[In memory of Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012]
First the undergraduate at Radcliffe College, Harvard, fiercely looking out at the world as her manuscript wins the Yale Younger Poets Prize—
Now, careful arriviste,
Delineate at will
Incisions in the ice. (The Diamond Cutters, 1951)
—and a calm but insistent feminist writing history through, for example, Emily Dickinson—
you, woman, masculine
for whom the word was more
than a symptom –
a condition of being.
Till the air buzzing with spoiled language
sang in your ears
of Perjury (I Am in Danger— Sir—, 1964)
—and then a woman, pure and simple, writing capital-H History through her own life—
I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of today. How well we all spoke. A language is a map of our failures. Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton's. People suffer highly in poverty. ... In America we have only the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor's language. (The Burning of Paper Instead of Children, 1968)
—and determined to root out truth with her writing—
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
. . . the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth (Diving into the Wreck, 1972)
—and a poet whose poems, as W. H. Auden said, “speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs”—
I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers
and those powers severely limited
by authorities whose faces I rarely see.
I am a woman in the prime of life
driving her dead poet in a black Rolls-Royce
through a landscape of twilight and thorns. (I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus, 1968)
—and herself a multitude of personae, calling herself by turns feminist, intellectual, Jewish, deeply political, mother and wife, lesbian, and yet always human—
If they call me man-hater, you
would have known it for a lie
. . . But can’t you see me as a human being
What is a human being
she said (From an Old House in America, 1974)
—and now an elder stateswoman, her life tempered by death—
Burnt by lightning nevertheless
she’ll walk this terra infinita (Itinerary, 2012)
—unforgettable, unmistakable, a poet whose lines have wrenched open a space for marginalized voices, a poet to whom twenty-first-century letters owes an immeasurable debt.
Image credit: chicagotribune.com