book Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations

reviewed by Rachel Sage

Published in Issue No. 48 ~ May, 2001

Reading Arts of the Possible will convince you (if you weren’t
already convinced) that Adrienne Rich is the kind of thinker who has
long term relationships with her ideas.  Written over a span of three
decades, the essays in this collection return again and again to a
common set of questions and motifs that Rich has been grappling with
for much of her writing life.  The interdependence between poetry and
politics, art and community, the self and the outside
world — these make up the strands in a years-long arc of
conversation that coheres amazingly well.

What comes across
most immediately, though, is the fact that Rich is first and foremost
a poet — one who puts her poetic stamp on every paragraph.  As
early as the Foreward, you can hear the music of her prose:

Our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of
technological change.  The activities that mark us as human, though,
don’t begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus.  They pulse,
fade out, and pulse again in human tissue, human nerves, and in the
elemental humus of memory, dreams, and art, where there are no bygone
eras.  They are in us, they can speak to us, they can teach us if we
desire it.

Rich says she wants writing to be “out there on the edge of
meaning” but at the same time able to generate
“lip-to-lip, spark-to-spark pleasure.”  So at the same
time that she juxtaposes the rapidity of technology and the dormancy
of human flesh, she also juxtaposes the clipped, assonant compound
“whip-driven” with the slow, deliberate repetitions of
languid “p” and “f” sounds (“pulse, fade
out, and pulse again”), and the slide between the soft word
“human” into the softer “hummus.”


From essay to essay, Rich plays around with other ways to
simultaneously push at the edges of the poetic and conceptual.  For
instance, in “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” she
wants to understand what it means to “experience the meaning of
North America as a location.”  Her description of a journey to
Nicaragua is both intellectually challenging and beautiful:

. . . in a tiny, impoverished country . . . under the hills of the
Nicaragua-Honduras border, I could physically feel the weight of the
United States of North America, its military forces, its vast
appropriations of money, its mass media, at my back;  I could feel
what it means, disident or not, to be part of that raised boot of
power, the cold shadow we cast everywhere to the south.

Rich not only uses poetic language to describe political issues, she
also makes explicit her belief that art and politics are inherently
linked.  Art has “social power,” she says, and so it
shapes, responds to, and questions all social systems.  This means
that her book is politically assertive, sometimes subtly and
sometimes very directly.  Rich often foregrounds the fact that she
writes as a feminist and a lesbian, but much of her politicism in this
book centers on paradigms of economy and power.  In the title essay,
for instance, she interrogates capitalism:

I have been thinking about the self-congratulatory self-promotion of
capitalism as a global, transnational order, superseding governments
and the very meaning of free elections.  I have especially been noting
the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all
this. . . . Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of
capital.  Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this
self-referential monologue put to the question?

Here and elsewhere she expresses her concern with things like poverty,
racism, sexism, and the fact that art has a relationship, whether
acknowledged or not, to these things.  She’s dismayed over the
prevalence of contemporary poetry to be “personal to the point of
suffocation” and unconcerned with the social fabric of which it is a
part.  She’s discouraged to see the culture “eviscerating language of
meaning” at the same time that young writers seem to be steadfastly
clinging to trite and unchallenging poetic strategies.

Of course, tackling such heavy themes usually risks heavy-handedness,
but these writings manage to remain unoppressive.  Along with their
artistic integrity, the essays are engaging because they seem to
invite you into a conversation.  Aiming for dialogue instead of
monologue, Rich is constantly sharing her questions:  “Why do we feel
slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a
relationship?”  “What is this thing called freedom or liberty–is it
like love, a feeling?”  “What kind of voice is breaking silence, and
what kind of silence is being broken?”

It’s especially remarkable that she sustains this conversation
across the broad spectrum of time and place out of which these essays
were written.  Some of them are speeches, given for teenagers at graduation
ceremonies or for PhD’s at academic conferences; one, “Why
I Refused the Medal for the Arts” is a letter to the president
of the National Endowment for the Arts and was published in the Los
Angeles Times; others are introductions, like that of The Best
American Poetry
in 1996.  But at the same time that she tunes her writing
to the ears of these particular audiences, she also always seems aware
of other listeners — us — and includes them in her exchange.

In a recent reading, Adrienne Rich said that as she was putting this
collection together she felt some of her earlier writings sounded
archaic.  It’s true that the later essays are more sophisticated
evolutions of the earlier ones.  But I like this.  Instead of
presenting whole packaged ideas, Arts of the Possible lets you peer
into the process of how ideas stew and develop and change over time. 
And from the very beginning, it’s clear this is what she’s after.  The
first essay of the collection, written in 1971, proposes that
“Re-vision [is] the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of
entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . ”  Arts of
the Possible
does just that.