Wednesday, March 28, 2012

No poet was more important to women poets coming of age in the 1970's

Adrienne Rich 1929-2012
Adrienne Rich was the most important poet to women of my generation. This isn't the first time I've thought about this, but it is the first time I've felt it so indelibly on my skin, marked as if with a branding iron. All this afternoon and evening the internet has been jumping with women writing of how vital Rich was to their lives --- not just their development as a poet, but the influence she had on who they'd become as people. I'm no different.

Diving Into the Wreck was the first book of poems I read that took my head off. I was still in high school, and had no idea how these words could engage my entire self like a hurricane, a storm of wisdom. I didn't just ingest her work, I wanted to be Adrienne Rich. I knew nothing about her life, I just knew that here was a voice (and I believed, a soul) that knew me better than I knew myself.

It wasn't until I was in college that I had the privilege of hearing her read for the first time. I remember the evening although it was thirty years ago; Rich read in a small church in Leverett, Massachusetts where she lived for a short time.

4 Montague Road, Leverett, MA
Part way through the event some of us noticed that Rich had her eyes lifted up to the balcony of the church as if she were reading her poems to the empty pews -- only they weren't empty. I turned my head and saw Michelle Cliff standing alone in the center of the seats meeting her lover's gaze. It was 1972 and their 30+ year relationship was just beginning.

After the reading I summoned all my courage and with the direct prodding of my roommate, I stood in line waiting to talk to the poet (something I had never been confident enough to do before). When it was my turn I mumbled something about being Ruby Rich's sister (my sister had just interviewed Adrienne for a piece in a woman's magazine). Maybe because of this or maybe because she could tell how painfully nervous I was, Adrienne clasped my right hand in both her hands and smiled so warmly that I can still conjure that moment now. Honestly.

Adrienne Rich was my rock star and I went home that evening ecstatic that I had met my favorite person on the planet. It took me four days before I washed my hand. I perfected the art of showering with one hand outside the curtain.

Since that time I've seen Rich read in Portland and Seattle; I've taught her poems in Cape Town, South Africa and  bought every book she's written. But here's the real secret: Adrienne Rich was a generous poet; a poet who made opportunities for other women poets, who wrote so compellingly of Muriel Rukeyser that she was able to bring her back into print.

Adrienne Rich's presence on the page and in person made me want to be a better person. She taught me that being a poet in the world was a position to take seriously. I remember her writing back to me when Kate lyn Hibbard and I invited her to come read at the University of Oregon. By then Rich was living in Santa Cruz, California. Although she turned down our invitation, she did so in such a way that we adored her all the same. This was 1995 and Rich was still answering every letter she received herself.

When I think of poems that have been crucial in my life, poems that are sustenance -- that allow me to breathe in a world I need to believe in -- it's Adrienne Rich's work that I return to. Her passing has made me already recommit to my poems, to remember that living in a certain way is necessary.



From an Atlas of the Difficult World

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains' enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are. 

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Tonight there is a shared grief for the poet we have lost; may this outpouring culminate in some way that keeps her ideals and her obsessions in our lives. The New York Times obituary ended with this: What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”

7 comments:

  1. What a beautiful tribute to an incomparable poet and human being.

    "Adrienne Rich's presence on the page and in person made me want to be a better person. She taught me that being a poet in the world was a position to take seriously." I couldn't agree more.

    What a courageous and powerful voice she had. What a tremendous loss.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Angie,

    Thanks for writing; I am mourning her loss tonight especially because I can think of no other poet with her stature and generosity of heart -- never mind her poems. From the time she published A CHANGE OF WORLD in her last year at Radcliffe to just two years ago, she was a major presence in the poetry world. And how in hell did she get to be 82? It seems impossible.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I felt so sad on hearing about Rich's death, because her writing helped us define ourselves.

    A lovely, deeply felt tribute, Susan.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, Maureen, I wonder who young women poets go to today?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Passionate and melancholy and joyful.

    ReplyDelete
  6. We follow your deep footsteps, Adrienne,
    leading us through valley rich with your dreams
    to dance with death, and look through your clean window
    and see this same strange world distorted clear
    inside sparkling rainbows of your flying heart.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Blush. I am sorry, I got totally carried away. You both inspired me. I posted the whole song on my site.

    Navigator Of Lost Dreams
    http://open.salon.com/blog/surazeus/2012/03/29/navigator_of_lost_dreams

    ReplyDelete