When I read the news today that the poet Adrienne Rich had died, I immediately thought back to my early days at UC Santa Cruz. I majored in Women’s Studies (now Feminist Studies) when the department and the major were still very young. Staffing and funding were precarious, office space was cramped, and the faculty brilliant. Much of our coursework was offered through other departments, where sympathetic professors taught classes that qualified for Women’s Studies credit. Thus was I able in 1983 to take Priscilla Shaw’s Literature course on two great American poets, Emily Dickenson and Adrienne Rich.
I am grateful for this introduction to Adrienne Rich’s poetry, because without it I would not have understood her extraordinary command of form and meter, nor would I have been so deeply moved by the eloquence and emotional impact of her language. Looking at the books of hers I still have on my shelf, even the titles ring of a grander vision: The Dream of a Common Language, Of Woman Born, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far.
The volumes of poetry are still marked up with pencil, the pages dog-eared where I found my favorites in Ms. Shaw’s class. Reading the poems again, I am struck by just how formative Rich’s imagery has been on a generation of feminist and Pagan writers. Rich critiqued but also celebrated woman’s connection to nature, and her analysis of power and oppression is echoed in the more recent writings of many far less capable champions of identity politics.
As an undergrad I worked at the old Saturn Café on Mission St., where Adrienne Rich was a frequent customer. My friend Paula knew her well and I could have introduced myself several times, but I was always too intimidated to approach her. I kept her books long after I graduated though, and considered closely whatever she published. Here are three favorite poems, in honor of her passing. Reading these, can you see the ley lines toward a hundred other, lesser poems?
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
Every peak is a crater. This is the law of volcanoes,
making them eternally and visibly female.
No height without depth, without a burning core,
though our straw soles shred on the hardened lava.
I want to travel with you to every sacred mountain
smoking within like the sibyl stooped over her tripod,
I want to reach for your hand as we scale the path,
to feel your arteries glowing in my clasp,
never failing to note the small, jewel-like flower
unfamiliar to us, nameless till we rename her,
that clings to the slowly altering rock—
that detail outside ourselves that brings us to ourselves,
was here before us, knew we would come, and sees beyond us.
from 21 Love Poems, 1974–1976
And a last one, made most poignant by the thought of another dead poet on the other side of the mirror. Rest well.
I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus
I am walking rapidly through striations of light and dark thrown under
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.
A woman with a certain mission
which if obeyed to the letter will leave her intact.
A woman with the nerves of a panther
a woman with contacts among Hell’s Angels
a woman feeling the fullness of her powers
at the precise moment when she must not use them
a woman sworn to lucidity
who sees through the mayhem, the smoky fires
of these underground streets
her dead poet learning to walk backward against the wind
on the wrong side of the mirror