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Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich, Los Angeles, 1991. Photo: Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images.

ELIZABETH WILLIS

WHEN THE POET ADRIENNE RICH appeared on the front page of the New York Times on March 29—two days after her death at age eighty-two—she was sitting just below the fold, an article on Syrian refugees at the Libyan border hovering over her. Beside her, daffodils were growing in London’s St. James’s Park; the US Supreme Court was hearing arguments about health insurance; a fossil foot discovered in Ethiopia suggested the existence of a previously unknown prehuman species. Below her, the “Vogue of the veiled”: a Turkish fashion magazine’s renderings of Muslim life; the failures of the stock market; details of another massacre in Afghanistan.

The resonance of such adjacencies would not have been lost on Adrienne. She was a brilliant reader of surfaces, and of visual culture. Her imagination was—and is, within the present tense of her poems—sweepingly global, but it carries into the global “theater” a vision equally attentive to archaeological depth.

Adrienne Rich’s poems are relentlessly awake to the complexities of representation, but they are less polemical—and more revelatory—than they are generally made out to be. Bringing something into view can constitute its own argument. Her poems often locate us in the aftermath of violence, forcing us to look closely and to consider what it takes to go on. They lead us into ruins, labyrinths, into the sunken slave ships and corporate wreckage lying just beneath the surface of the news. These architectures frame our reading. They build their passages around us.

In her early twenties, Adrienne entered the literary world with a BA from Radcliffe and a first book from Yale University Press’s venerable Younger Poets series, selected by W. H. Auden. A Change of World (1951) was followed by The Diamond Cutters (1955). Both books were praised—one by Auden, the other by Randall Jarrell—for their good behavior. Much of her work that followed can be read as an attempt at undoing the larger authority structures beyond those that launched her career.

As her public recognition and readership grew, the ambition of Adrienne’s writing and the ferocity of her person pushed both her literary work and her civic engagement beyond canonical group formations. In 1974, she was awarded the National Book Award for her collection Diving into the Wreck, an honor she shared with Allen Ginsberg and that she insisted on sharing also with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who had books published the same year. She famously refused the National Medal of the Arts in 1997 to protest the Clinton administration’s decimation of the welfare program and its disregard for the nation’s growing racial and economic divide.

A commitment to action, she knew, comes at a personal cost. Her work asks us to consider questions of “difficulty” that surpass conventional literary concerns. Where does the difficult work of aesthetics meet the struggle for social justice? More fundamentally, how is the work of consciousness embodied in the struggle for something that does not yet have words?

Adrienne’s imagination was catalyzing and explosive, qualities she valued in other people and in their poems. Her groundbreaking essay on Emily Dickinson was titled “Vesuvius at Home” (1976). Like Dickinson, she was concerned not just with what is but with what it takes to imagine the possible. To make of possibility an art. The potential energy of the volcano.

Her use of open form was connected with a desire not to foreclose the human in the interest of individual representation. She was a brilliant writer of the loosely structured ghazal, a form that is anchored in personal loss and longing but that directly engages its audience, often combining direct address with an indeterminate voicing of gender. “Did you think I was talking about my life?” she writes in her 1968 homage to Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. “I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall.”

To say that Adrienne Rich was a feminist poet is to narrow the reach of both her poetry and her feminism. She was deeply attentive to the experience of women, to the conditioned behaviors that shape and constrain their lives, to the depths of their dilemmas and the surface markers of deeper issues, deeper turbulence. But she saw these concerns as part of the larger struggle for social change, intellectual freedom, and art. In fact, the inclusiveness and flexibility of her feminism has everything to do with her poetics. In a poem, a pronoun can be cracked open. A mouth can have two voices, can be gendered or ungendered. Because they have been imagined and have taken shape in words, other possibilities of social life can be assayed.

Adrienne and her partner, the writer Michelle Cliff, constructed a radical household full of sustaining conversation and irreverent wit, a life built around and as composition. In their more than thirty years together, they produced more than forty books of essays, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and for several years, in the early ’80s, they coedited a magazine.

Adrienne’s 1977 essay “The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have Constantly to Expand,” followed by her more widely read “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), led feminist theory toward the then-unarticulated field of gender studies. She rejected the Left’s sense of “correctness” in favor of a more “radical complexity,” insisting that one’s total experience as physical creature, as sexual being, as living mind, must be accounted for. Any system, any theory, that does not allow for such complexity was incomplete, she argued, and thus repressive.

Adrienne read as widely and deeply as anyone I’ve known, embracing influence from many sources, including poets with whose sexual politics she disagreed. She had a deep respect for Charles Olson, for instance, who opened postmodern poetry to composition by field and emphasized the relation between the body and the poetic line. “The will to change begins in the body not in the mind,” Adrienne wrote in her 1969 poem “Tear Gas”: Her line is a further turning of one of his (“What does not change / is the will to change”). Indeed, a sense of interrelation permeates her poems, which are full of conversations with other artists, poets, friends. Among the most striking to me are the poems in dialogue with Jean-Luc Godard, in her 1971 volume The Will to Change, a book of formal experimentation and of questions for the resistance and antiwar movements in America and Europe.

Throughout her adulthood, Adrienne suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. It was a fact of her life, the way a doorframe is the fact of a room. I think of this reality, of the way it framed her experience, when I read her essay “Jacob and the Angel” (2003), where language wrestles with embodiment. Poems can transform consciousness, she asserts, “not according to some pre-ordered program but in the disorderly welter of subjectivity and imagination, the seeing and touching of another, of others, through language.” Over the past few years, Adrienne also suffered from macular degeneration, which increasingly compromised her ability to read and to negotiate the world, an even keener loss to someone for whom physical motion was already difficult and for whom the written word was so central. Her poetry of the late ’80s and very early ’90s was collected as An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991).

In the months before she died, Adrienne expressed sadness that she could no longer scan the spines on her bookshelves. In my last visit with her and Michelle, she asked me to read the titles of the books on and beside her desk. She wanted to be able to place who was with her in the room, to know their nearness.

She passed along a small pink volume to me, saying she would never be able to read it again but wanted to know it was being read. It was dog-eared copy of Vladimir Mayakovski’s How Are Verses Made? (1926), a book full of questions and propositions that moves seamlessly between aesthetic and political imperatives:

To understand the social command accurately, a poet must be in the middle of things and events. . . . Rhythm is the fundamental force, the fundamental energy of verse. You can’t explain it, you can only talk about it as you do about magnetism or electricity.

If the poem is a field of action, surely the poet’s place is in the middle of things as well as on—and in the middle of—the page. To speak not for others but in relation to them and with them.

One of Adrienne’s last poems, “Tracings,” slides between speaking and listening until the two merge:

There were voices here
once, a defiance that still doesn’t falter
Imagine a mind overhearing language
split open, uncodified as
yet or never
Imagine a mind sprung open to music
—not the pitiless worm of a tune that won’t let you
forget it
but a scoreless haunting

Without a score, we improvise. Sprung open to music, the poet enters and voices the line as it takes shape. It is an act of defiance and an undoing. No one is keeping score. The future is unwritten. Which is to say, we have not yet imagined it.

Elizabeth Willis, a poet, teaches at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.