Adrienne Rich, luminary American poet, who called herself “a white woman, a Jew, a lesbian, and a United States citizen,” died this past week. As a writer, Rich created some of the first literature to portray out lesbian life in America.
It was shocking to read the news this week that luminous poet Adrienne Rich had passed away from the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis that had plagued her body nearly all of her life.
Her indomitable spirit has left us. And her passing has left me with a certain emptiness, knowing I will never read a new edition of her powerful, soaring, evocative, provocative, passionate and paradigmatic poetry that painted the first canvases portraying lesbian life in America.
Adrienne Rich was an exalted poet and essayist because she wrote seminal, beautiful and provocative works. Her poems and essays were infused with the issues of her day–racial justice, feminism and lesbian rights, and became increasingly political and central to her prose. She herself was a social justice activist who directly engaged in politics and emerged as a preeminent public intellectual who was considered “one of the most widely read poets in the second half of the 20th century.” She leveraged that capital and rejected, in some instances, a few of the many awards that would be bestowed upon her over the years, to present her political arguments vociferously, often in solidarity with others who had also been marginalized.
As her life progressed, Rich publicly identified herself as “a white woman, a Jew, a lesbian and a United States citizen.”
When I think of Adrienne Rich, the poet, the searing essayist, I have a dramatic vision of her issuing a clarion call to feminists of the modern era. She, herself, a vital part of that clarion call, had married, raised three boys and came out during her marriage in 1976 and went on to lead an openly lesbian life for the duration of her adulthood.
Rich, who created lesbian centric literature–authored the words that became our first pieces of art. In her prose and poetry , she birthed onto pages of new books, the feelings of the first generation of out living American lesbians, baptizing us in her rich and passionate poetry. Rich wrote the words that illustrated our rage, and her poetry gave power to our audacity as we declared our open love and erotic desire for women. Together, Rich and us, rejected patriarchy’s bifurcated heterosexist life with all its props and baggage.
She swept us up in her protective cape and left us with verses such as these:
…In my dreams the Hudson
rules the night like a right-hand margin
drawn against the updraft
of burning life, the tongueless cries
of the city. I turn again, slip my arms
under the pillow turned for relief,
your breathing traces my shoulder. Two women sleeping
together have more than their sleep to defend.
– The Images from A Wind Patience Has Taken Me This Far
Adrienne Rich gave us a mirror so we could see our lesbian faces. As psychoanalyst Donald Winnicotthas written, “when I look, I am seen, so I exist,”
Rich looked inside and wrote about how she felt as a woman and as a lesbian. She gave witness to our lives and by reflecting back our love and desire, she gave alliteration to our feelings of longing for women. From her pen, she gave us life that sprung from her brilliant mind– our lives became known to us through Rich’s prose that revealed visceral honesty and loving kindness. Her art and literature gave us a beautiful mirror of reflection, presenting a paradigmatic shift from centuries of terror and jagged otherness constructed by patriarchal heterosexism and misogyny.
Rich’s 1981 tour de force essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” was a seismic missive that unleashed a full-on intellectual assault on the traditional thinking of heterosexist feminists, writers and the psychoanalytic schools of the time. She wrote, “I am concerned here…: first, how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here. I believe that much feminist theory and criticism is stranded on this shoal.”
She was a subversive and persistently pushed out against the tide.
How ironic to lose her in this terrible moment, when American extremists are engaged in a full-on war on women. She has left us reams of words to challenge and lead us into the new darkness now upon us.
Indeed, she left us with a reservoir to swim in the experience of being in love:
“…Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we’re not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other life,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.
–from 21 Love Poems
It is so hard to let her go–indeed, she created a literature that fed and sustained us over many years through many battles. May she rest in her yielding sleep. May her memory be blessed and her enlightened soul illuminate all those who digest her words. Her indomitable spirit lives on in a vast body of brilliant work that rings out for justice, dignity and a persistent embrace of love. Sweet dreams, dear friend. Sweet dreams.
Sign the Santa Cruz Sentinel newpaper’s remembrance book dedicated to Adrienne Rich.
In 2002, Adrienne Rich was an invited guest at Smith College to honor Carol T. Christ
upon her inauguration as the college’s tenth president. Image, above, via Smith College.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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