On Adrienne

03/29/2012

I awoke this morning to the stunning knowledge that came last night.  Adrienne Rich is gone.

She died in her home within blocks of me, here in Live Oak, Santa Cruz. My wife Jean met her years ago, at a Sunday afternoon poetry reading at Garfield Park Church, a benefit for our local Food Bank. She had heard that a good poet was reading; it was the girls’ weekend with their father, and Jean was on her own. It was 1997, the year that Adrienne refused the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Jean read that the poet had decided not to sit at the tables of power when so many were suffering. Jean thought that was cool–and feeling her own poetry begin to swell within her, went. It was a brave thing for Jean to do, in her own way; something strange in her family, to choose poetry on a perfectly good Sunday afternoon, over errands or work or other ordinary weekend pursuits.

Jean had also read that the poet was from her neighborhood of Live Oak. Adrienne Rich got up, small and finely honed.  A taut and spell-binding reader, she offered, among other poems, her classic “Diving Into the Wreck.”  Jean says she went there with her, went all the way down, went down to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail. Afterwards she walked up to Adrienne with the collection in hand.  She asked her to sign it, saying “I live in Live Oak too.  We’re neighbors.” “Wonderful!” Adrienne said, and they smiled together, unassuming and true, friendly and common as neighbors are.

“I liked her,” Jean says. “She was nice, just ordinary folk.  She knew I didn’t know anything about her fame and I think she liked that. I didn’t really learn who she was until I started writing with you, and you read us her work.”

I didn’t know who she was, Jean says, but perhaps we all can say that, all of us who have read her for three decades and owe her some part of our lives. She lived in our town, she died right down the street. I remember turning from the deli counter at the local market once and seeing her choosing her bread. Startled, I almost called out. I saw her head rise, saw that she knew what had happened within me, saw her pull into herself, a kind of dread– I smiled as if at a stranger and moved on. I wanted to build a kind of zone around her, something to protect her from all she was to us, so that she could simply be all that she was. She had said too much, broken so many silences, she had opened so much in us. She had been fierce in her insistence upon intimacy and truth–not only with others, not only between women, but within the self.  She insisted we dive into the false layers to something intimate, secret, true, and usually unspoken. She was speaking what we had not spoken, not even to ourselves, perhaps most particularly not to ourselves.

Last night, having just learned that Adrienne was gone,  Jean and I spoke of her in bed before sleep, and I read aloud the poem that was part of our wedding, from Adrienne’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” in The Dream of a Common Language.

III
Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we’re not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.
–Adrienne Rich

Upon waking this morning, I picked The Dream of a Common Language by my bedside, and opened it at random.  Here was this was the poem I came to, also from “Twenty-One Love Poems”:

(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)

Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine–tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face had come and come–
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there–
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth–
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I have been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave–whatever happens, this is.
Adrienne Rich

Stunning. And it is stunning to remember that she published this in 1974, almost forty years ago.  Already an accomplished, award-winning poet of national stature, she defied the established literary canon, which considered women’s lives as uninteresting, and wrote of the intimate and the daily, of marriage and of divorce, of politics, of the flesh, of violence and injustice; and then, having fallen in love with a woman, wrote the truth of her own eros.  It literally broke everything open.

Yesterday, sitting in the car eating lunch–before I knew Adrienne had left us–in my private worries, I listened to a woman on the radio speak about walking the Pacific Coast Trail. She was asked how she did it, what she carried, her food, the wild animals she encountered. Then she was asked what she read. She listed any number of literary writers, Nabakov, Faulkner, books she had packed up and shipped to various stops along the Trail to replace as she walked. But the book she carried all the time, which she read daily and which became, as she put it, her sacred text, was The Dream of a Common Language.

Ah yes, I thought, my book–and how many of us feel that way about one of Adrienne Rich’s many collections of poems, or about some other of her works and essays?  That they are ours, we are intimate with them, that she pulled something out of us that we were missing, the touch of our own skin, the love we might offer ourselves, the turning to our woman’s body, saying Yes, here now, you are home.

This small moment in the car brought Adrienne to me yesterday. I thought how I never see her around town any more, how she no longer offers readings, and I wondered how she was. Of course, even then, she was gone. Then last night, I heard the news. Now I wonder how she is, how this mystery takes her and moves her anew. For an hour after I woke this morning I read her, moved yet again–or in a new way, for I know more now–by the intimacy of her language.  The voice below the poetic voice called me back into some calm intelligence in my own heart. How small and endless our inner miseries can sometimes be. Then a writer calls us into attention. She speaks what is true, in a new/old language, and we are back with life.

This morning, I wanted her words. Before the obituaries, the essays and tributes in the media in the next days and weeks, which I will read hungrily, I wanted only her words. Her words, and my own musings, what my mind might burnish and find gleaming among her memory. An email arrived showing that Adrienne Rich was trending seventh among the top ten Twitter posts worldwide. That means millions of people were sending out homages at her passing. And too, millions more will hear her name for the first time in the coming weeks, and will go searching, reading, and she will be born anew.

Deena Metzger writes that when a person dies their life is thrown shimmering up into the air for a time with great clarity, greater than even was possible when they were alive.  And the truth of their being rains down upon us all in a bright way. And thus, strangely, for a time, we have that person more in death than we did in life. In the next weeks, Adrienne Rich’s life will be thrown up into the sky. Millions of people, like me, will take her work off their shelves and re-read what she has left us. And many of them, I hope, will write. I hope they will write poems and essays and journal entries and blogs and musings on the backs of envelopes.  I hope they will write of Adrienne and her memory, of their grief, of their mourning, of all she gave, of her life, so tender and hard.

Once I went to one of Adrienne’s poetry readings at Bookshop Santa Cruz.   We in the audience lined the walls and the chairs and aisles and sat cross-legged on the floor.  Women mostly and a good number of men, of every shape and size, many young women in their studious glasses and punk hair. Adrienne was impressively introduced with her lengthy list of honors and awards. Then she came out to us, small and pale and dark-haired. She had a pile of books in her hand. These books, it turned out, were not her own. She was painfully aware, she told us, of the privilege that came with her white skin, with her academic upbringing, with her command of what Audre Lord called the master’s language. Too many women of color, too many unknown, working-class poets in small towns were unread and unpublished. For an hour, she read them to us.

So write about Adrienne Rich today.  Write it out, while her life is shimmering all around us: how she and her work are in some way part of your life. Share your writing with a friend.  Send it on to me.  Throw her life glittering into the air, for all to see.

 

Sinking
(for Adrienne Rich)

Yesterday evening mist cloaked the far
pine tree, which earlier had

gleamed sunlight to the smallest
needle, suggesting possibility, new vision––

and by evening you were gone–
though I didn’t know it yet–

and were you gone?–
You who gave voice to the dead,

(should I say voices)
you who gave voice

to forgotten women
whose lives floated

like ragged wires,
bits of faded cloth

until you took them up,
braided them together.

And–are you gone?
Not to say your work,

which will never leave,
or your power, for which

you dove mercilessly–
No, you–you are not gone.

You have slipped below bedrock
to somewhere unknowable–

among the voices,
as you could never have dreamed

when life held and throbbed
your frail body.

Love was your topic: love and power.
And how a woman finds

her work, her art.
How we, any of us, dare to defy

the broken effigies
hanging loosely about us,

while something
true rings within–

you, you
you always dug, to the swollen

place pulsing real pain–which always
led to something gleaming

like a seashell in mud,
upturned suddenly by the torrent–

to which you invited us,
to which you now turn–

saying Ah, I have seen you,
I have known you,

and still,this love, so new,
in the end I did not know,

not like this–another sinking
past bedrock, into all that is real.

 

 

Carolyn Brigit Flynn

 

 

 

 

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