Home > giving thanks where it's due, in which I write about authors as people, Poetry > On Poetry, Adrienne Rich, and Remembering

On Poetry, Adrienne Rich, and Remembering

A long time ago, I wrote my first poem. It was a prose poem – a poem written in paragraph form – and it was about horses. I was ten.

Back then, I struggled with words – what they meant and what I wanted them to mean. Occasionally, I still wage that battle, when a word sounds like it fits, but its meaning does not. It is a silly war that I can never hope to win. But words, as anyone will tell you, are tricky things.

As a kid, I ate Shakespeare for breakfast. When I was ten or so, my brother bet me that I could not read Shakespeare and understand it. Romeo and Juliet, what light through yonder window breaks? I can still recite Puck’s ending speech from memory. And for one brief moment in college (read: a single scene), I took a turn as Pertuchio – British accent and all. Because I don’t know how to do anything halfway – and accents are FUN.

College, of course, brings us to Adrienne Rich, word-wielder of the highest caliber. I can still remember sitting in a classroom, reading “Diving into the Wreck.” I went home that night and read it three more times, marveling at the use of language, the imagery, and the emotions the poem evoked. In short, I was a mass of walking awe.

Rich passed away yesterday, at the age of 82. Death happens to everyone, I know, but I always feel particularly sad when a poet dies. That voice, the one that plucked words from the fibers of hearts everywhere, is silenced. Not, as you might think, gone. The poems and essays written are still there, immortal. A testament. Because art persists through time. And Rich’s poetry is a rare thing.

In graduate school, I read Rich’s essays on gender and sexuality. Hers were some of the only literary criticism that didn’t make me want to cry in the corner. (Edward Said, you made me apoplectic.) In Someone is Writing a Poem, Rich wrote, “Someone is writing a poem. Words are being set down in a force field. It’s as if the words themselves have magnetic charges; they veer together or in polarity, they swerve against each other.”

To me, that is the perfect way to describe poetry and the act of writing it. That, I think, is how all art is made: lines being read on a stage, a person who is both themself and someone else – giving life to a moment, an idea, a stranger pulled from the dark. Magnets pushing and pulling, creating something.

Sitting here, right now, looking over the texts that were her life – I find that I am still in awe. I doubt that the literary community will ever find her poetic equal. But I am grateful to have been able to read her work, to walk through her lines and phrases, and to learn from her prose. Below are some of my favorite snippets and lines. If you’re inclined, share yours.

  • Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
  • The rules break like a thermometer,
    quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
  • That conversation we were always on the edge
    of having, runs on in my head,
  • the thing I came for:
    the wreck and not the story of the wreck
    the thing itself and not the myth

And, against my better judgment – here is a poem on this occasion.

For Adrienne

There is no wreck you cannot
rise from, no myth unmarked
or unaccounted for, two hands
and an argument –
acute and heavy with purpose,
fingers that knew more
than how to touch and trust,
belonging to a woman
who believed in lit matches
and loaded dreams.

Your mind was an exception
to every rule unheeded, a trail
of metaphors upon the pages
we’ve all tread since, the only
worthy form of trespass (admiration) –
you made a path of precursors
and stirred memories, borrowed,
snapshots of things we never had
a chance to believe in, but after reading
we thought
perhaps we could

The words are purposes.
The words are maps*

each a story,
belonging and not belonging
to the hands that
wrote it,
to the mouths
that dared to eat it,
and to the eyes
that took it apart –
one by one
by one,
within us, a swallowed
tales resides, a monster
of myths, sleeping
just beneath our precarious souls.

We, each of us, saved ourselves
with each lesson learned:
It is okay to speak.
It is okay to seek.
Dive in,
make promises of desire,
honor the absent spaces,
but come home without mercy,
even if you’ve forgotten
the address,
or the arms of those you loved,
and those you pretended to –
revelation is poised
on your lips,
but now those truths
are kissed by silence.

Someone else will have to carry on.
Someone else will have to explore.
We are, you are; we will be,
and you were —
all of us will remember.

*Those two lines are from Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.”

  1. Jim
    March 29, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Poetry is very intimidating for us non-poet writers. I certainly appreciate the beauty of the thoughts, but there is always a nagging feeling that I’m missing something important, that there is some deeper meaning that I’m not privy to, or worse, not smart enough to understand.

    Of course, this isn’t limited to poetry. I also feel this way about visual art. For instance, I like Jackson Pollock, I hate Dali and I’m pretty sure that Georgia O’Keefe didn’t intend for me to feel the way I do when I look at her work. But, if you asked me why I like or dislike a piece, I don’t think I could give you an intellectual answer.

    Anyway, yours is a lovely tribute to Adrienne Rich. And I always enjoy reading your posts on any subject. You have unique take on life and a gift for communicating it.

  2. March 29, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Beautiful. I remember writing my first poem in kindergarten, I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in third grade, I remember my love affair with poetry throughout high school and college (and now), and I remember the first time I read Rich’s work.

    She has been such an inspiration to me in terms of poetry, sex, gender, and sexuality. My heart is broken with this loss, but I take some comfort in the fact that she will live on in her work.

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