Informed more distinctly by a feminist analysis of history and culture, Diving into the Wreck (1973) marks another turning point in Rich's career. In it she expresses her anger regarding women's position in Western culture more directly and alludes to problematic dualities or images of Otherness. Language, too, remains on trial for its duplicitous nature. The book's title poem, one of the 20th century's most significant poems, uses an androgynous diver to examine a culture wrecked by its limited view of history and myth. As with Leaflets and The Will to Change, this book's tone ranges from critical to accusatory. When Diving into the Wreck was awarded the National Book Award in 1974, Rich rejected the prize as an individual but accepted it, with a statement coauthored by Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all unknown women writers.
Rich's essays and poetry from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s have been considered her most radical, in part because in them she rejects her earlier use of androgyny and seems to make a case for feminist separatism. "There are words I cannot choose again: / humanism androgyny," she writes in "Natural Resources," in which a female miner replaces the androgynous diver of "Diving into the Wreck." Rich defines and addresses her villain more clearly: a patriarchical culture that inherently devalues anything female or feminine. The impulse behind the search, however, remains the same: finding a way to "reconstitute the world" (The Dream of a Common Language, 1978). Rich advocates a woman-centered vision of creative energies that she aligns with lesbianism in her essays "'It Is the Lesbain in Us'" (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 1979) and "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience" (Blood, Bread, and Poetry, 1986). She also critcizes the impact of patriarchical culture on motherhood in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Other essays as well as poems in The Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) offer important new readings of female literary and historical figures. Rich's lesbian love sequence, "Twenty-One Love Poems," also dates from this time and is as striking for its sensuousness as it is for its philosophical probing.
The poems and essays fron this period contributed greatly to contemporary understanding of the social construction of gender; they also generated controversy. Critics objected to the didacticism in her poetry and considered her feminist/lesbian vision too narrow. Rich's strategies are more usefully seen as a counterpoint to the pervasiveness of patriarchical culture, which harms men as well as women. While Rich may claim, for example, that women together create "a whole new poetry" in poems such as "Transcendental Etude," her ultimate vision is broader. The "lost brother" Rich describes in "Natural Resources" "was never the rapist," but rather "a fellow creature / with natural resources equal to our own" (The Dream of a Common Language).
Rich's books published in the mid- to late 1980s, Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) and Time's Power (1989), examine her relationship to her Jewish origins and to the men in her life, as well as what it means to be a feminist in the Reagan era. Her landscapes include include not only Southern California, to which she moved in 1984, but laso South Africa, Lebanon, Poland and Nicaragua. She addresses a public "you" held accountable for her quality of life: her parents, her former husband, her current lover, and a self wracked with arthritic and psychic pain. What remains consistent is Rich's insistence that poetry remain linked to a political and social context. "Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history," she writes in the second poem of her sequence "North American Time" (1986). "Living Memory" in Time's Power is a trasitional piece, recalling the poet's past explorations in "Diving into the Wreck" and looking ahead to her future work. The poem instructs:
Open the book of tales you knew by heart,
begin driving the old roads again,
repeating the old sentences, which have changed
minutely from the wordings you remembered.
Rich follows her instructions in An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), one of her most accomplished books of poetry. The title piece, a 13-poem sequence, invites comparison with other long poems of the American experience by Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Pinsky. Its general theme of knowing one's country, however painful and disappointing, continues in Dark Fields of the Republic (1995), in which the poet's examination of
not somewhere else, but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
Rich sees undercurrents of violence in the materialism of the 1980s and 1990s that neither poets nor individuals can afford to ignore. These themes, as well as the role of poetry in political and social life, are also explored in her book of essays What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993).
In her latest book of poems, Midnight Salvage (1999), Rich continues this discussion from the perspective of an aging activist poet looking back on her life. She alludes to several of her previous poems and books, and poses several questions: Has anything useful been salvaged from the wreck of culture Rich has been exploring for more than 30 years? Have art and language served society and the poet well? Do material comforts blind Americans to the lessons of the past? Her questions are not casually answered, and the book's tone borders on despair. "I wanted to go somewhere / the brain bad not yet gone," she writes in "Letters to a Young Poet," "I wanted not to be / there so alone." The "wild patience" that helped Rich to survive into the late 1970s and early 1980s has become the "horrible patience" the poet needs to find language she can use effectively. Images of windows appear throughout the book as if the poet, enclosed and cut off from the world, were struggling to see it clearly. In the book's closing sequence, "A Long Conversation," Rich wonders if it is the "charred, crumpled, ever-changing human language" that "sways and presses against the pane," blocking her view.
Rich is best known as a key figure in feminist poetry. Her dream of a better language and a better world, however, aligns her with the visionary poetess of Shelley and Whitman, and with American transcendentalists such as Emerson. The documentary nature of her work - her poetry of witness and protest - is in keeping with the work of poets such as Carl Sandburg, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carolyn Forché, and the lesser-known 19th-century worsen poets in England and the United States who wrote about social and domestic injustice. Rich's exploration of the points where private lives and public acts intersect, as well as the confessional mode her poems sometimes employ suggests the work of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plash, and Anne Sexton. Her frank discussion and celebration of lesbian sexuality have contributed to a more open discussion of homosexuality today, not only within the walls of the academy but in the culture at large: it is difficult to imagine the work of Marilyn Hacker or Minnie Bruce Pratt without Rich as a precursor. Finally, her insistence in the 1980s that feminism move beyond the white midlle class and be more sensitive to the needs of women of color and of varying economic classes aligns her with a number of poets: Audre Lord, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Judy Grahn, and Irish poet Evan Boland. This is a short list of links and influences, suggesting the complex and generative quality a poetics of transformation can possess. Her uses of anger, domestic imagery, and the poetic sequence or long poem suggest other possibilities.
Rich's poetry is often divided into discrete phases that reflect the evolutionary nature of her art as well as the changing consciousness of women in general during the latter half of the twentieth century. The formal lyric structures and representations of alienation and loss in A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters evince Rich's early affinities with modernist poets. The poetry of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, considered her first transitional work, departs from the formalism of her previous art by using free verse and speaking to women's themes. The title poem, for instance, expresses a young woman's anger and frustration at her banal, limited existence in a male-dominated society. Necessities of Life, Leaflets, and The Will to Change comprise the second phase of Rich's career. Confrontational in tone, these works focus on the relationship between private and public life, openly reject patriarchal culture and language, and reflect her growing dissatisfaction with contemporary society and her increasingly complex personal and political beliefs. These works also feature Rich's experiments with various means of communication as alternatives to traditional poetic methods; for example, "Images for Godard" and "Shooting Script" incorporate such techniques of New Wave filmmakers as rapid successions of images, freeze frames, and jump cuts. Diving into the Wreck, Rich's second major transitional work—considered by many as her finest collection—stands as a radical feminist critique of contemporary society. Many of these poems assert the importance of reinventing cultural standards in feminist terms and point to women's need for self-determination. The poems of The Dream of a Common Language, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, and The Fact of a Doorframe lend a historical perspective to the idea of "woman" and celebrate the accomplishments of women both individually and collectively. They represent, for instance, the achievements and hardships of such historical figures as Emily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, and Ethel Rosenberg as well as Rich's own grandmothers. Other poems, such as "For Julia in Nebraska," "The Spirit of Place," and the sequence Twenty-one Love Poems, emphasize the value of a distinct community of women and frankly present lesbian sexuality and relationships. Although subsequent works expand Rich's feminist ideals, they also address new issues. The long sequence "Sources" in Your Native Land, Your Life, for example, confronts the poet's Jewish heritage and the effect of the Holocaust on her life and work. "Living Memory" from Time's Power focuses on the consequences of time and aging and also meditates on the poet's bond to the American landscape. Through first-person narratives and dogmatic language, the poems in An Atlas of the Difficult World concern such themes as poverty, the Persian Gulf War, and the exploitation of minorities and women in terms of Rich's own personal experiences. Dark Fields of the Republic continues to broaden the poet's themes, focusing on the promise and failure of the American dream, class and gender struggles, and racial inequality. Rich's prose work explores similar feminist concerns. Of Woman Born studies the contemporary concept of motherhood, while On Lies, Secrets, and Silence furthers Rich's feminist aesthetic, most notably in "When We Dead Awaken," which clarifies Rich's call for female self-determination. Blood, Bread, and Poetry examines lesbian issues and addresses questions of racial identity and racism. The essays of What Is Found There (1993) contain meditations on politics, poetry, and poets in relation to larger themes of social, ecological, and political crises of the