April 28, 2012

The death of Adrienne Rich

I don't know why it surprised me to learn that the American poet Adrienne Rich, who died last month, was 82. She'd been around as long as I can remember, already a star voice in the American poetic firmament and in the feminist movement before I even came of age. But I stopped hearing about her after I left America for Europe, where women writers seemed to be more interested in celebrating their sexuality - which for many in those years, including Rich, for the first time could be unapologetically gay, than about things like turning down prizes because you don't want your art to "decorate the table of the power that holds you hostage" -- in the words of one of Rich's grand refusals, that of the National Medal of Arts, which she would have received from the hands of Bill Clinton, no less. Or maybe, more likely, they just weren't being offered any medals in their countries.

In the glimpses I had of her over the years, photos on the covers of poetry collections encountered in second-hand bookshops and the like, she never seemed to age, possibly because her look, which I'm not sure if she cultivated or not, was so elfin and androgynous. Her poems became ever more nervy and glowering -- I borrow these adjectives from one of her most famous poems, "Snapshots of a daughter-in-law", the one announcing the rupture between the old and new ways of being a woman -- she grew ever more elfin and androgynous, her eye remained ever as merciless, her wit ever as sharp (or, as WS Merwin said about her, quoted in the Washington Times obituary, "All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth”) but in the end her body did become old, and ill, enough to die.

There is an Adrienne Rich poem that I love. It's called "Diving into the wreck" and it was written in 1973. You can hear Anne Waldman read it aloud on the Poets.org website, which sounds as though it would be wonderful, but actually she muffs it up right in the very first or second line, and I decided I preferred reading it by myself. On the Modern American Poetry site from the University of Illinois, there is a page devoted to this poem, where a number of noted women poets and writers give their takes on it. I liked this one from Ruth Whitman:

"I believe that Diving into the Wreck is one of the great poems of our time. It is a poem of disaster, with a willingness to look into it deeply and steadily, to learn whatever dreadful information it contains, to accept it, to be part of it, not as victim, but as survivor." (Harvard Magazine, 1975).

The other thing people who weren't around then, or too young to have noticed, need to know about the seventies is that, for example, on American television you could see commercials for a wonderful tonic for tired housewives which would show them taking a swig and then doing their chores with a smile (it was 20% alcohol), which culminated with the husband putting his arm around her and saying to the camera "My wife. I think I'll keep her."

Disaster is the right word. Adrienne Rich survived and gave us her testimony.

Diving into the wreck
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

April 24, 2012

It's World Book Day!

It's April 23rd and that means it is Shakespeare's birthday (presumed), the day Miguel de Cervantes died, and World Book Day!
World Book Day is a yearly event observed in over 100 countries, which UNESCO started up in the last century (that's 1995) to celebrate books and reading; and yes, publishing and copyright too, although I'm going to go with my heart here and do some celebrating of reading.

Here's the display the talented Melissa Clairmont made for the joy of Central Library customers and staff, inviting us to enjoy books, books about books, and books as works of art:

The Times of India today featured a top story from Chennai about World Book Day which burst forth with a great quote from Somerset Maugham, "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."

An instant to cheer that, and I was already intrigued by what followed it: "For once, we are in complete agreement as bibliophiles across the planet cheerfully observe World Book Day today". For once, what? For once we agree with Somerset Maugham? Or, for once all of us here in the Times news room agree on something? I'll go with the latter: hot-headed reporters ("How can you recommend that trash!") roundly deciding to stop arguing about the newly-announced IMPAC shortlist, leave an hour early and go home and read a novel.

Each year during New Zealand Book Month we ask readers visiting the library to comment on "The book that rocked your world", and I've just this week gotten time to read all the submissions. I'm always pleased by the variety of answers we get. It's fun to see how many different kinds of reading people are doing out there, and how many different kinds of ways books can surprise people. World Book Day seems an appropriate time to share some of them.

We had (maybe this was my overall favourite, incurable romantic that I am) Love in the time of cholera, with the comment "I am hoping my true love will return to me when I'm older" and (well, actually maybe this one is my favourite) Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy, about which Agustiah said "Its analogy of little frogs living inside bromeliads awoke me from isolated life/culture."

We had stories on stories. Daniel on The giver by Lois Lowry: "Taught an 11-year-old that books can be powerful and I've been reading ever since." and Makyla on The Land of O by Maurice Gee: "My father read it to me as a child one summer holiday. I was so excited about the sequels I read them myself - and so began a lifelong love of books and reading."

I loved the combinations from the people who couldn't name just one. Ritesh had three: The power of your subconcious mind, Think and grow rich, and The way of the peaceful warrior, and then there was a great duo from Irina: How to win friends and influence people and War and Peace ("If everyone could read these books, the world would be better").

Some of the other choices were Sophie's world by Jostein Gaarder (Tami: "It got me thinking about the universe in a new way when it introduced me to philosophy"), the vintage classics Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice (the comments for these signed with the same last name, two sisters perhaps?) and the modern classic The Handmaid's Tale (Vani: "It made me see myself as a woman with responsibility for future generations"), Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan (Dan: "This book reveals the meaning of life. Cool huh"), an Atlas Shrugged (there is always an Ayn Rand novel -- my comment, not the reader's), the Diaries of Anaïs Nin (there isn't always but there should be), Kazuo Ishiguro's dystopian novel Never let me go, and two wonderful outliers, The womanly art of breastfeeding ("It changed my way of mothering and even my career, and healed my past hurts") and Factory physics, a book which, like Gaul, is divided into three parts:

I. The Lessons of History; II. Factory Physics; and III. Principles in Practice. The scientific approach to manufacturing and supply chain management, developed in Part II, is unique to this text. In addition to enhancing the historical overview of how these systems evolved, the authors show explicitly how users can achieve Lean Manufacturing objectives (faster response, less inventory) using the integration aspects of MRP/ERP/SCM systems along with the variance analysis methods of Six Sigma. Factory Physics provides the overarching framework that coordinates all of these initiatives into a single-focused strategy. (Google Books)

Cool huh.

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