On the passing of Adrienne Rich—a memoriam
With the passing of Adrienne Rich on March 27, the Central Coast lost an extraordinary poet: among her legacies is a vision of how to live as a public person.
I saw this first in 1975, as one of a group of women graduate students at San Francisco State who had begun organizing to change the rules of our program, rules that restricted the women writers we could study to a very few and very famous. Though she was already well known as a poet—“Diving into the Wreck” had come out the year before—she took time out to advise us. From there we went forward, individually and as a group, lit forever with the knowledge that poetry and politics were one.
Frances Phillips, now program director at the Haas Fund in San Francisco, hosted the event. She remembers Rich sitting on a straight-backed chair, talking individually with every woman there. The last to speak with her as the evening grew late, Phillips says, “I wasn’t so sure that I had anything to say, but she made me believe that any young woman’s voice was important. I will always remember and hope I can emulate that generosity.”
In Phillips’ living room, balancing plates of potluck, we learned from Rich that as women writers we could make new forms if the old ones did not suit, that we were connected to women elsewhere and everywhere, women imprisoned by their governments or by poverty, women long dead—learned to find poetry in the material of their lives and ours.
She was renowned worldwide when she moved to Santa Cruz, but Rich still located herself fully here—reading regularly for the Muse readings and local bookstores, working for the Writers’ Union, engaging with New Jewish Agenda, publishing in local journals, and, as Tilly Shaw says, incorporating “our landscape into her poetry, the Corralitos fields, coastal fog … finding words for what was so familiar.”
Here, as elsewhere, she deflected the honors offered to her and used them to bring others into view. Patrice Vecchione, a local poet and teacher, remembers that when Rich was celebrated as the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission Artist of the Year in 1995, she was determined not to be the focal point but to include writers of color and the high school writers Vecchione taught in the event.
The quality of attention Phillips remembers was one of Rich’s consistent gifts. As Vecchione describes it, “sitting over lunch together, I never felt she was in a hurry to be elsewhere.” Given a CD of a 2009 joint reading by poets Devin Murphy and Sharman Murphy, whose work transforms affliction into art, Rich wrote to them, "… your reading voices possess the creative anger and truthspeaking that is the heart of all resistance—a life force."
As local writer Geoffrey Dunn notes, “she was a quiet but forceful presence in the literary and political culture of our community. She raised the bar higher for all of us.”
Her determination to share the honors she received was apparent nationally as well. In 1974, she declined to accept the National Book Award as an individual and agreed only to accept it with co-nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker on behalf of all women. As Rich said to Amy Goodman in 1997 about the award, “if you’re a writer … It would seem only natural to care passionately about issues like literacy, about public education, about public libraries, about public opportunities in all the arts, and about the saving of human lives, which are precious and which are also the lives of artists and of people who would care about art.”
Her greatest gift was her writing. It fused the private and public, pulling in material from global events past and present. As she wrote in “In Those Years,” “the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged/into our personal weather."
Shaw, also a poet and a professor emerita of literature, remembers that each volume of Rich’s work that came out was a major event, books “we studied and learned from, hung onto, lived by. She had that gift to generalize out from experience, and with such clarity, impact, invited all women to do likewise. It was so empowering, something you could start in on right away, take your daily life seriously, look at its patterns; it infused living with a lot of meaning.”
Vecchione tells a similar story, of how Rich’s book “The Will to Change” saw her through a difficult time; “I hung onto her words as onto the rungs of a ladder, and they held fast,” she says.
The last sentence of Rich’s 1991 book of essays, “What is Found There,” is what might be her mission statement: “The revolutionary poet loves people, rivers, other creatures, stones, trees inseparably from art … and for them conjures a language that is public, intimate, inviting, terrifying, and beloved.”
What Kind of Times Are These
There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
“What Kind of Times Are These.” © 2002, 1995 by Adrienne Rich, from The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 by Adrienne Rich. Source: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995)
Behind The Motel
A man lies under a car half bare
a child plays bullfight with a torn cloth
hemlocks grieve in wraps of mist
a woman talks on the phone, looks in a mirror
fiddling with the metal pull of a drawer
She has seen her world wiped clean, the cloth
that wiped it disintegrate in mist
or dying breath on the skin of a mirror
She has felt her life close like a drawer
has awoken somewhere else, bare
He feels his skin as if it were mist
as if his face would show in no mirror
He needs some bolts he left in a vanished drawer
crawls out into the hemlocked world with his bare
hands, wipes his wrench on an oil-soaked cloth
stares at the woman talking into a mirror
who has shut the phone into the drawer
while over and over with a torn cloth
at the edge of hemlocks behind the bare
motel a child taunts a horned beast made from mist
Adrienne Rich—from “Telephone Ringing In The Labyrinth.” Poems 2004 -2006