I got word last night that Adrienne Rich, our much-needed, beautiful, female, Jewish, lesbian, mother, U.S., poet-of-conscience, died Tuesday. I was at work today and I didn’t find an opening to say to my colleagues, “I suspect none of you know her work, but Adrienne Rich died on Tuesday—and know it or not, the world is a poorer place without her. Your world is a poorer place without her.” Perhaps more importantly I didn’t bring them and read them a poem. Nor one for you here. But her death has been on my mind all day. Through a public hearing that I staffed and while sitting at my desk and while walking around.
For me Adrienne Rich was a poet whose voice I truly relied upon; a teacher, foremother, and sister from afar. The times (which were quite a few, but once someone like Adrienne is gone, turn out to have been not nearly enough) that I was in her presence in person date back to the 80’s. I remember a particular moment, standing in a huge, standing-room-only room at the Memorial Union in Madison, Wisconsin where I was a student– listening to Adrienne read—about being a Jew and then poems from Twenty-One Love Poems—and thinking “I am happy. Alive. How lucky, lucky I am to be born in a time and place where I can read and hear this poet.”
I remember arriving home relatively late from work last night to my daughter and partner sprawled on the sofa, reading a very excellent young people’s book about a Chicana girl—a story about racism and classism and family and triumph called, Esperanza Rising, together. The phone rang and my daughter answered and handed it to my partner,M. It became clear that it was my friend Deb—and that someone had died. Someone in Deb’s small family? I stage-whispered, worrying. M. shook her head no. And then she mouthed, Adrienne Rich, and she started to cry. I have not yet cried.
I remember several times hearing Adrienne read in my partner’s feminist bookstore in the 80’s and 90’s—listening to her words, watching my partner’s careful caretaking of Adrienne (she had rheumatoid arthritis)—and Adrienne’s genuine, spoken, warm affection for bookstores and for feminist bookstores and for feminist bookstore owners and for my partner in particular. I loved their relationship and I loved listening to Adrienne.
Poetry and poets have been a lifeline for me in times of loneliness and confusion and have also been a source of deep, abiding hope and pleasure and engagement in the best sense, with life and the world, in all it’s harshness and beauty. Adrienne was typical, to me, of what Jewish women are. In her case, she was very small in physical stature– and a woman with an enormous mind, command of ideas and language and issues. She also had a powerful command of the difference, increasingly difficult to discern in this world, between truth and falsity. And she had a powerful understanding of the interconnectedness of us.
She wasn’t the only–but she was one significant moral compass for all of us living with and hoping to see clearly and to untangle racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, every day, in our midst, here in the US. And she brought us words, beautiful and hopeful.
Before I end, I really should say a special thank you here too– to my beloved M. You, my love, did your own labor of love, working with a great vision and with much joy, for so long, for almost no pay. Your important work of running your wonderful feminist bookstore for so many years. Adrienne did the writing and you dear, so deeply understood the power of words and the importance to all of us– of bringing Adrienne and other important women writers to me and to some of you who read this and to so many women. I heard Adrienne do this on more than one occasion and if Adrienne could, she would thank you again one more time. I do.