"'I know you are reading this poem': Appreciating Adrienne Rich"
I first read one of Adrienne Rich's poems when I was in junior high school. I remember the book; it was Perrine's Sound and Sense. And I remember the poem: "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers." This poem, from her very first, highly praised collection, A Change of World (1951), as my teacher guided us through it and I read it then, was about the possibilities of the lyric, about poetic form and forms, about taking the personal life and transforming it into poetry. It explored the process of animating the inanimate, which is to say, the eponymous tigers who live, like the panthers in Blake and Rilke that we were also encountering in that class, in the young speaker's needlepoint. Rich's lyric gifts in this volume, evident so early on and great enough to earn her the Yale Series of Younger Poet's prize, continue through her work today. But something else about this graceful, sad poem that I could not articulate then touched me deeply, and several years later, when I came across her National Book Award-winning collection Diving into the Wreck (1971), and began reading the poems in it, specifically works like "In the Prison Yard," whose subject is the Attica uprising and its brutal suppression by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in which the voice opens with the statement that "underneath my lids another eye has opened" and ends with "This eye / is not for weeping / its vision / must be unblurred // though tears are on my face / its intent is clarity / it must forget / nothing," or the title poem, with its unforgettable, mutable mythopoetics that conclude in the following stanza:
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear…
I realized the deeper changes that she was ringing even in those early poems. Specifically, I recognized how clearly she was contrasting, in the perfectly pitched meter of poetry of its day, the vibrancy and fearlessness of an inanimate life and the pain and repression of an animate one—Aunt Jennifer's, how the social and political commitment was already there, though in a different mode, in that early verse that Auden, the judge of the Yale prize, condescendingly described as "neatly and modestly dressed." Yet he also stated that those early poems "do not tell fibs," and he was right. Rich's critique in this poem or her first two books was not yet the poetry "for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind," as she described it in "Planetarium," but it also wasn't quiescent or acquiescent either. As I began to read more of her books over the years, to search them out, I found myself galvanized by her witnessing, which is to say, not only a keeping of that eye open that forgot nothing, a recording with the subaqueous camera, with the pen or keyboard, but also by her engagement and commitment—in and through her art, with life, with lives, hers and ours, with the difficult problems of our society that in fact our official public and even our private discourses often wanted and wants to ignore or paper over, except when it can't, which is to say at moments of social, political, economic, and cultural crisis. Adrienne Rich's engagement and commitment, over a lifetime of remarkable books, a continuous process and act of cultural production, crystallized for me in so many poems I have committed, as the poet Michael Harper urges that we do, to mind (if not memory yet).
To give just a few examples, I'll cite the first of her astonishing "21 Love Poems," from the 1978 collection The Dream of a Common Language, slivers of which I have recited to my students in more than one class. The poem is brief so I'll quote it here:
Wherever in this city, screens flicker
with pornography, with science-fiction vampires,
victimized hirelings bending to the lash,
we also have to walk . . . if simply as we walk
through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties
of our own neighborhoods.
We need to grasp our lives inseparable
from those rancid dreams, that blurt of metal, those disgraces,
and the red begonia perilously flashing
from a tenement sill six stories high,
or the long-legged young girls playing ball
in the junior highschool playground.
No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city."
"No one has imagined us"; here, it was the two women courageous and visionary enough to want to live and love as fully as they might, daring and joyous to love each other, directly, openly, "like trees...blazing...still exuberantly budding...rooted in the city"—but for so many of us how true this line was and is in many different ways. No one has imagined us. This moral and ethical courage and clarity, of imagining, of seeing, of writing, of acting—of confronting the world, in and through her art, and art it is, of opening up herself, her vision, to a larger and larger world, to its oppositions with the aim, imperfect but constant, of finding a common language or languages, of bridging but not eliding the fragmentary, fractious and incommensurate, not just encompassing it but opening the space of her life and art to it, in all its ugliness and beauty, cruelty and kindness, indefensibility and utter need to be defended, not in a pietics but a poetics, a true making and thinking and seeing, is one of Adrienne Rich's greatest gifts to the world. This production of a critically engaged discourse, an art, that dares to and regularly enters those ruptures, those interstices, those blank and forgotten spaces, of history and society, written "from the marrow of our bones," as she has so beautifully put it in one of her poems, that gathers them into poetry, that refuses to envision a world that could not be better, that will not and cannot be better, which is to say, that can be, is what her poetry, as she in her life, embodies.
"In those years," she begins a 1991 poem of the same name, "people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you, we found ourselves reduced to I," and she goes on to describe the excuses we make, she has made—because she doesn't let herself off the hook—for our flight, which is a recourse, into the "personal," the "only life / we could bear witness to," yet she goes on to note that nevertheless, "the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged / into our personal weather" wounding us all the same as we stood on the shore, dazed, "saying I"—yet Adrienne Rich's poems return us again and again to the meanings of "we," to its potentialities, its power. What does it mean to envision and write into the world a "we" that we continually fail to grasp, to assume, to enact? She has done so again and again, and I'll end with the ending of another poem, from her collection An Atlas of the Difficult World, whose title, I think, shows us in as clear a way possible the work, the poetic labor, which is a labor of courage, of love, of fearlessness, that she's been engaged in for more than half a century: it's from the "Dedications" section of the title poem, and as the little section I'll quote makes clear, it reaches out to that "we" that we often fail or refuse or fear to see, to imagine, that "we" whose names do not appear in the book, except as she opens up the space of this poem, its address, here they, here we, are:
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.