TK/B/B: Adrienne Rich on Los Angeles (and, you know, mortality and the sublime and other stuff less important than my beloved hometown), not love, politics, or religion edition. With special bonus Byron footnotes, also referencing mortality and the sublime, but with an intrusion of politics and sadly no Los Angeles.

A couple of days ago, a friend recalled to me the line, attributed perhaps to Anne Sexton, “about how the challenge for women is to write about something other than love.” I replied that the problem was the same for male poets, too, with the addition of politics and god.* Well, Adrienne Rich wrote about things other than love.** So, Katie, today’s TK/B/B is for you. It’s also for me, because I’m going to LA for a few days, and this poem is obviously about LA (if only because the freeway reference excludes everything else, even in California). (I may not blog too much from there.)

In the book I have (and in the one other online version I see), there are a bunch of broken lines, but it looks like those are just for typesetting purposes (unlike in other poems) — i.e., they only come when the ordinary space on the page has run out. So I’ll remove them here — it looks like she had intended it to look like it does below. And one must get these things right.

(from An Atlas of the Difficult World)

He thought there would be a limit and that it would stop him. He depended on that:
the cuts would be made by someone else, the direction
come from somewhere else, arrows flashing on the freeway.
That he’d end somewhere gazing
straight into It was what he imagined and nothing beyond.
That he’d end facing as limit a thing without limits and so he flung
and burned and hacked and bled himself toward that (if I understand
this story at all). What he found: FOR SALE: DO NOT DISTURB
OCCUPANT on some cliffs; some ill-marked, ill-kept roads
ending in warnings about shellfish in Vietnamese, Spanish and English.
But the spray was any color he could have dreamed
—gold, ash, azure, smoke, moonstone—
and from time to time the ocean swirled up through the eye of a rock and taught him
limits. Throwing itself backward, singing and sucking, no teacher, only its violent
self, the Pacific, dialectical waters rearing
their wild calm constructs, momentary, ancient.

If your voice could overwhelm those waters, what would it say?
What would it cry of the child swept under, the mother
on the beach then, in her black bathing suit, walking straight out
into the glazed lace as if she never noticed, what would it say of the father
facing inland in his shoes and socks at the edge of the tide,
what of the lost necklace glittering twisted in foam?
If your voice could crack in the wind hold its breath still as the rocks
what would it say to the daughter searching the tidelines for a bottled message
from the sunken slaveships? what of the huge sun slowly defaulting into the clouds
what of the picnic stored in the dunes at high tide, full of the moon, the basket
with sandwiches, eggs, paper napkins, can-opener, the meal
packed for a family feast, excavated now by scuttling
ants, sandcrabs, dune-rats, because no one understood
all picnics are eaten on the grave?

* Come to think of it, religion is either politics or love, depending on one’s sincerity, anyway. So love and politics it is. And don’t even make me reduce love to politics. Because I can. And Aristotle said that politics was the ruling science anyway, which always gives me warm fuzzies about my official discipline.

** She does have rather a lot of political poems, though. But they tend to be her least brilliant. Most political writing tends to fall far short of the non-political work produced by the same author, possibly because anger chokes off the creative capacity. The one exception to this is Byron, two of whose best poems (Ode to Napoleon and Vision of Judgment***) are explicitly political. But, then again, Byron was exempt from all other rules, so why not that one?

*** Follow the link to the Vision of Judgment, please. Seriously. It’s wonderful. This is actually the poem that caused me to have an interest in poetry at all — I read it and, suddenly, I liked poetry, and loved Byron. The backstory: it’s a satire on the terrible Robert Southey (unreadable Poet Laureate of the period)’s panegyric on George III by the same name. Southey took the opportunity of the intro to insult Byron a bit, and Byron … responded.

An excerpt from the intro, because I can’t resist (the “where he never was before, and never will be again” refers, of course, to heaven) (the poem itself is even better, but harder to just excerpt):

If Mr. Southey had not rushed in where he had no business, and where he never was before, and never will be again, the following poem would not have been written. It is not impossible that it may be as good as his own, seeing that it cannot, by any species of stupidity, natural or acquired, be worse. The gross flattery, the dull impudence, the renegado intolerance, and impious cant, of the poem by the author of “Wat Tyler,” are something so stupendous as to form the sublime of himself — containing the quintessence of his own attributes.

So much for his poem — a word on his preface. In this preface it has pleased the magnanimous Laureate to draw the picture of a supposed “Satanic School,” the which he doth recommend to the notice of the legislature; thereby adding to his other laurels the ambition of those of an informer. If there exists anywhere, except in his imagination, such a School, is he not sufficiently armed against it by his own intense vanity? The truth is that there are certain writers whom Mr. S. imagines, like Scrub, to have “talked of him; for they laughed consumedly.”

I think I know enough of most of the writers to whom he is supposed to allude, to assert, that they, in their individual capacities, have done more good, in the charities of life, to their fellow-creatures, in any one year, than Mr. Southey has done harm to himself by his absurdities in his whole life; and this is saying a great deal.

There will be no greater than Byron on this earth.


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