W.W. Norton (2004), $22.95
Northern California poet Adrienne Rich always steers us straight into disasters -- from the forceful Diving Into the Wreck, which established her voice in American poetics, to her latest, the school among the ruins. Comprising works from 2000 to 2004, the book makes acute observations about language, American identity, and the catastrophes of war. Whether lamenting the garishness of modern culture or condemning the war on terror, Rich remains a poet of impeccable principle and unwavering conscience.
That said, the lessons presented in school ask much of the reader, mostly because of Rich's acrobatic presentation. Many revelations come to life through willfully fragmented language, scattered thoughts, and poems that are as complex as the topics they address. The title piece is a perfect example, and it might be the collection's most heartbreaking offering. Debuted as a response to Laura Bush's "Symposium on Poetry and the American Voice" (which inspired the rebellious Poets Against the War uprising), the narrative follows a teacher in a war-torn school, knowingly located in "Beirut.Baghdad.Sarajevo.Bethlehem.Kabul. Not of course here," where "the whole town flinches/ blood on the undersole thickening to glass," "children sleep/ in the classrooms," and "pitiless pilotless things go shrieking/ above us."
When Rich returns to life "here" the poems are quieter but no less poignant. A series titled "Ritual Acts" brings some of the most lyrical moments, with a grab bag of topics including protest, sexuality, education, love, and urban living. When she concludes these rituals with "We would like to show but not to be obvious/ except to the oblivious/ We want to show ordinary life/ We are dying to show it," we, as readers, are convinced.