Adrienne Rich continues to change and to surprise. Though her feminist politics and revolutionary poetics have earned for her an avid readership among women and leftists, she resists settled positions and continues to claim a wide latitude in her lifelong search for authentic living and writing. Thus Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1989, her fourteenth book of poetry in a forty-year career, shows her expanding her range beyond the anger, pain, and despair that seemed to constrict her last poetry collection, Your Native Land, Your Life (1986).
Though Time’s Power still sounds the determined notes of personal and political protest that have been central to her work since the mid-1960’s, the book also shows Rich exploring new perspectives—sometimes more serene and generous ones—that have come to her with the passage of time. Published in the month after the poet’s sixtieth birthday, this collection pursues the familiar Rich enterprise of trying to become more aware, of trying to make meaningful connections with others. Time’s/ Power, however, broadens the range of her awareness and expands the circle of those to whom she would like to feel close: They now include her demanding mother, an Aztec goddess, and an unnameable god. Though still insisting on the importance of revolutionary political power, Rich now places this type of force within a broader conception of (as she puts it in the poem “Living Memory”) “Time’s/ power, the only just power.”
Rich does not divide Time’s Power into designated sections, as she usually does her books of poetry, but her placement of the poems suggests three groups, each with distinct emphases and tones. The first nine poems (with the exception of “A Story,” an allegory) are melancholy first-person narratives in which Rich considers problems of communication—mostly with people close to her, often in ways that suggest frustration or failure. The last fourteen poems form a dialectic in two groups, but they have in common a more affirmative and hopeful tone, as Rich presents successful instances of actual or imaginative outreach. (Again, there is one exception: “The Slides,” a strangely grim poem about medical slides that reveal the Rich family’s diseases.) Most of these last fourteen poems reconfirm a conviction that is familiar from Rich’s earlier books: Those people who struggle for freedom and justice constitute a special kind of family, and writing and the imagination can do much to affirm their solidarity. On the other hand, five poems show a surprising new direction in Rich’s work, for she seeks and finds connections not so much to other humans as to the forces and spirits of nature.
In “Solfeggietto,” which opens the book and is a key poem in the first section, Rich addresses her mother—the most immediate source of her own life, her own entry into time. The title is an Italian term referring to a short composition for musical exercise, and the poem explores the relationship between the mother, who was a demanding music teacher, and Rich, her resistant pupil. Despite its melancholy, “Solfeggietto” displays a playful wit that is unusual in Rich’s recent poetry, as she develops the contrast between disciplined teacher and unruly student as an analogy for the entire mother-daughter relationship and for the tension between traditional form and passionate searching in Rich’s own poetry. The cerebral mother wanted her to “learn to read by sight,” while the romantic Rich wanted to “learn by ear and heart.” In regretting that they were not closer, Rich admits that:
even today a scrip of music balks meI feel illiterate in thisyour mother-tongue.
Similarly, Rich suggests an alienation from traditional poetic forms when she describes “the child’s wits facing the ruled and ruling staves”—“staves” being a pun that wittily refers to “ruled” lines on a musical score, to piano keys (strips of wood that felt like a barrel holding her in), and to stanzas (poetic forms that later made Rich feel entrapped). Yet Rich also remembers her mother playing less formal songs that contributed to her emotional development (such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Further, even her mother’s more formal music (such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s English Suites) now resonates for Rich so that she understands “You kept your passions deep You have them still.” As a parallel in poetic form, which further enhances this dialectic between discipline and passion, Rich’s lines alternate between iambic pentameter and free verse. Ultimately, “Solfeggietto,” which begins as an ironic study of the distance between Rich and her mother, ends with a loving tribute and a series of questions that shows Rich’s yearning for greater closeness.
Like “Solfeggietto,” other poems in the first section of the book also suggest that one source of “time’s power” is its ability to renew and strengthen feeling through memory and reflection. Further, Rich places the poems in sequence so that they enhance this theme. Thus she follows “Solfeggietto,” a poem that re-creates the tension between herself and her mother, with “This,” a poem that recalls and yearns to overcome a similar conflict between a controlling Rich and her spontaneous young son. “Love Poem,” with a wit similar to “Solfeggietto,” introduces yet another character who chafes under social control: Rich’s lesbian lover of twelve years,...
(The entire section is 2292 words.)