Adrienne Rich has passed away. Encountering Adrienne Rich’s poems was a revelation. Here was a feminist of a different sort, one who spoke to a young man like me in a voice wise and knowing. I was then forming my own opinions of women and found in her something solid and palpable.
But it was Adrienne Rich who spoke most clearly to me of the mind of women. I gave her poems to my daughters, who loved them too.
In those days, the world was ablaze with wars and change of all kinds. The poets I loved were mostly men: Auden, Yeats, Frost, Eliot. I love them still. Sylvia Plath I’d read and recognised her brittle brilliance, Emily Dickinson’s poems were fine but unconnected to a world I knew. Adrienne Rich was a creature of her time, as was Yeats, but oh so much more.
Of her politics I will say little. She was against the Vietnam War and for the Black Panthers. Auden, writing of the death of Yeats said “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era hurt Adrienne Rich beyond measure. The people who knew her at the time don’t think she was sane during some of those years. She left her husband Alfred Conrad and he committed suicide the following year. Poets and politics make for a highly combustible mixture. She seems to have found happiness with Michelle Cliff, her companion since 1976.
Two stanzas from the poem of hers I love best: 21 Love Poems.
Your small hands, precisely equal to my own—
only the thumb is larger, longer—in these hands
I could trust the world, or in many hands like these,
handling power-tools or steering-wheel
or touching a human face… Such hands could turn
the unborn child rightways in the birth canal
or pilot the exploratory rescue-ship
through icebergs, or piece together
the fine, needle-like sherds of a great krater-cup
bearing on its sides
figures of ecstatic women striding
to the sibyl’s den or the Eleusinian cave—
such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence
with such restraint, with such a grasp
of the range and limits of violence
that violence ever after would be obsolete.
What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What atonement is this all about?
–and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.
Is all this close to the wolverines’ howled signals,
that modulated cantata of the wild?
or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?
And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?