- The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004
"I reach toward you," writes Adrienne Rich, summarizing thus her first letter in an exchange with Israeli professor Lois Bar-Yaacov published in Bridges (10.1, 2004). The subject of the correspondence is Rich's poem "Collaborations," published in the previous issue of Bridges (9.2, 2002) and subsequently in the collection that is the focus of this review, The School Among the Ruins; poems 2000-2004. "Reaching toward" is also the leitmotif of the anguished and searching poetry and poetics of this collection, enacting as well as asking for "poetry/to embrace all this/—not describe, embrace staggering/in its arms, Jacob-and-angel-wise" ("Collaborations").
"Collaborations" begins by evoking the complicated possessive of Jewish and Israeli national identities in the concomitant claim and distancing of its opening words: "Thought of this 'our' nation." The quotation marks isolating and emphasizing "our" are followed by the direct address of the second part of the poem ("And you what do you write"), then extended in the explicit separation of speaker from addressee in part III ("Do you understand why I want your voice?"), with its implications for a national collective voice. The speaker's command to "[t]ry this on your tongue: 'the poetry of the enemy'" reflects the essential political and ethical stance of the entire collection, affirming even while questioning the efficacy of politically-aware art ("If art is our only resistance, what does that make us? If we're collaborators, what's our offering to corruption—an aesthetic, anaesthetic, dye of silence, withdrawal, intellectual [End Page 126] disgust?" ["Artworks (II)" in "Usonian Journals 2000"]).
John Paul Lederach posits something similar in his recent study of The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford UP 2005), asserting that:
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[t]ranscending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination. … [T]he moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.
Adrienne Rich's The School Among the Ruins reflects that transcendent capacity of this great poet and stimulates it within her engaged readers. The collection experiments with multi-voiced discourse in a myriad of self-reflexive ways, such as italicized print, quotation marks, and "Notes on the Poems" citing sources of other voices speaking through her texts, in attempting to "invent a genre/to distemper ideology" ("Variations on Lines from a Canadian Poet"). The poem "Address", for example, ends mid-question, asking "who …/ do I address who is addressing me/what's the approach whose the manners/whose dignity whose truth/when the change purse is tipped into the palm/for an exact amount without which". The "Document Window" section of "Usonian Journals 2000" reflects on the tentative nature of contemporary discourse: "Could get to seem … the kind of phrase we use now, avoiding the verb to be." In perhaps her most optimistic poem of the collection, "This Evening Let's," Rich reasserts the verb "to be." In lines resonant of Hamlet's graceful "Let be," Rich suggests that speaker and addressee "let a little be" and "let it be a little," inviting her reader to speak, to "[t]ell me this time/what you are going through." All the poems in this book try to augment the "[p]ossible tones of the human voice" against the "fog" that "blanks echoes, blots reciprocal sounds," struggling to "reanimate, rearticulate" a "written literature, back turned to oral traditions, estranged from music and body" ("Usonian Journals 2000").
The School Among the Ruins is also ambitious in its engagement with space and place, as signaled in the collection's title and...