Adrienne Rich’s Fox: Poems 1998-2000 is a slender volume containing, in addition to the title poem, longish framing poems at the beginning and at the end. In this, her seventeenth volume of verse, she continues her treatment of her major themes: the discourse between poetry and history, exchanges between genders, dialogues between poets and visual artists, and the persistence of utopian visions.
The opening verse paragraph of “Victory” concerns the hidden spread of cancer, later presented ironically as “a beautiful tumor.” The speaker implies that the cancer, itself a destructive “life-form,” does not want to communicate its presence to “machine-gods”—first mammography machines, but later and, more important, to people who worship and use machines in the name of progress. Society is itself a cancer, “clear-cutting” both forests and indigenous people as people ransack nature for cures, represented by “host” and “lifeboat,” words that suggest healing and rescue. The speaker next states that even the tumor can be beautiful in an obscene way; the organisms are stained “on cathedral transparencies,” the colors are personified as they depict the tumor: “cruel blues” and “succinct yellows” pinpoint the cancer.
The easy assurance to Tory Dent, to whom the poem is dedicated, “I guess you’re not alone” is immediately countered with the more realistic, “I fear you’re alone.” The idea that poetry can provide solace is suggested, negated, and then continued. It is an “awful bridge rising over naked air,” but the speaker’s ambiguous use of “awful” can mean that poetry inspires “awe” or that it is bad or inadequate. Initially, the speaker regards bridgelike poetry as “a masterpiece of engineering,” but it then becomes “too steep” to negotiate. Nevertheless, the poet is compelled to “drive on” because it is only through poetry that she can “find you.” Armed with her poetry, an alliterative “bag of foils for fencing with pain,” she hopes “we” can defeat the cancer, but the repetition of the conditional “as if” undermines that optimism. Although she is not Dent’s relative or her lover, they are a “couple” to the extent that they are involved in “the intensive care/ of poetry and/ death’s master plan.” The use of “intensive care” is at once unexpected and defiant in the face of certain death.
At this point the poet shifts from Dent’s death letter to her own letter from personified Death. She surmises that it will be the same but different: “Do it as you will, you have had your life/ many have not.” Unlike the apparently young Dent, the speaker is older; but in her advanced age she has not “bent to it.” The phrasing is important because it not only means that she has not bent over to pick it up, but that she has not “bent” or yielded to it. “Glued there with leaves and rain,” it has been ignored by her. The German phrase that concludes this section leads to the last part of the poem, which relates Dent to the “Nike of Samothrace,” the statue of Victory that speaks to the poet: “Displaced, amputated never discount me.” The last three lines visually depict the victory over life and death:
indented in disaster striding
at the head of the stairs
Despite disasters, Victory strides, moves, and lives.
In “Veterans Day,” the speaker mourns not the soldier fallen in battle, but the citizen who dies not from “foreign blast nor shell,” but from exposure to lethal gases or fumes produced by his own country. Repeated references to “when the story broke” suggest perhaps the revelation that many returning Gulf War veterans were dying or sick as a result of weapons used in that conflict or, since the body may be a child’s, the news that carcinogens have increased cancer rates. The conflict of “State vs unarmed citizen” is not acknowledged, while those who profit from society’s “progress” continue their activities. The speaker is particularly critical of the academics. One who is the “beneficiary/ of atrocities” blithely prattles on about “the eradication of tribal life” while he ignores what is happening in his own world. The hunted herds of buffalo in the past have become mere “buffalo burger[s] in the/ tribal college cafeteria.” The water in the human body has been similarly transformed and domesticated into “bottled chic.” In the last two parts of the seven-part poem, the poet criticizes the way society “repairs” or rewrites those “stories” which expose past and present atrocities and wonders “what might be due” to our world.
“Architect,” the lead-in poem to...