Review: “Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth”

Adrienne Rich’s book Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is the latest dispatch from a great American poet who struggles to write moving human speech and penetrating thought in a dehumanizing market- dominated era. As a result poetry is “contraband,” says Rich in her 1998 book Midnight Salvage. Yet poetry also is a genre able to combine the grammar of logic with the poetic expression of emotion. Since the 1960s Rich has used her poetry to address the struggle of people to love, think, and make a living in the evolving social and political worlds. Since her important 1991 book An Atlas of the Difficult World, her poetry increasingly has used a fragmented writing style—torn from previously held solutions—to explore daily life as well as ideals. 

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, written between 2004 and 2006, offers poems about the flooding of New Orleans, the legacy of the 1960s, the use of prosthetic limbs by a veteran, Antonio Gramsci, and a blues song called “Rhyme.” Her New Orleans meditation argues that a person’s action in the moment to save someone, for instance, is a more valuable indicator of character than anyone’s “theories.” Her poem on Gramsci has him noting that gangsterism among the poor as well as decadence among wealthy are equally dissatisfied reactions to a failing social system. In “Tactile Value,” Rich notes that a thinker may write about the shortcomings of market economics, but all theories will fail if they do not account for how individual people’s lives are and how powerful in their lives is sex and love: 


mouth clasping mouth 

what we light with this coalspark. 


Her new book contains many poems foregrounding her own intellectual search through emotional and political issues, generating fragmentary notes on conclusions along the way.  Her poems take the entire democratic vista as their scope. Today that makes Rich an exception in the U.S.  In contrast many American poets focus narrowly on their own emotional lives or call themselves “language poets” and focus on grammatical experiments. As a result, if historians depend on American poetry published in prestigious literary magazines from 2003-2007, they may not know about the Iraq war, the growing scarcity of quality health care, the downsizing of U.S. industrial jobs, or many of the other social changes affecting Americans. 

Rich brings intellectual research into her poetry, along with a strong lyric voice to inflect her work with moving emotions. This twin talent is crucial to her poetry’s success. It also aligns with her message. In the last decade Rich consistently spotlighted the essential force of caring and love needed to rehabilitate dehumanized situations. Rich, in the title poem from her 2004 book, The School Among The Ruins, writes about children living in a schoolhouse during wartime in Bosnia who come together through caring for a stray cat. On the intellectual side, her poem on Gramsci notes that, “You think you are helpless because you are empty-handed of concepts that could become your strength.” 

Rich writes in fragments, a modernist who mixes voices, interweaves settings without transitions, uses punctuation creatively or not at all.  This can make Rich a challenge, even for those keeping up with her work. Telephone Ringing is well worth it.  Like Irish poet W. B. Yeats, Rich may have created her deepest, most rewarding poetry during the latter part of her life. In contrast to Yeats’s late perfection of intricate metrical forms and memorable phrasing, Rich has jettisoned her 1960s and 1970s methods and ideals to reckon with an evolving, conservative America with poetry marked with experimental brave ferocity and replenishing insight. 

At the dawn of the 21st century in U.S. public life, the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. I am taking this phrase from W. B. Yeats, who made this observation in his poem “The Second Coming” during the 1930s. Well, Rich is both our best and most passionate. 

In “Even Then Maybe” she sings —I suppose—about herself in the 60s: 

No, I was not living with her
    at the time 

At the time I was not living 

with him, at the time we were living

I was living with neither of them 

—was dwelling you could say 

But as for living at that time 

we were all living together with
  many others 

for whom living was precisely the

Haven’t seen evenings like that since 

vesuvian emerald to brass dissolving 

—a sentence you’d waited for 

taken back half-spoken— 

Luxury even then maybe 

evenings like those 



Gregg Mosson is author of Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press) and edited Poems Against War: Music & Heroes (Wasteland Press).