Thursday, March 29, 2012

In Memory of Adrienne Rich

Two years after Adrienne Rich published Of Woman Born—her book about mothering and the toll it took on women, especially when they were solely defined by being mothers—I attended my first Feminist Writer's Workshop.

We came from all over because the invited poet was Adrienne Rich. Mary arrived from Germany, Linda from Italy. Leslie drove up from Shreveport, Louisiana. Utah was represented by a woman who owned a cattle ranch. Two women arrived from New York City—one worked in public relations while the other played the violin with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Lynn drove from Vermont where she lived in an old house close to the Long Trail. She wanted to be a poet. I drove seven hours from Massachusetts to a college in Upper New York State to attend the workshop. There were others—twenty in all.

I expect that we were all feminists, some first wave and some second wave, and many of us were questioning our sexuality. It was still three years before Adrienne Rich published her famous essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."

The evening of our arrival we all gathered in a comfortable room and waited for Adrienne Rich, but instead we were told by one of the workshop leaders that Adrienne was quite sick and couldn't come. After our initial disappointment we salvaged the evening by taking out her books and reading her words—for hours. First we read from Of Woman Born and then we read her love poems, Twenty-One Love Poems. When that book came out it was considered "dangerous" because she spoke of love between women. That book gave many of the women seated in that room courage to be who they really were.

It was after listening to Adrienne Rich's love poems I sensed that I could write honestly.

That week away we wrote poetry, essays, short riffs and congregated to read Rich. "The Personal is Political" we said echoing Carol Hanisch's 1969 essay. But it was Rich's words on everything from being a woman to economic equality that gave us a model for our own writing.

Years later I heard Adrienne Rich read her poetry at Brandeis. She read a number of poems, but the one I recall vividly was "Transit". Some lines:

When I meet the skier she is always
walking, skis and poles shouldered, toward
the mountain,
free-swinging in worn boots...

This skier isn't young, her hair is gray, but she's strong and impatient. She passes the narrator as "I halt beside the fence tangled in snow..."

The narrator remembers when they both climbed Chocurua together and she watches her walk , "how her strong knees carry her" simple
this is for her, how without let or hindrance
she travels in her body
until the point of passing, where the skier
and the cripple must decide
to recognize each other?

Margalit Fox wrote, " Ms Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined."

Her last book of poetry was Tonight No Poetry Will Serve 2007-2011

Burn me some music        Send my roots rain        I’m swept
dry from inside        Hard winds rack my core

And when I close my eyes I can hear and see us at the Feminist Writing Workshop reading her poems and her book— and finding our lives within her words.


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