Poet extraordinaire Adrienne Rich died this week in Santa Cruz. Her neighbor, Carolyn Brigit Flynn, writer, Poetess, and my editor, was moved to write this amazing tribute:
http://www.carolynbrigitflynn.com/on-adrienne/ It is so poignant and powerful, I wanted to share it with you all.
I awake this morning to the stunning knowledge that came last night: Adrienne Rich is gone.
She died in her home within blocks of me, here in Live Oak, Santa Cruz. Jean met her years ago, at a Sunday afternoon poetry reading at Garfield Park Church, a benefit for our local Food Bank. She had heard that a good poet was reading; it was the girls’ weekend with their father, and Jean was on her own. It was 1997, the year that Adrienne refused the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Jean read that the poet had decided not to sit at the tables of power and please them with her work, saying that the administration was involved with cynical politics when too many in the country were suffering. Jean thought that was cool–and feeling her own poetry begin to swell within her, went. It was a brave thing for Jean to do, in her own way; something untold and even strange in her family, to choose poetry on a perfectly good Sunday afternoon, to choose poetry over errands or work or other ordinary weekend pursuits.
Jean had also read that the poet was from Live Oak. Adrienne Rich got up, small and finely honed. A taut and spell-binding reader, she offered, among other poems, her stunning classic “Diving Into the Wreck.” Jean went there with her, went all the way down, went down to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail, went down into herself and felt the poet had transported her. Afterwards she walked up to Adrienne, with the collection in hand, and asked her to sign it, saying “I live in Live Oak too. We’re neighbors.” “Wonderful!” Adrienne said, and they smiled together, unassuming and true, friendly and common as neighbors are.
“I liked her,” Jean says. “She was nice, just ordinary folk. She knew I didn’t know anything about her fame and I think she liked that. I didn’t really learn who she was until I started writing with you, and you read us her work.”
I didn’t know who she was, Jean says, but perhaps we all can say that, all of us who have read her for three decades and owe her some part of our lives. She lived in our town, she died right down the street. I remember turning from the deli counter at the local market once and seeing her choosing her bread. Startled, I almost called out. I saw her head rise, saw that she knew what had happened within me, saw her pull into herself, a kind of dread– I smiled as if at a stranger and moved on. I wanted to build a kind of zone around her, something to protect her from all she was to us, so that she could simply be all that she was. She had said too much, broken so many silences, she had opened so much in us. She had been fierce in her insistence upon intimacy and truth–not only with others, not only between women, but within the self—she insisted we dive into all the false layers to something intimate, secret, true, unspoken. She was speaking what we had not spoken, not even to ourselves, perhaps most particularly not to ourselves.
This morning I opened her collection The Dream of a Common Language at random, and this was the first poem I came to, from Twenty-One Love Poems:
(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine–tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face had come and come–
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there–
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth–
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I have been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave–whatever happens, this is.
Stunning. And stunning to imagine that she published this in 1974, almost forty years ago. She broke the world open. Already an accomplished, award-winning poet of national stature, she defied the literary canon that marked women’s lives as uninteresting and unworthy of poetry. She wrote of the intimate and the daily, she wrote of marriage and of divorce, of politics, of violence and injustice; and then, having fallen in love with a woman, wrote the truth of her own eros. It literally broke everything open.
Yesterday, sitting in the car eating lunch–before I knew Adrienne had left us–in my private worries, I listened to a woman on the radio speak about walking the Pacific Coast Trail. She was asked how she did it, what she carried, her food, the wild animals she encountered, and the ungodly weight of her overlarge pack. Then she was asked what she read. She listed any number of literary writers, Nabakov, Faulkner, books she had packed up and shipped to various stops along the Trail to replace as she walked. But the book she carried all the time, which she read daily and which became, as she put it, her sacred text, was The Dream of a Common Language.
Ah yes, I thought, my book–and how many of us feel that way about one of Adrienne Rich’s many collections of poems, or about some other of her works and essays–that they are ours, we are intimate with them, that she pulled something out of us that we were missing, the touch of our own skin, the love we might offer ourselves, the turning to our woman’s body, saying Yes, here now, you are home.
This small moment in the car brought her to me yesterday. I thought how I never see her around town any more, how she no longer offers readings, and I wondered how she was. Of course, even then, she was gone. Then last night, I heard the news. Now I wonder how she is, how this journey of life takes her and moves her anew. I awoke to fog, and The Dream of a Common Language, which I’d put by my bed. For an hour I read her, before I moved out of bed, moved yet again–or in a new way, for I know more now–by the intimacy of her language, the voice below the voice that called me back into something intelligent and solid in my own heart. How petty our inner miseries can sometimes be. Then a writer can call us into attention. She speaks what is true, in a new/old language, and we are back with life.
This morning, I wanted her words. Before the obituaries, the essays and tributes in the media in the next days and weeks, which I will read hungrily, I wanted only her words. Her words, and my own musings, what my mind might burnish and find gleaming among her memory. Last night an email arrived showing that Adrienne Rich was trending seventh among the top ten Twitter posts worldwide. That means millions of people were sending out homages at her passing. And too, millions more will hear her name for the first time in the coming weeks, and will go searching, reading, and she will be born anew.
Deena Metzger once wrote that when a person dies, their life is thrown shimmering up into the air for a time with great clarity, greater than even was possible when they were alive–and the truth of their being rains down upon us all. And thus, strangely, for a time, we have them more in death than we did in life. In the next months, Adrienne Rich’s life will be thrown up into the sky. Millions of people, like me, will take her work off their shelves and re-read what she has left us. And many of them, I hope, will write. I hope they will write poems and essays and journal entries and blogs and musings on the backs of envelopes. I hope they will write of Adrienne and her memory, of their grief, of their mourning, of all she gave, of her life, so tender and hard. One might think ruefully that these poems and musings will mostly be unknown writers and poets writing about a great poet. But the creative energies of the universe don’t hold things in that way. The Creative simply wants to move through as many hands and hearts as She can find. And Adrienne would not have wanted a writer to think that way. She would want anyone who is drawn to the pen and to the page to dive within, to search deep, to be unafraid to name shame and ugliness, to name the bedrock strength, and to write their own truth.
Once I went to one of Adrienne’s poetry readings at Bookshop Santa Cruz, and we in the audience lined the walls and the chairs and aisles and sat cross-legged on the floor, women mostly and a good number of men, of every shape and size, and many young women in their studious glasses and punk hair. Adrienne was impressively introduced with her lengthy list of honors and awards. Then she came out to us, small and pale and dark-haired. She had a pile of books in her hand. These books were not her own. She was painfully aware, she told us, of the privilege that came with her white skin, with her academic upbringing, with her command of what Audre Lord called the master’s language. Too many women of color, too many unknown, working-class poets in small towns were unread and unpublished. For an hour, she read them to us.
So write about Adrienne Rich today. Write it out, while her life is shimmering all around us: how she and her work are in some way part of your life. Share your writing with a friend. Send it on to me. Throw her life, as it lives in you, glittering into the air, for all to see.
(for Adrienne Rich)
Yesterday mist cloaked the far
pine tree, which had once
gleamed with sunlight on the smallest
needle, suggesting to me
the possibility of new vision.
But yesterday you were gone–
though I didn’t know it yet–
and were you gone?–
You who gave voice to the dead,
(should I say voices)
you who gave voice
to dead women
whose lives floated like ragged wires
or bits of forgotten cloth
until you took them up,
braided them together
into something alive and singing.
Are you gone?–and not to say
your work, for which you gave and gave,
and which will never leave,
or your power, for which
you dove mercilessly, to which
you cleaved, unwilling to release it
to men, to the trappings of
motherhood, marriage, the academy
even prestige, honor, awards–
No, you are not gone,
rather you have slipped below bedrock
into somewhere unknowable to us–
in that place now
you are among the voices,
as you could never have dreamed
when this life held and throbbed
your frail body, so small to contain
all your fierce devotions.
You have left us your poems
which I will finger and etch
until my eyes fall prey to mists.
Like holy texts (though you would not
wish to become canon) I will study
and follow your intimate language,
your poetry of dailiness, the musings
of your mind set to track each raging
thunder, each skein of yarn, each
crack of brilliant light,
each small sediment of rock
laying wait in the riverbed.
Love was your topic: love and power.
And how a woman finds
her work, her art, how we,
any of us, dare to defy even
the broken effigies
we hang loosely about us
for the world to see, while something
true rages within–
you always dug in, to the swollen
red place pulsing
the true pain–which always
led to something gleaming,
as a shell shining in mud,
upturned suddenly by the torrent
to which you invited us,
to which you now turn,
saying Ah, I have seen you,
I have known you,
and still, this love, so new,
in the end I did not know,
not like this–another sinking
past bedrock, into all that is real.
–Carolyn Brigit Flynn