This fourteenth volume of poems by Adrienne Rich marks a continuation in the decline in her work that has become increasingly evident through the 1980’s. For her verse of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Rich has been justly acclaimed as a major American poet: an authentic feminist who is also an imaginative innovator, in quest of language that would transcend the barriers between human beings. Her last several books, however, indicate that her quest for personal and political truth has narrowed her perspective and stifled the speculative spirit and liberating imagery of her earlier poetry.
In the first of three sections in YOUR NATIVE LAND, YOUR LIFE, “Sources” (first published as a separate volume in 1983), Rich portrays herself as a perpetual outsider: “split at the root . . . neither gentile nor Jew.” After delving into her possible roots in the Jewish half of her identity, she emerges with the sense that she will be forever unable to determine her “sources” racially or geographically, but perhaps only sexually--as a woman.
Likewise, in section II, “North American Time” (parts of which were also published previously), Rich’s “sense of exile in a hostile world” is so strong that it threatens to overwhelm her. Experiences of nature and lovemaking leave little impression, and only the potential of a “child’s soul,” the mutual nurturing of poets, and the unity of women offer glimmers of hope.
The more recent poems of the third section, “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” (written in 1983-1985), add the incessant pain of major illness and surgery to the spiritual suffering of the earlier two sections. The dominant and rather tired imagery is of winter-- of being frozen in a state of trapped, angry immobility.
The major redeeming feature of the book is Rich’s relentless honesty--her unflinching dedication to exploring and speaking the truth of her experience. Also, there are signs of her earlier dialectical energy of mind, as when she considers her yearning for a strong feminist community to be in conflict with her need for solitude. There is hope in the mere fact that Adrienne Rich continues to write--that she has not been driven to silence by her suffering--but one might also hope for less self-pity and barren declaration, and more of the concrete imagery and transforming imagination of poetry, in her next volume.