Express Reviews

Book briefs for the month of December

FOX: Poems 1998-2000
By Adrienne Rich

W.W. Norton (2001), $21

Allusively metaphorical, even dense in places, Adrienne Rich’s richly nuanced poetry pushes readers to think hard about the consequences of public and private behavior. The 22 poems in Fox reveal a mature writer undaunted by mainstream thinking of any sort. “If Your Name Is on the List,” whose subject is willing “to carry off under arm/ and write up in perfect loneliness/ your soul-splitting dissent,” seems to depict Rich herself.

The title poem blends seductive desire with political commentary. Desperately, Rich needs — and wants — engagement with a woman whose experience twins her own, one who has escaped, though hardly unscathed, from subservience and worse. “I was in want of fox/ And the truth of briars she had to have run through,” Rich blurts out; “I craved to feel…/ lacerated skin calling legend to account/ a vixen’s courage in vixen’s terms.”

Other poems uncover moments of intimate feeling for friends, mentors, and colleagues but also for the vulnerable, whomever they may be. “For This,” Rich’s homage to a mentor, offers an image of a lighthouse keeper to convey ethical commitment. “You tend for all or none/ for this you might set your furniture on fire,” she writes, subtlely qualifying the tribute with the word “might.” Two other lines capture the essence of Rich’s own poetry, whose “language uncommon and agile as truth/ melts down the most intractable silence.”

Speaking recently at a local bookstore, Rich paraphrased a poem from a previous collection: A patriot is not a weapon — or a “flag rattler,” she implied; a patriot is someone wrestling for the soul of his country and his own being. But how will the “current silent majority” — those of us who remain mute as bombs explode, or resigned to the squalor of poverty — respond to Rich’s definition of “patriot” and to the questions posed in “Veterans Day”?

This poem does not refer to dead warriors who fought under “glory’s order.” It speculates instead about “what might be due/ to the citizens wounded/ by no foreign blast nor shell.” Downwind illnesses, a “dumpster shrine,” and the eradication of tribal life, “…unpleasant, yes, but Who wants to be tragic?” Rich wonders, when we can have “a buffalo burger in the/ tribal college cafeteria/ and computer skills after lunch.”

A colorful anthropomorphic vixen adorns the cover of this slim volume. But Fox isn’t playful. The poems here are edged with a firm, passionate anger that sharpens Rich’s political message. Multitextured, her words invite reflection, rereading, and response.
Marion Fay

PINOCHET AND ME: A Chilean Anti-Memoir

By Marc Cooper

Verso (2001), $22

There’s a phrase, a mantra really, that keeps turning up in mainstream political discourse on the post-Cold War world, a phrase spoken in such a rush that it seems to be one word: “democratic-government-and-the-free-market.” Marc Cooper’s “anti-memoir” of the election and overthrow of Chile’s President Salvador Allende demonstrates just which part of that formulation Uncle Sam and his indigenous allies are willing to throw over the side.

Cooper, a twentysomething serving as Allende’s translator, was an inside witness to the unprecedented experiment in “democratic-government-and-grassroots-socialism” that Allende’s Left Coalition set, however briefly, in motion. Pegged on such outrageous notions that, for instance, starving children should get free milk, it was an experiment that could not be allowed to succeed. Clearly the electoral, constitutional, and nonviolent character of Allende’s victory was exactly the element that so galled and frightened the Nixon/Kissinger axis, causing them to lend invaluable support to the frankly fascist faction of Chile’s military behind the September 1973 coup and the subsequent Augusto Pinochet dictatorship under which thousands were murdered and “disappeared.” Cooper himself narrowly escaped who knows what fate: His account of the coup — rumor chasing rumor, warrantless searches, and murder in the street; independent radio stations silenced one by one, replaced by the armed forces network playing Prussian marching music — is chillingly claustrophobic.

As a result of subsequent visits, some incognito, Cooper portrays the junta, having liquidated its more obvious enemies, turning Chile into a laboratory for “free” market theory run amok, fevered Milton Friedmanism crunching the very middle class that had hailed the military as saviors. Granting itself amnesty for crimes it claims it didn’t commit, believing the political spectrum acceptably narrowed, the junta slowly released its grip on a by-now chastened society, confident that political amnesia and economic anxiety would secure what the dictatorship initiated. Imagine the shock, then, when Chile’s civil society — and the international justice system — began to call Pinochet to account. Although there is sadly little chance the murderous monster will be tossed from a helicopter — one of his gang’s favored tactics — Cooper concludes that “Chile’s collective consciousness and dignity” are on the verge of recovery, and quotes a graffito: “The forgotten past is full of memory.” This “anti-memoir” stands forthrightly against feckless forgetting.
David Hill

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