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Adrienne Rich, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics
When I heard today that Adrienne Rich had died, I went to my disorganized shelves and started pulling out her books. I found twelve of them, and I know that I’ve got more that I’m not putting my hands on. Rich’s work has been an enormous force in my inner life ever since my older brother gave me a copy of her book Diving into the Wreck more than thirty years ago, when I was still in high school. I have it open on the table beside me now. It begins with an epigraph from George Eliot: There is no private life which is not determined by a wider public life. So, then, I’ll try again, stumbling, to say it: since I was eighteen, the poetry and essays of Adrienne Rich have profoundly shaped how I experience myself and the world (false dichotomy, messy distinction) as a writer, as a lesbian, as a white U.S. citizen, as a person getting out of bed in the morning.
That last is literally true. I’ve got a poster of Rich on the wall in my kitchen, covering the hole for the chimney of an old stove. I took it off a door in an obscure corridor of a building at the University of Massachusetts when I was going back to my job after hearing her give a lecture called Arts of the Possible, later the name of a collection of her essays. In that lecture, given in 1997 (Someone wrote “TODAY” in red magic marker on my poster), she said:
Over the past two decades or less, we have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers—finally, a society accused by the highest incarceration rate in the world. We dangle over an enormous gap between national propaganda and the ways most people are actually living: a cognitive and emotional dissonance, a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.
Her work was tough-minded, brave and brilliant. Reading it, listening to her, I felt that she engaged the world with everything she had. Her work never failed to engage me, and to challenge me to see more, admit more, to take some kind of action. I know that I’m far from alone in this. Her voice, her words have come to me, and come back to me, over and over at crucial moments of my life.
I keep touching the first books of hers I bought for myself: The Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. They have warm ivory-colored covers with textured paper. As physical objects and as poetry, they are charged, for me, with a sense of discovery and desire, with my first conscious efforts to share erotic life with other women and to write. Adrienne Rich and Michele Cliff were editors and publishers for two years of the lesbian feminist journal, Sinister Wisdom, which still exists today. That journal published my first poem, not long after they moved on. My friends and I sat in a circle in the living room of a rented house and read Rich’s essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” aloud to each other. When I first tried to write about fatness and being a fat woman, a subject that would engage me for four books and hasn’t let go of me even now, I began with a quote from “Women and Honor”:
When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.
When, on the cusp of another millennium, someone responded to one of my essays with a letter full of hatred that knocked me for a loop, friends helped me organize a Speak-Out Against Fat Hatred in response. One of them sent an excerpt from Rich’s “Transcendental Etude” to rouse and comfort me. A character quotes Adrienne Rich on page two of my most recent novel. When I started to think about writing about Puritans, I reread Rich on the poet Ann Bradstreet. When I started to think about writing about nineteenth century New England, I reread Rich on Emily Dickinson. I just searched my computer for references for Rich, and was startled to see a quote from her in notes for a blog post that I was working on yesterday. Her work is so much part of the air I breathe that I had forgotten it was there.
In the introduction to her book of essays, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Adrienne Rich wrote:
I knew—had long known—how poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire. And, in spite of conditions as large, it seemed to me that poetry in the United States had never been more various and rich in its promise and realized offerings. But I had, more than I wanted to acknowledge, internalized the idea, so common in this country, so strange in most other places, that poetry is powerless, or that it can have nothing to do with the kinds of powers that organize us as a society, as communities within that society, as relationships within communities. If asked, I would have said that I did not accept this idea. Yet it haunted me.
Any time that I am ambitious enough to try – in poetry, fiction or essays–to restore numbed zones to feeling, I am drawing on Adrienne Rich. I know that I have barely taken in the fact of her death, but one thing it means to me is that I have to try harder, to work in a more deep and committed way to do bring those tremendous shivers of truth into words. If she’s not here to do it, those of us shaped by her work have to try. When I’m afraid of something that’s happening in the world or overwhelmed by a knotty challenge in my work, I often hear the voice of one of her poems, “Coast to Coast,” in my head. Send some thing back.
If you can read and understand this poem
send something back: a burning strand of hair
a still-warm, still-liquid drop of blood
thickened from being battered year on year
send something back.
It is an invitation. It is a duty. It is a way to honor and mourn. Send something back.