Lifesaving Poems: Adrienne Rich’s ‘In the Wake of Home’

2013-09-10 09.10.50

In 1991 I made the decision to teach part-time so that I could put poetry more at the centre of my life. I was still new to the game of submitting my work to magazines, but had learned enough to get by, quickly making virtual friends with far-off names like Scratch, Fatchance, The North and Smiths Knoll. 

It was a heady time. The drop in my income was now challenged by a weekly list of new temptations: Bloodaxe catalogues, The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, subscribing to Poetry Review. Just as important was a slim red book recommended to me by someone at a workshop, Julia Casterton’s Creative Writing: A Practical Guide (Macmillan). It was like nothing I had ever read, down to earth: honest and passionate. Its pages burst with quotes and one liners by writers about writing and other writers. It was a bit like being invited to a party at a very eclectic and learned Senior Common Room, where all the dons assumed you were as well-read as they were.

One of the book’s presiding and central spirits is Adrienne Rich. The quotations from her work which Casterton chose were simultaneously dense and shockingly clear, alive with anger at history and silence:

The present breaks our hearts. We lie and freeze,

our fingers icy as a bunch of keys.

Nothing will thaw these bones except

memory like and ancient blanket wrapped

about us when we sleep at home again,

smelling of picnics, closets, sicknesses,

old nightmare,

                             and insomnia’s spreading stain.  (‘Readings of History’)

This chimed with Casterton’s own worldview, prefigured in subheadings which had titles such as ‘Conversing with the spirits of place’, ‘Writing your own conflict’ and ‘Writing with the whole self’.

She used Rich’s extraordinary long poem ‘In the Wake of Home’ to demonstrate Fowler’s preferences for writing in The King’s English:

1. Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched

2. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

3. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

4. prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

5. Prefer the short word to the long.

Casterton said: now look how Rich does it.

It felt to me on first reading as though the speaker had somehow intuited knowledge and information about the deepest and unspoken parts of my family history and stripped them bare for all to see. On subsequent readings the voice lost none of this force, gathering in strength and humanity for being so close, so plain and within earshot. It was like encountering a sardonic aunt who takes you to one side at a family gathering to whisper: you kids, don’t believe everything you’ve been told. ‘Look at these adjectives’, Casterton says: ‘family, country, black, old, strange…Note particularly the total absence of adverbs.’

This was not deconstructing a poem as we had done at school. This was saying: there is moral and political and ethical force in the choices of words you make to say what you have to say, so you better use and choose the right ones.

This was writing as committed and serious work. Reading the poem confronted all my preconceived ideas about ‘writing what I knew’. This challenge pulsed in every line. The good news was I now had a yardstick to measure my own attempts at growth.

from In the Wake of Home


But you will be drawn to places
where generations lie
side by side with each other:
fathers, mothers and children
in the family prayerbook
or the country burying-ground
You will hack your way back through the bush
to the Jodensavanne
where the gravestones are black with mould
You will stare at old family albums
with their smiles         their resemblances
You will want to believe that nobody
wandered off      became strange
no woman dropped her baby and ran
no father took off for the hills
no axe splintered the door
—that once at least it was all in order
and nobody came to grief

Adrienne Rich, from Your Native Land, Your Life (Norton, 1986)


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