Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

Reading Rich’s obituary in the Times last Thursday, I had two startling and humbling realizations: first, that Rich’s life paralleled and sometimes intersected with my own in odd and surprising ways; second, that she too was deeply troubled and even embittered by the literary establishment. From her New York Times obituary:

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter […] she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

In addition to our avocations, the odd parallels between her life and my own have to do with geography and also with love. In college, folks used to refer to me and my girlfriend as Adrienne and Audre. Quick used to go to parties in Boston with Audre Lorde, Rich’s girlfriend. Both Rich and I traveled between the coasts. We both railed against facts of American society that most people seem to take for granted.

The biggest difference, of course, between Ms. Rich’s life and my own is that she succeeded in storming the walls of the literary establishment — the same walls that have rebuffed my own advances.

Five days after her death I stood on the beach in Santa Cruz, the town she died in at the age of 82. I wonder what weird twists of fate wove our lives in parallel to one another, never quite intersecting, and called us both to journey from the placid waters of Long Island Sound to the crashing waves of the Pacific. I never even dared to hope to meet her in person. But that doesn’t stop her from being my ancestress, the one who dove into the wreck before me, found some way to navigate the murky waters, and held up a light for me to follow.

Kellie Elmore: Autumn’s Apology

I got up to close the window
and saw her
she was spinning in the yard
and painting the leaves on my trees

sorry I was late

— Kellie Elmore, Autumn’s Apology

Olga Broumas: Leda and Her Swan

You have red toenails, chestnut
hair on your calves, oh let
me love you, the fathers
are lingering in the background
nodding assent.

I dream of you
shedding calico from
slow-motion breasts, I dream
of you leaving with
skinny women, I dream you know.

The fathers are nodding like
overdosed lechers, the fathers approve
with authority: Persian emperors, ordering
that the sun shall rise every dawn, set
each dusk. I dream.

White bathroom surfaces
rounded basins you
stand among
hair, arms, my senses.

The fathers are Dresden figurines
vestigial, anecdotal
small sculptures shaped
by the hands of nuns. Yours

crimson tipped, take no part in that
crude abnegation. Scarlet
liturgies shake our room, amaryllis blooms
in your upper thighs, water lily
on mine, fervent delta

the bed afloat, sheer
linen billowing
on the wind: Nile, Amazon, Mississippi.

— Olga Broumas, from Beginning with O (Yale Series of Younger Poets). Yale University Press, 1977

This poem was posted on the WOM-PO list recently, and reminded me of a few different things in quick succession:

  • Sappho’s Gymnasium, a volume that Olga Broumas wrote with T Begley in the early 1990s (when lesbianism was chic and feminism didn’t involve DIY cocktails, ruffled aprons, or Sarah Palin), and which my fellow Helicon editor Tony Lauren gave to me as a graduation present.
  • Re-appropriation: it worked for the Christians who told and re-told the ancient pagan myths, and it worked for the second-wave feminists who told and re-told the canon of their forefathers. Stories always change, even when the same person tells them. We forgot the plastic nature of storytelling when we started writing things down. And now that we’re moving from print back to digital space, the stories — and the histories — are becoming plastic, relativist, even biased again. The New York Times is making way for blogs and twitter.
  • I’m never going to win the Yale Younger Poets series. Two days ago, as we walked around the Fresh Pond Reservoir, a fellow poet and I discussed the whys and wherefores of writing. Writing as refuge. How can I make writing my refuge and still have ambitions to see my poems in print? Am I willing to do the work? Is it the work I was really put here to do? I guess not, or I’d be doing it right now. And still I harbor the ambition.

Mohja Kahf: The Marvelous Women

Below is a good example of why editors are important at every step of the publishing process.

All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens.
They are marvelous
and they are my friends.

My friends give me poetry.
If it were not for them
I’d be a seamstress out of work.
They send me their dresses
and I sew together poems,
enormous sails for ocean journeys.

Her gorgeous paean to her marvelous friends continues, until just at…

Come with me, come with poetry
Jump on this wild chariot, hurry–

…the page numbers skip from 52 to 21. I flip through the entire edition — lent to me by a man who attended one of my 2009 salons, then moved away before I could return it — and find pages 21 to 52 repeated twice, then a skip to page 85. I wanted to get on that wild chariot, dammit!

Pages 52 through 85 forever lost in this edition, suspended in limbo, caught in the aether. Someone in the comments below has provided the missing text. I’ve removed the rest of the lines above because I don’t want to be accused of stealing her work — please check out Kahf’s book Emails from Scheherezad for the full text. I’m sure the mistake has been corrected.

Finding this flaw, I think of three things in quick succession: the importance of editors, how poetry and writing is a group effort in some way, even as it is a solitary act. And how mistakes must have happened even before 1995, before the advent of the Internets and e-books and e-readers and the growing respectability of self-publishing. And how social media and the Internet have simultaneously connected us and isolated us. And I want to know the end of the poem.

The poet is Mohja Kahf, the name of the poem “The Marvelous Women,” the name of the book E-Mails from Scheherazad, the publisher University Press of Florida. I suppose I might find the full text through a simple Google search, might even be able to contact the poet (her bio, circa 2002, places her at the University of Arkansas). But part of me revels in the mystery, the hovering moment of a poem cut off before its conclusion.

Katie Peterson, Sore Throat, Inspiration, the Cycle of Percussion

The Boston Review has been sending me messages on Facebook every day for National Poetry Month (or NaPoWriMo, as the more intarweb-geek among us have been calling it). My initial reaction was just “too much poetry.” It felt like work, especially since I have a very complicated relationship with writers’ community in general. I’ve also been known to focus on the negative instead of the positive. And there was a song about that.

So I was reminded that reading other poets — and looking at art in general — can instigate a cycle of percussion that John Updike once described in a story we read when I was studying 11th grade English with Mr. McWilliams. Updike’s story went something like this: the pianist hits the key, which causes the hammer to hit the string, which sends out a sound wave that travels through the air to hit the eardrum of a listener, which causes a whirl of percussion in the listener’s brain, resulting in the pen hitting the paper, perhaps resulting in a poem or a story that inspires a musician to write down some music, which a pianist then plays…

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I do find the work of others inspiring, in spite of myriad disappointments and roiling resentments. I forget, sometimes, that I could be one of those poets with the long list of publications after their name, if I just did the work–the very very hard work–of putting pen to paper, and revising, and editing, and researching publications, and sending out submissions, and exposing oneself to criticism and rejection but also to acclaim and acceptance.

Katie Peterson says something similar, slightly macabre, about percussion, and memory, and reminders, and tangents, and hopelessness, and returns:

Sick in bed with a sore throat
I can’t get out of my mind
the image of the cat
harpsichord from the 18th century‚
soothing a prince with laughter.

Full poem here:

Grace, by Cecilia Woloch


When I think of how you move —
when you enter a room, how the room
enters you; when you step out
into the night, how the night sky
falls into your hair —

when I think of how you stand
as if with nothing in your hands
and I have nothing to offer you now
save my own wild emptiness —

when I think of how you leave
the air untouched and how you came
into the world my grief had wrecked
and made it shine again by simply
walking slowly through the dark

toward me — love, I think
the body is a miracle, that animal
whose graceful shadow
lies between us, calmed.

— Cecilia Woloch
From Narcissus. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2006.