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Life’s not forever, love is precarious.
Wherever I live, let me come home to you
as you are, I as I am, where you
meet me and walk with me to the river.
“Going Back to the River,” Marilyn Hacker
Reading Gertrude Stein is a maddening, frustrating, and rewarding experience for me. Recently, I’ve been exploring her modernist novel, The Making of Americans, and flipping through her collected poems. Tender Buttons, particularly the edition from Naiad Press, though, is my favorite. The slender volume that is labeled lesbian and in which I can hear the voices of Stein and Toklas prattling on in the Paris home with Basket, the dog. When I feel timid or uncertain, I ask myself, What would Gertrude do? And I do just that.
Critics talk about the reticence of Bishop’s poems and I understand what they mean, but Bishop is one of those poets with whom I have an intimate relationship. Perhaps that is because in addition to the poems that we have in The Collected Poems, we now have so many letters of Bishop in print. She was a voluminous correspondent. There has also been so much interesting biographical work on her – Brett Millier’s biography and also the lovely book, Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen L. Oliviera. These books contribute to my respect and appreciation of Bishop as a poet and her poems, reticent or bold (Beneath that loved and celebrated breast – from O, Breath!) are a constant source of inspiration to me.
Adrienne Rich’s work as a whole is an example of how to live an engaged, political, philosophical, and poetic life. Her poetry is extraordinary, especially how it has evolved and responded to the material conditions of the world throughout her lifetime of writing. In addition to the poetry, Rich has written some of the most compelling essays of feminist theory. She’s also a thoughtful and engaged critic of poetry, literature, feminism, and lesbianism. I love returning to work of hers that I first read ten or twenty years ago and rereading it. Often there are notes in my books and so in addition to talking with Rich while reading, I am able to talk with my younger self. There has not been a time since I began reading where Rich wasn’t producing something that I should be reading, and I can’t imagine a time when her words won’t have meaning and importance.
I wanted to include one selection in my list that wasn’t a lesbian poet because so much of my thinking and engagement about poetry has come from poets who weren’t lesbians. At the same time, as usually, I want to foreground lesbians. There are so many choices for this spot: Robert Hayden, Donald Hall, Elinor Wilner, Sharon Olds, Jay Wright. I could list poets for days. I choose Maxine Kumin, though, because her work continues to dazzle me. From her early work, I appreciate the poems about friendship and her relationship with Anne Sexton, which have been part of my poetic life since I was in college. Kumin’s most recent work in a collection like Still to Mow continues her fine observations of the world and her political engagement as well as her rendering of relationships keenly and acutely. I would like to live a long and productive life like Kumin.
In 1991 or 1992, I heard Marilyn Hacker read at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa. Afterward I stood in a long line to have her sign my books. I was just twenty-one years old and so smitten with Hacker that when I reached the front of the line and she asked for my name for the inscription, I couldn’t speak. My best friend stepped in to say, “Julie, her name is Julie.” I was able to recover and mumble, “Yes, my name is Julie.” At that time, I was obsessed with Hacker’s novel in sonnets, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, and about to purchase Going Back to the River. Each collection since then has been an inspiration to me. Still, when I finish a new book by Marilyn Hacker, as when I recently read her extraordinary new volume, Names, all I can mutter is, “My name is Julie.” Her work leaves me speechless.
The discipline of choosing five is important, but I must add a few poets who on a different day, in a different light, most certainly would have made this list: Muriel Rukeyser, Audre Lorde, Fran Winant, Maureen Seaton (“White Balloons” — swoon!), Sina Queyras… The list is long. May it continue to grow. May the words of these women receive recognition and attention, care and comprehension. They all inspire me, each day, to read more and to write.