A few words on the death this week of the poet Adrienne Rich:
I first encountered her work in the early 1970s when my high school boyfriend Ron was assigned some of her poetry. Today, almost 40 years later, I still remember the opening lines to one of those poems, “Trying to Talk With a Man,” about a marriage at the breaking point:
Out in this desert we are testing bombs that’s why we came here.
I next encountered Rich in person, in the late 1980s, when I was living in Sacramento and involved with the local chapter of a national group called New Jewish Agenda. We were a motley collection of Jewish ex-hippies and Old Leftists and young yuppies who shared progressive politics and didn’t connect with the organized Jewish community. We needed a speaker at some kind of event… and somehow we got her phone number and called her…. and she came! All the way from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, to speak to our little group of a few dozen people, for free. Or maybe we paid her $50, I don’t remember. But she was already a National Book Award winner. She could have demanded hundreds or thousands of dollars. And she didn’t.
When I found Rich again — perhaps the most important encounter for me — it was shortly after I had given birth to my daughter. I was home with the baby, exhausted, disoriented, fearing I’d lost my identity as an independent adult forever, and wondering why I wasn’t feeling blissed out with motherhood like everyone else seemed to be. This was before the spread of mommy blogs, before Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, before all those jokey coffee table books about three-martini play dates. There was really nobody giving voice to the ambivalence I felt except maybe Anne Lamott and… Adrienne Rich, in her book of essays called “Of Woman Born.”
Now I’m looking for my copy to quote from it, and I can’t find it. But I remember an essay where she unflinchingly described the dark side of motherhood — the murderous impulses, the anger as passionate as the love. It was a stunning beam of light in the darkness. It helped me feel I wasn’t crazy. I carried Rich around in my head while I wrote my novel The Mother’s Group. If I ever get it published, she is one of the people to whom it will be dedicated.
With her death, I’m ashamed by how little I have actually read of her writing over the past four decades. And amazed by how much she affected me, especially given how little of her work I’ve read.
Adrienne Rich was one of our modern-day incarnations of a Biblical prophet — driven by a moral compass, speaking truth to power, and speaking it with precision, clarity and beauty.
May her memory be a blessing, and may there be someone like her for my daughter’s generation.