Adrienne Rich & Graphs of Experience

In her later work, Adrienne Rich has developed a poetic technique that presents the reader with a graph of experience. By experience, I mean the moment by moment tracings of conscious perception. There must of course be a a process of editing during composition, but the poem presents itself as a graph -- the poet operating like one of those old-fashioned weather instruments in which a stylus scrapes a line upon a rotating drum covered in smoked paper. Here is an example:

Ever, Again

Mockingbird shouts Escape! Escape! and would I could. I'd

fly, drive back to that house up the long hill between queen

anne's lace and common daisyface shoulder open stuck door

run springwater from kitchen tap drench tongue

palate and throat throw window sashes up screens down

breathe in mown grass pine-needle heat

manure, lilac unpack brown sacks from the store:

ground meat, buns, tomatoes, one big onion, milk and orange juice

iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing potato chips, dill pickles

the Caledonian-Record Portuguese rose in round-hipped flask

open the box of newspapers by the stove reread: (Vietnam Vietnam)

Set again on the table the Olivetti, the stack

of rough yellow typing paper mark the crashed instant

of one summer's mosquito on a bedroom door

voices of boys outside proclaiming twilight and hunger

Pour iced vodka into a shotglass get food on the table

sitting with those wild heads over hamburgers, fireflies, music

staying up late with the typewriter falling asleep with the dead

Well, it's a sly artlessness I see now while typing it out. First, the registered patch of experience is a memory & memories can be edited, consciously or unconsciously. (The way one edits memory, consciously or unconsciously, counts for everything, morally & aesthetically, which for me, increasingly, amount to pretty much the same thing.) The telegraphic registration of small details add up to a record of an experience that has been recovered and reexperienced, perhaps more intensely that it was the first time. (What is the positive term for nostalgia?) And as readers that recovered experience becomes our own through the graphing of details. Also, we all know that rich is a "political poet," but I think that leafing through the newspapers "Vietnam Vietnam)" has the effect of placing the speaker's recovered experience in the context of a particularly intense moment of history. It is also, of course, a poem about making poems inside both personal and national histories. [The poem above is from Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 by Adrienne Rich, published by W.W. Norton.]

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “Adrienne Rich & Graphs of Experience”

  1. joseph,
    your explanation’s apt. more akin to reverie. it floats into the mind. ‘vietnam vietnam’ reference anchors memory. adrienne rich explores cultural/sensible connections, concatenations, contiguities. this & that of the work of the writer of “the year of magical thinking” suggest n analogies. finding real similarities in comparing structures of how personal history is captured would take someone else. i grasp likeness as a green thing these artists, dry-eyed disciples, present thrummingly adumbrated as nets of orbits gathered as they cross, enter, leave & perhaps reenter each other w/o constraint or blame. islands in a stream, katherine butler hathaway wrote in “the little locksmith” 1942. i was a child then and now in years an old man who wonders, ponders, maunders and loops returns to my perceived past aware of memory’s confusions and seeking a linchpin. adrienne rich’s is exemplary.
    edward mycue

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