I was privileged to hear Rich read some of her poetry back in 1973 while living in Cambridge, Mass. All I remember of that evening is the image of a distinguished-looking, gray-haired woman dressed in black reading serious poetry that did not try to be funny or cute. I guess that may be why, when I went through a difficult divorce seven years ago, I found myself reading from this book late into the night, soaking up the unforgettable images, and somehow using these deep poems as a ladder of sorts to climb out of the hole of depression I found myself trapped in.
You know when you have been touched to the core by great poetry: Read, or better, record yourself reading 'Diving into the Wreck', then listen to it some night late when you are in a contemplative mood. Likewise, 'Shooting Script', 'Pierrot le Fou', 'Integrity' or any number of other poems in this book. Unforgettable mythic imagery; deep imagery that resonates with the psyche. It makes not one dime of difference whether you are male or female, since deep inside we're all in some profound sense androgynous.
From 'Shooting Script':
"But this is not the war I came to see, buying my ticket, stumbling through the darkness, finding my place among the sleepers and masturbators in the dark."
"Somewhere someone has that war stored up in metal canisters, a memory he cannot use, somewhere my innocence is proven with my guilt, but this would not be the war I fought in."
Here Rich is not talking about some external war, but a very personal war, her war. As with the great Bhagavad Gita, where the warrior Arjuna turns in anguish to his spiritual guide Sri Krishna for answers while on the field of battle, this battlefield in Rich's poem is the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage. It is a mythic war, inward toward the true kernel of the self.
The criticism sometime leveled at Rich is that she is feminist and overly political. Of course, she does not endorse the images of a culture in which if you're white, male, heterosexual, there is the implication that you 'own' the world and you get to decide what's history, what's literature. She rightly disputes that wisdom. And it's also questionable how one can avoid making a political statement if you write serious poetry; almost everything one does or says has political undertones.
While this particular edition is OK, to contain 50 years worth of Rich's poetry in just one slender volume such as this does not really do her justice. The edition I own is "Poems Selected and New: 1950-1984". That is a much better collection. This edition, for example, contains a much-abbreviated version of Shooting Script, and other key poems have been cut out. For this reason, I recommend that you look for the 1984 version of this book.