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Photograph by LILIAN KEMP
No Time Like The Present: Much of Adrienne Rich's new collection of essays remains timely, even urgent.

Review: 'A Human Eye'

Adrienne Rich's new collection of essays blends culture and politics.

By Molly Zapp

I'M LOOKING, as from the corner of my eye, for a certain kind of poetry whose balance of dread and beauty is equal to the chaotic negations that pursue us ... to dissolve both complacency and despair," Adrienne Rich writes in the introduction of A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008 (W.W. Norton; $24.95). A collection of speeches, lectures, literary reviews and book prefaces, Rich's latest work offers critique, analysis and perspective on the power of writing to transform culture.

As ever with Rich, politics are interwoven throughout. The title refers to a quote by Karl Marx, and the book includes an introduction to a collection of essays by Marxist theorists Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, Friedrich Engels and Marx himself. Rich writes that they all speak "of human realization not as losing oneself within a mass collectivity but as release from the numbed senses, the robotization of advancing capitalist society."

All of the book's essays, like much of Rich's writing throughout her career, dive into the wreckage of personal and political transformation.

Rich no longer gives interviews, but she did offer some insight to her own political orientation in an email after I asked her if it was appropriate to describe her as a socialist.

"Socialism has been a confused term in the vocabulary of capitalism," she wrote. "I see it as the sharing of essential material and social resources by all, a 'common wealth' of all, a responsibility of each and all. Such a system can never be perfected; it must constantly be evolving, recognizing new needs and conditions. It's an idea that's been argued, lived for and died for over centuries, around the world. In those terms I can certainly call myself a socialist. A socialist without a party or a country, for whom both feminism and Marxism have been essential strands."

The author of the landmark feminist/queer studies essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" came out as lesbian in the 1970s. In "Candidates for My Love': Three Gay and Lesbian Poets," she writes how queer studies began not in the bastions of higher education "but in spaces opened up by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the breaking out from self-denial into self-definition, claiming agency, learning solidarity, arguing a different kind of future."

One of the strongest essays in the collection is "Poetry and the Forgotten Future," in which she calls on poets to consider the capacity poetry has "to remind us of something we are forbidden to see." Rich refers to Adonis, a Syrian-Lebanese poet, who wrote that "modernity should be a creative vision, or it will be no more than a fashion. Fashion grows old from the moment it is born, while creativity is ageless. Therefore not all modernity is creativity, but creativity is eternally modern."

Rich, a longtime Santa Cruz resident, makes public appearances only rarely. One of the greatest living American poets and essayists, her half-century writing career has encompassed constant and ever-shifting wars, waves of feminism and social movements, yet most of this collection--both old and new works--seems timely, even urgent.

For decades, Rich has urged us to live in and transform the present. In a poem from Your Native Land, Your Life, published during the Reagan era but still timely, she writes:

We'll dream of a longer summer
but this is the one we have:
I lay my sunburnt hand
on your table: this is the time
we have.

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