
delivered our bail and disappeared
This little song
without much style
may it find you
somewhere well.”
In the dark windowglass
a blurred face
–is it still mine?
Who out there hoped to change me–
what out there has tried?
What sways and presses against the pane
what can’t I see beyond or through–
charred, crumpled, ever-changing human language
is that still you?


Letters to a Young Poet

Your photograph won’t do you justice
those wetted anthill mounds won’t let you focus
that lens on the wetlands

five swans chanting overhead
distract your thirst for closure
and quick escape

Let me turn you around in your frozen nightgown and say
one word to you: Ineluctable

—meaning, you won’t get quit
of this: the worst of the new news

history running back and forth
panic in the labyrinth

—I will not touch you further:
your choice to freeze or not

to say, you and I are caught in
a laboratory without a science

Would it gladden you to think
poetry could purely

take its place beneath lightning sheets
or fogdrip live its own life

screamed at, howled down
by a torn bowel of dripping names

—composers visit Terezin, film-makers Sarajevo
Cabrini-Green or Edenwald Houses


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?

From the edges of your own distraction turn
the cloth-weave up, its undersea-fold venous

with sorrow’s wash and suck, pull and release,
annihilating rush

to and fro, fabric of caves, the onset of your fear
kicking away their lush and slippery fauna nurseried
in liquid glass

trying to stand fast in rootsuck, in distraction,
trying to wade this
undertow of utter repetition

Look: with all my fear I’m here with you, trying what it
means, to stand fast; what it means to move

Beneaped. Rowboat, pirogue, caught between the lowest
and highest tides of spring. Beneaped. Befallen,
becalmed, benighted, yes, begotten.
—Be—infernal prefix of the actionless.
—Be—as in Sit, Stand, Lie, Obey.
The dog’s awful desire that takes his brain
and lays it at the boot-heel.

You can be like this forever—Be
as without movement.

But this is how
I come, anyway, pushing up from below
my head wrapped in a chequered scarf a lanterned helmet on this
pushing up out of the ore
this sheeted face this lanterned head facing the seep of death
my lips having swum through silt
clearly pronouncing
Hello and farewell

Who, anyway, wants to know
this pale mouth, this stick
of crimson lipsalve Who my
dragqueen’s vocal chords my bitter beat
my overshoulder backglance flung
at the great strophes and antistrophes
my chant my ululation my sacred parings
nails, hair my dysentery my hilarious throat

my penal colony’s birdstarved ledge my face downtown
in films by Sappho and Artaud?

Everyone. For a moment.

It’s not the déjà vu that kills
it’s the foreseeing
the head that speaks from the crater

I wanted to go somewhere
the brain had not yet gone
I wanted not to be
there so alone.


The Art of Translation


To have seen you exactly, once:
red hair over cold cheeks fresh from the freeway
your lingo, your daunting and dauntless
eyes. But then to lift toward home, mile upon mile
back where they’d barely heard your name
—neither as terrorist nor as genius would they detain


to wing it back to my country bearing
your war-flecked protocols—

that was a mission, surely: my art’s pouch
crammed with your bristling juices
sweet dark drops of your spirit
that streaked the pouch, the shirt I wore
and the bench on which I leaned.


It’s only a branch like any other
green with the flare of life in it
and if I hold this end, you the other
that means it’s broken

broken between us, broken despite us
broken and therefore dying
broken by force, broken by lying
green, with the flare of life in it


But say we’re crouching on the ground like children
over a mess of marbles, soda caps, foil, old foreign

—the first truly precious objects. Rusty hooks,


Say I saw the earring first but you wanted it.
Then you wanted the words I’d found. I’d give you
the earring, crushed lapis if it were,

I would look long at the beach glass and the sharded self
of the lightbulb. Long I’d look into your hand
at the obsolete copper profile, the cat’s-eye, the


Like a thief I would deny the words, deny they ever
existed, were spoken, or could be spoken,
like a thief I’d bury them and remember where.


The trade names follow trade
the translators stopped at passport control:
Occupation: no such designation—
Journalist, maybe spy?

That the books are for personal use
only—could I swear it?
That not a word of them
is contraband—how could I prove it?

Odilon Redon – Visionary Head, 1907

About the book

  • W. W. Norton Company, 1999, 96 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars

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