Newsletter excerpt: What Kinds of Times Are These

If you don’t already subscribe to my newsletter, Postcards from a One-Woman Army, you missed some further discussion of Adrienne Rich. But never fear! I am reproducing it behind the cut.

 

What Kind of Times Are These,” by Adrienne Rich

 

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled,
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light–
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

In the notes to Dark Fields of the Republic, the book in which this poem was published, Rich points to the Bertolt Brecht poem that inspired it: “An Die Nachgeborenen” (“For Those Born Later”), these lines in particular (Rich’s translation):

What kind of times are these
When it’s almost a crime to talk about trees
Because it means keeping still about so many evil deeds?

Rich wrote this poem in the early 1990s, a time when she became increasingly disillusioned about the United States government and its actions both at home and abroad; in fact, in 1997 she refused to accept the National Medal of the Arts because she believed art was antithetical to the “cynical politics” of the 1990s.

In her poem, we see the speaker carefully navigating the present by pointing to, and then away from, the echoes of history: the abandoned, the persecuted, the disappeared. She is painfully aware of the way Americans think of historical sin as something that happens in other countries: don’t be fooled, / this isn’t a Russian poem–stop trying to reassign truth and dread to some other country, where you are not complicit. At the same time, the speaker will not tell you how to find the little moment of pastoral existence she’s found, where grass grows uphill and where mushrooms can be picked, because even this leafmold paradise can be made to disappear. Yet she knows that this is what could pull you in: the promise of something outside of the dark times, some place where you can escape the guilt and despair Brecht describes, where life might exist, for a moment, outside of politics. That promise–that for just a moment, we could talk about trees–is what keeps the reader listening to the speaker; it’s a hook, an alibi, the speaker uses to focus your attention. It’s no coincidence that this is the first poem in Dark Fields of the Republic; it serves as an unannounced ars poetica, telling you what poetic method Rich will use to make you think through the kind of times we live in. When I first saw the astonishing video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” I thought of this poem: to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees. Both Gambino and Rich tease our attention, our desire for escape and distraction, in order to pull us further into the dystopias they describe. And for both, the dystopia is not a fiction: it is present-day America, and it perfuses every moment and every object we encounter. Truly, we live in dark times.

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