Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012)

“No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness. When we allow ourselves to believe we are, we lose touch with parts of ourselves defined as unacceptable by that consciousness; with the vital toughness and visionary strength of the angry grandmothers, the shamanesses, the fierce marketwomen of the Ibo’s Women’s War, the marriage-resisting women silkworkers of prerevolutionary China, the millions of widows, midwives, and the women healers tortured and burned as witches for three centuries in Europe.”

Adrienne Rich, from “What Does a Woman Need to Know?”

***

Twenty-One Love Poems, Poem #5
by Adrienne Rich

V.
This apartment full of books could crack open
to the thick jaws, the bulging eyes
of monsters, easily: Once open the books, you have to face
the underside of everything you’ve loved—
the rack and pincers held in readiness, the gag
even the best voices have had to mumble through,
the silence burying unwanted children—
women, deviants, witnesses—in desert sand.
Kenneth tells me he’s been arranging his books
so he can look at Blake and Kafka while he types;
yes; and we still have to reckon with Swift
loathing the woman’s flesh while praising her mind,
Goethe’s dread of the Mothers, Claudel vilifying Gide,
and the ghosts—their hands clasped for centuries—
of artists dying in childbirth, wise-women charred at the stake,
centuries of books unwritten piled behind these shelves;
and we still have to stare into the absence
of men who would not, women who could not, speak
to our life—this still unexcavated hole
called civilization, this act of translation, this half-world.

***

“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul–and not just individual strength, but collective understanding–to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

– Adrienne Rich, “Invisibility in Academe”

***

Nights and Days
by Adrienne Rich

The stars will come out over and over
the hyacinths rise like flames
from the windswept turf down the middle of upper Broadway
where the desolate take the sun
the days will run together and stream into years
as the rivers freeze and burn
and I ask myself and you, which of our visions will claim us
which will we claim
how will we go on living
how will we touch, what will we know
what will we say to each other

Pictures form and dissolve in my head:
we are walking in a city
you fled, came back to and come back to still
which I saw once through winter frost
years back, before I knew you,
before I knew myself.
We are walking streets you have by heart from childhood
streets you have graven and erased in dreams:
scrolled portals, trees, nineteenth-century statues.
We are holding hands so I can see
everything as you see it
I follow you into your dreams
your past, the places
none of us can explain to anyone.

We are standing in the wind
on an empty beach, the onslaught of the surf
tells me Point Reyes, or maybe some northern
Pacific shoreline neither of us has seen.
In its fine spectral mist our hair
is grey as the sea
someone who saw us far-off would say we were two old women
Norns, perhaps, or sisters of the spray
but our breasts are beginning to sing together
your eyes are on my mouth

I wake early in the morning
in a bed we have shared for years
lie watching your innocent, sacred sleep
as if for the first time.
We have been together so many nights and days
this day is not unusual.
I walk to an eastern window, pull up the blinds:
the city around us is still
on a clear October morning
wrapped in her indestructible light.

The stars will come out over and over
the hyacinths rise like flames
from the windswept turf down the middle of upper Broadway
where the desolate take the sun
the days will run together and stream into years
as the rivers freeze and burn
and I ask myself and you, which of our visions will claim us
which will we claim
how will we go on living
how will we touch, what will we know
what will we say to each other.

***

According to Adherents.com, Adrienne Rich “was reportedly a self-identified pagan or Neo-pagan.”  While this wouldn’t surprise me in the least, they unfortunately do not cite a source for this information.  So if anyone else out there can verify this assertion, please let me know in the comments!  At any rate, regardless of her specific spiritual beliefs, Adrienne Rich is one of my favorite poets and one of my heroines, and I feel she should be remembered and honored on this day.

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3 Comments

  1. Brendan

     /  May 18, 2012

    I was recently discussing poetic-pantheons with a friend, and Rich was one of her fixed divinities. I will certainly have to look into her work soon. By the way, in /Poem #5/, is Kenneth Mr. Rexroth himself?

    Reply
    • Rich is certainly worthy of reverence. I have long adored her work, and she is one of Pandora’s heroines as well. She often wrote about the importance of H.D. in her life as a precursor. The Norton Critical Edition of her selected poems (which also contains some of her wonderful essays!) is an excellent place to start. I think the Kenneth referred to in that poem might be the poet Kenneth Koch, who was a contemporary of Adrienne Rich. They were actually undergraduates together at Harvard, at the same time as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, George Plimpton,and quite a few other writers of note.

      Reply

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