Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998

Adrienne Cecile Rich, Author W. W. Norton & Company $22 (75p) ISBN 978-0-393-04682-3

Rich's tough, impressive, earnest new volume--her 17th book of poems--concentrates on Rich's past selves and their varied goals and causes. Her well-known, fiercely held political ideals--her commitments to economic justice, feminism and gay liberation--manifest themselves, now, in her sense of passing the torch, of trying to show the readers and writers who will come after her what she has learned and how she learned it. Her juxtaposed fragments, self-questionings and self-interruptions, and taut, Anglo-Saxonate verse lines, let her sound accessible, democratic, inspiring, while making us work to discover her poems' formal secrets. Most of the poems are sequences. ""Plaza Street and Flatbush"" and ""The Night Has a Thousand Eyes"" explore Brooklyn and Manhattan through the eyes and in the voices of Rich's ancestors and culture-heroes: Paul Goodman, Julia de Burgos, Hart Crane. The superbly bizarre, self-interrogating triptych ""Seven Skins"" runs through figures amazing to Rich's college-age self, while the more ambitious, eight-section ""Midnight Salvage"" sorts through bits and images from Rich's past, from the moon between Monterey pines, through memories of Rome (frustrating) and Rich's solidarity with other activists ""when I ate and drank liberation,"" to the risks of polluted food. She continues to blur the boundaries between public slogan-forging and private self-searching: ""Old walls the pride of architects collapsing/ find us in crazed niches sleeping like foxes/ we wanters we unwanted we/ wanted for the crime of being ourselves."" Rich's admirers will recognize the complex symbiosis, here as in her other recent works, between the activist and the maker of new language, each propelling, describing, provoking the other's words. (Feb.)