Book Review: Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, Adrienne Rich

telephone ringing

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is one of Adrienne Rich’s last collections of poetry. Published in 2007, it’s a collection of poems written between 2004 – 2006. In this collection, we see Adrienne wrestle with both new and familiar ghosts.

This was the second to last volume of poetry that Adrienne produced in her prolific career. Common themes that appear in this volume include death and aging, war, & the impermanence of human life.

Inside the thigh a sweet mole   on the balding
skull an irregular island   what comes next
After the burnt forests   silhouettes wade
liquid hibiscus air
Velvet rubs down to scrim    iron utensils
discolor unseasoned
Secret codes of skin and hair
go dim   left from the light too long

From “Voyage to the Denouement”

The themes may be different, but the voice is still the same. She has a magical way of pairing senses and images in a way that evokes a very specific feeling that I only get from reading her poetry. A lot of her previous work has touched on the frailty and strength of human existence, but I don’t think she touched on the fact that she could cease to exist until now:

The opal on my finger
fiercely flashed till the hour it started to crumble.

From “Voyage to the Denouement”

A few poems, including Calibrations, gave me flashbacks to her earlier works, like 1973’s Trying to Talk With a Man. Almost four decades later, Adrienne is still angry about wars – proving to me that the political landscape and conversations have not advanced nearly enough.

Adrienne creates very sharp, complex, and witty poems. I loved the use of endnotes in this book. You’re able to read through and interpret the poems for yourself, but there is a guide in the back in case you missed some inside jokes. Calibrations, for example, stands on its own quite well, but once you get her hint, you realize it has absolutely crucified Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

When a US soldier in Iraq asked Rumsfeld why they didn’t have the resources and equipment they needed to be adequately protected, Rumsfeld responded:

Rumsfeld: It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter on the part of the army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it. As you know, ah, you go to war with the army you have—not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.—You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and it can (still) be blown up…

Adrienne responds,

Ghost limbs go into spasm in the night
You come back from war with the body you have

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth reminded me most, however, not of other works by Adrienne Rich, but of The Dance Most of All, by Jack Gilbert. The Dance Most of All is one of the most nostalgic and reflective volumes on the passage of time and a life well lived. This collection isn’t as personal as Gilbert’s, but it is fiercely representative of the things that Adrienne has spent a lifetime thinking about.


I would recommend this book to people that are angry at politics but don’t know how to express themselves, to people that like to look up words they don’t recognize, to fans of good poetry.

Have you read this? What did you think?

Additional Reading:

One thought on “Book Review: Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, Adrienne Rich

  1. Pingback: Books I Read in October | Like Bears to Honey

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