Review: Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes

September 6, 2021

by Alec Marsh

Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes by Ed Pavlić (University of Minnesota Press, 2021).

Ed Pavlić’s Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes is the first critical book to appear after Rich’s Collected Poems (2016) and thus the first covering all of Rich’s poetry from A Change of World (1951) to the very end, beyond Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (2011) to “Endpapers,” the final poem in the Collected Poems.  Actually Pavlić goes further than that, presenting a draft of an hitherto unpublished part of “Fragments of an Opera” about Antonio Gramsci, that Rich was working on just weeks before her death, March 27, 2012, that does not appear in the Collected Poems (see Pavlić 193). Pavlić’s book is especially welcome because he attends to the latter half of Rich’s career, and acknowledges Rich’s Marxism, largely unexplored territory even now.

Pavlić’s treatment of the earlier poetry is full of excellent things too. We learn that the Emily Dickinson quote in early editions of “Snap-shots of a Daughter-in-Law,” originally “this is the gnat the mangles men” (from Dickinson’s # 1331,“Wonder–is not precisely knowing”) was changed to the iconic “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” (from Dickinson’s #754) as late as 1975, for Poems: Selected and New. I had not realized that “Spring Thunder” was a response to “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the 1965 bombing campaign that massively escalated the US commitment to the war in Viet-Nam, now it is impossible to read the poem any other way.  Pavlić shows how Rich connects the “private life to warfare and to the image of the United States as a global empire.” She “identifies with the drafted soldier in ‘Spring Thunder’: ‘No criminal, no hero; merely a shadow/ cast by the conflagration.’” Pavlić concludes that “Spring Thunder” is “the first of Rich’s poems to turn its lyric lens toward overtly political subject matter” (Pavlić 26-7). Rich’s poetry through the 1970s and her “second wave feminist” period is well-known and has been read acutely by feminist scholars, but as Rich’s politics became more global and, especially after her trip to Nicaragua in 1983, all but openly and unfashionably Marxist, scholars who once welcomed her as the voice of their own experience mostly failed to follow her as her poetry veered more and more explicitly to the Left. Pavlić is the first critic to follow Rich all the way as she probed into the mysteries of selves (not always her own, and not only of women) immersed in, suffused by, and even drowning in the great flood called Capitalism.

An accomplished, well-published poet, critic of African-American literature and Professor at University of Georgia, Pavlić also had the good fortune to correspond with Rich during the last 12 years of her life; in fact, one of her late poems “If/ As Though” (2006) is dedicated to him. Pavlić knows a lot, and he knows a lot the rest of us don’t, which gives his lively, closely argued book a peculiar authority. The key term of his analysis is “solitude,” which provides a metaphor by which Pavlić has arranged the radical evolution of Rich’s career.  Through solitude and its dialectical opposite, “relation,” Pavlić aims to focus “an adequate vision of how the structures in Rich’s poems shifted over the final three decades of her career” (Pavlić 9).

“Solitude” seems counter-intuitive at first, for Pavlić invents a number of “solitudes” to account for the changes Rich went through in her sixty years of writing, creating a paradoxical crowd of solitudes. In his account, Rich moves outward from lyrical introspection to social responsibility, to an evasive, even “fugitive” position as she attempts to occupy interstitial free spaces in an increasingly totalizing, globalizing hegemonic capitalism. Here is a crude sketch of Pavlić’s taxonomy: Rich is said to begin with a Romantic lyrical position of “transcendental solitude” that lasts through about 1970; her best known feminist period (c. 1970-1981) is characterized by “relational solitude,” which in truth doesn’t seem very solitary at all; the next ten years—through An Atlas of a Difficult World– is informed by “social solitude,” which is “fully realized” in the title poem, thought by many to be her best, most ambitious work; “As Rich moved beyond her strict focus on women’s experience from the 1970s, her vision of social solitude culminated in the broadly diverse and particularized American vistas of ‘An Atlas of a Difficult World’” Pavlić concludes (Pavlić 153). But perhaps by creating this great poem, Rich saw more widely and more deeply into the apparently inescapable problematic of capitalism, especially as it impinges on the supposedly autonomous self, from which, I guess, Pavlić’s “solitude” derives, even as the specifically Marxist term, “alienation” might seem more apt. However, Pavlić justifies his choice by arguing that “fugitives in the early poems of An Atlas of a Difficult World, like “Marghanita,” the friend in “For a Friend in travail” and, very surprisingly, “Olivia” –a poem about the notorious double agent Olivia Forsyth, who worked for the South African security services as well as the ANC in the 1980s– “are not alienated from people. Instead they are often in flight from people’s alienation.” Freedom is “measured in connections”; it’s all about freedom to be with others, not freedom from social interactions and responsibilities (Pavlić 137).

Although I would argue that Rich’s Marxist commitments stem from the mid-1980s, Pavlić takes up a specifically Marxian approach to Rich from the 1990s on, as Rich herself embarks on a full Marx-inspired critique of social relations under capital, especially the commodification of language, imagination and selves. “Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography…In the interest of marketing,” including her own; “distinctions fade and subtleties vanish” she complained in “Arts of the Possible” (1997) the title piece of her important book of essays, its title a nod to Gramsci, from which Pavlić quotes (154). In Pavlić’s nomenclature Rich is now in “fugitive solitude.” Quoting from the end of “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” (1983-5), Pavlić says, “Rather than the ‘edges that blur’ in social solitude, in fugitive solitude Rich locates the sources of feeling for the edges that burn”; Pavlić observes that Rich links “the burning pain of industrial labor with her debilitating arthritis” (Pavlić’s emphasis 164); Rich’s body’s personal pain and the world of pain that is global capitalism can, in fact, be linked without egoism; the all too frequent scenes of torture and grim accounts of her own struggle with her arthritis are in dialectical relation: “(I write this with a clawed hand” is how she ends “Circum/Stances” (2008).

In light of this remark, it is clear that the solitude of which Pavlić is speaking of ultimately the writer’s solitude—a lone person

Adrienne Rich

at a desk with a pen and paper, like Rich “at this table in Vermont” watching the spider make connections in “Atlas of the Difficult World.”  The writer’s situation only seems solitary to others; actually, the writer is communing with myriad voices, “hearing conversations that can’t be happening,” from the book read one summer long ago, to the cashier at the supermarket yesterday, the voice of a child’s wanting, the voices of the dead encouraging and judging. In her prose book What Is Found There (1993), Rich contrasts her solitary work to that of the muralist, “whose monumental works, planned out and executed with many others” are found throughout the world: “I whose words come into permanence is slow solitude, whose poems begin on scraps of paper but whose images like hers, are mined from dreams, snatches of conversation, street music, headlines, history, love, collective action” (WIFT 44). The shift in Rich’s poetic structures that Pavlić is charting is the poet’s response to these ever-changing images; that is to say, to changes in Rich’s personal and historical situation.

Thus, “fugitive solitude” becomes, by Midnight Salvage (1998), “dissident solitude” as Rich tries to come to terms with a “changed system of utterly broken and fraudulent social contracts with which no faith could be kept” under the 90s regime of neo-liberalism (Pavlić 177). Rich refused the “National Medal for the Arts” offered her by the Clinton Administration because she saw it as an attempt to suborn her into supporting—or seeming to support—the abandonment of the people by administrations of both political parties (see Arts 98-105). A few years later, Rich overtly aligned herself with dissident poetry on her 2006 talk “Poetry and Commitment” (originally published separately, now retitled “Poetry and the Forgotten Future” to be found in A Human Eye) in a paragraph by James Scully that is printed now in bold face:

Dissident poetry however does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other. In breaking boundaries, it breaks silences, speaking for, or at best with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life…it is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it (qtd Rich HE 131, and see Pavlić 165).

Despite this tardy endorsement of dissident poetry (belated, in Pavlić’s chronology), by 2006 according to Pavlić, Rich had, in her own work, moved on to the truly paradoxical “radical solitude” of her stark, fitfully rhymed, otherwise all but atonal, very late poems, which seem preoccupied with Rich’s anxiety about losing her audience. Was anybody listening?  Isn’t “radical solitude” hermetic, solo, aloneness? One can’t help but feel that Pavlić’s master metaphor breaks down here as all metaphors must.  Rich’s last work is very much in the discordant mode affected by age and ill-health that Edward Said called “late style”; that is, “artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction” (Said 7). Certainly, Rich’s last poetry is intransigent and unresolved, which puts the critic, even one as skillful and well-informed as Pavlić, into a difficult position, because he naturally wants to tell a story with some sort of encouraging ending. Rich drew a “serial structure of morphing solitudes” he claims, “out of individuated lyrical ownership and into outward-radiating frames of social and historical human and natural relation. As a result, people drawn into conflict with cultural and political forces aiming to prevail over their lives have a massive and intricate scaffold of alternatives to suffuse themselves with on their ways outward” (Pavlić 195). The mixed images of “suffusion” and “scaffolding,” one liquid, the other material, refer to poems that Pavlić has discussed previously, as well as Rich’s important essay on her own poetic imagination, “Permeable Membrane” (2006). There, Rich speaks of the “interpenetration of subjectivity and social being,” how “poems become suffused, as the existence, the inner life of the maker must, with what’s going on, the breaks in the assumed fabric” that ideologically smooths over the “objective conditions” determining our actual lives.  That “inner life” must be the solitude on which Pavlić relies.  The objective conditions are the Neo-liberalism that has dominated American politics and policy for the last fifty years, with the attendant chronic social and political illness; ceaseless warfare abroad, shameless class-warfare at home, and a relentless assault on nature itself, making our planet sick unto death, as in “From Sickbed Shores”: “From the shores of sickness you lie out on listless/ waters with no boundaries…this dull floodplain/ this body sheathed in indifference      sweat no longer letting the fever out/ but coating it in oil…” (2008). Or, in lines from “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” Rich sees her “problem” as a writer is trying to understand her personal/ historical situation, “to connect, without hysteria, the pain/ of anyone’s body with the pain of the body’s world / For it is the body’s world / they are trying to destroy forever’ (1983-1985).

The “radical imagination is suffused with its materials”—sensations, pain, perceptions, the ceaseless battering of bad news, flashes of beauty. “Suffused,” Pavlić says: “a condition antithetical to what the modern lyric (and modern subject) is all about” (Pavlić 190). He claims “more radical work is done by an anonymous particle in the social mass than by a celebrated symbol enshrined on a pedestal” (Pavlić 191).  Is this Karl Marx? The Statue of Liberty? If not, who, or what?  Regardless, given Marx’s emphasis on “self-creation” and his linkage of private property to self-possession, the acquisitive modern self is a problem that both Marx and Rich hope to overcome. Rich speaks of “Marx’s perception that economic relationships—the relationships of production—will, unchecked, infiltrate all other social relationships at the public and the most private levels. Marx was outraged by the reduction of “the entire web of existence to commodity…In place of all the physical and spiritual senses [Marx] tells us, there is the sense of possession, which is the alienation of all these senses” (Rich’s stress, AP 156). In the “Usonian Journals 2000” Rich comments, possibly with this same passage in mind: “Marx: capitalism deranges all the senses save the sense of property” (2000-2). Under capitalism the “I have” overwhelms the complacent “I am” of modern philosophy. Overcoming the ‘I have’ is what Pavlić’s “Radical solitude” seems to be about. Radical means roots. The roots of the mind are “entangled in the grit of human arrangements and relationships: how we are with each other” (Rich’s emphasis qtd. Pavlić 190, HE 96)—not what I have or what you have. “Ownership itself is part—maybe the foundation?—of the system of division” (Pavlić 140).  

Readers might recall that “A struggle at the roots of the mind” is quoted in “Waiting for Rain, for Music” (2007), the opening poem of Tonight No Poetry Will Serve; it comes from Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature. The most important aspect of Outward for this reader is its emphasis on Rich’s Marxism. For the first time we have a critic who does more than merely mention Rich’s interest in Marx, but one who assumes that Marxian ideas are at work in the poems themselves, not just as references, but as method. Pavlić tells us that “During our conversations and correspondence from 2000 to 2012, Rich revisited Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature many times, especially the last chapter ‘Creative Practice.’” (Pavlić 98). This paragraph in particular; the penultimate paragraph of Williams’s book:

Creative practice is thus of many kinds. It is already, and actively, our practical consciousness. When it becomes struggle—the active struggle for new consciousness through new relationships that is the ineradicable emphasis of the Marxist sense of self-creation—it can take many forms. It can be a long and difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practical consciousness: a process often described as development but in practice a struggle at the roots of the mind—not casting off an ideology, of learning phrases about it, but confronting a hegemony in the fibres of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships (qtd. Pavlić 98, Williams 212).

This fascinating passage appears to be near the core of Rich’s late poetry and consequently near the heart of Pavlić’s book; phrases from it appear again and again in Pavlić’s readings. If we take it as seriously as we should, then Rich’s later poetry—at least since An Atlas of the Difficult World –if not earlier—needs to be read in the lambent red light it shines.

Outward is a very important step forward for Rich scholarship, and a lively read for anyone interested in Rich’s poetry and development. It is addressed to the “kind of mind/ That would address/ Duress/ Outward in larger terms”—lines from “Fragments of an Opera” (2012) that Pavlić has chosen as an epigraph. The University of Minnesota Press is to be commended for producing this book at an affordable price. Let’s hope it finds many readers interested in Rich’s voyage out.

Work Cited

Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible NY. W.W. Norton Pub. 2001.
—. Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich. NY. W.W. Norton Pub. 2016.
—. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008. NY. W.W. Norton Pub. 2009.
—. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. NY. W.W. Norton Pub. 1993.

Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. NY. Vintage. 2006.  



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