Pointillism, Pointedness

"Piece by piece I seem/to re-enter the world," Adrienne Rich wrote 40 years ago. "I first began/a small, fixed dot, still see/ that old myself, dark-blue thumbtack/ pushed into the scene,/a hard little head protruding/from the pointillist's buzz and bloom." (Those are the opening lines of one of her midcareer poems, "Necessities of Life.") In something of a similar fashion, she emerged last Thursday, protruding from the wooden doorway on the stage at Town Hall, entering step by step, a small, stooped-over dot of an old woman, looking not unlike a dark-blue thumbtack (black slacks, blue sweater), walking with the assistance of a translucent cane above the pointillism of hundreds of rapt, round heads—an audience that buzzed and swelled and gasped upon her entry and then collectively stood and applauded. It was warm in there, and the room seemed to bloom. It goes without saying that Adrienne Rich, 73, is one of the country's most important poets, one of the most celebrated, and one of the smallest. She is also, unsurprisingly, a fierce advocate for small presses, and for that reason, agreed this year to launch Copper Canyon Press' 30th-anniversary reading series. After the ovation, the poet Sam Hamill, whose job it was to introduce her, said, "Maybe I should just dispense with this introduction"—he really, really should have—"but since I wrote one," he said, "I'm not going to." He went on to say fulsome and flattering things, for example that Rich's poetry has "changed lives in the kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, and boardrooms of America," but no matter how much he said, it never seemed enough. Since reading Rich in high school and then in college (more work by Rich appears in The American Tradition in Literature, a common college textbook, than by Elizabeth Bishop or Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath), the Nightstand has long thought of Rich as a pack of dark red blood hanging from a hook high in our heart. We would like to take credit for that visual, but we stole it from a description Rich applies to someone in her new book, Fox: Poems 19982000. "This week marks an anniversary and a watershed," she said. She had trenchant things to say about America's current government (she always does), specifically about "this administration's cynical seizure" of the opportunity to exploit public fear and "distract us from longtime internal injustice here" in the United States. Aside from her opening remarks, she read exclusively from her new poetry. We regret that we don't take better notes. She was sincere and severe, but not entirely humorless. At one point, she was explaining the different levels of hell in Dante's Inferno to the crowd, who were at the time experiencing their own version of it (can something be done about Town Hall's ventilation problem?), when, instead of saying, "Each hell is a different kind of sinner being punished," she said, "Each hell is a different kind of sinner being published." It was a slip of the tongue, but she enjoyed it more than anyone. cfrizzelle@seattleweekly.com

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