... allows us to meet this prickly poet fresh and entire. It’s the first proper biography of her, and there’s a lot to unpack. This is a good story well-told ... If Holladay’s solid biography has a weak spot, it’s that she makes it difficult for anyone to criticize Rich’s work, for any reason whatsoever, and not be thought complicit in the grinding machinery of misogyny ... Holladay is a sensitive reader of Rich’s poetry. She also explicates Rich’s windswept moods.
Which of these women was the real Rich? The dutiful daughter, the star undergrad, the excellent cook? Or the political poet who used every platform she had—and she had many—to criticize violence in all its forms? This is the question that the scholar and writer Hilary Holladay poses in The Power of Adrienne Rich, the first biography of the poet and, one hopes, not the last. 'Who was she? Who was she really?' Holladay asks near the end of the book. Her question recalls a claim she makes in the preface, where she argues that Rich never felt she had a 'definitive identity,' and that 'the absence of a fully knowable self'—a 'wound,' in Holladay’s words—spurred her on, to both self-discovery and creative success. According to Holladay, the only secure identity Rich ever found was in her art. 'That is who and what she is,' Holladay concludes.
Now comes Hilary Holladay’s taut, engaging The Power of Adrienne Rich, which plumbs the career of one of our more complex writers and activists, who, early on, tracked along the same trajectory as Plath and Sexton, but then rocketed into an orbit that blended poetics with politics in dazzling, uncompromising fashion ... The poet’s swerve toward enjambment and erasure of punctuation were political acts; and as politics became Rich’s lodestar, so did her compulsive need to discover herself: 'It was always the Jew in her, even before the woman, the lesbian … who yearned and needed to be heard and seen. … She had made a Talmud of her life, the multiple meanings of which demanded endless study, debate, and interpretation.' The Power of Adrienne Rich announces its thesis in its title, but Holladay is a fair-minded and meticulous critic of the poet’s life and art. This elegant, assured biography underscores Rich’s essential place in our literary pantheon.