Archive for March 29th, 2012

“Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells . . .
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care . . .”

Adrienne Rich when young

Adrienne Rich more recently

Dear friends and readers,

Adrienne Rich died this afternoon (John Nichols’s obituary). She was one of the great poets of our time, a perceptive selfless essayist, consistently humane in all her stances, a feminist, eloquent and pithy. I came to her late, but discovering her, I’ve found solace, inspiriting anger, validation.

Two favorite short poems:

From Contradictions

The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured          ungrieved over          The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
For it is the body’s world
they are trying to destroy for ever
The best world is the body’s world
filled with creatures          filled with dread
misshapen so          yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries          never counting the cost

From an Atlas of the Difficult World

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.


Betty LaDuke (b. 1933), Timeless Time, Latin America

I find other women quote her. It’s common for me to have passages from her poems and prose in my file on her (a Net commonplace book) which come from other people’s writing. For example, My Dream of You, a novel by Nuala O’Faolain (whose work I love similarly, maybe even more so her two memoirs):

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters          a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other          slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep          they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair          you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened . . .

What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold          taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
— this continent of changed names and mixed-up
of languages tabooed
diasporas unrecorded
undocumented refugees
underground railroads          trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of war-worn children
women and children standing in line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
— will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you?

Berthe Morisot (1841-95) Seascape

I came across this part of another of Rich’s moving poems in a wonderful biography cum art-criticism, Berthe Morisot by Anne Higonnet:

The women who first knew themselves
miners, are dead, The rainbow flies

like a flying buttress from the walls
of cloud, the silver-and-green vein

awaits the battering of the pick
the dark lode weeps for light.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

This one, on line, from a blog:

I have read again and again in her Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974, and (a real favorite, for the title too), The Fact of a Doorframe. I like her better than Margaret Atwood because she is less elusive, less diplomatic, less intellectual; I like her better than Marge Piercy because she is less direct, less brash, more reflectively thoughtful.


I love her essays just as much. Cherished volumes are: On Lies, Secresy and Silence; Of Woman Born: Motherhood as an Experience and institution; What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.

She taught us and will continue to teach us; turn anywhere to where women writers are quoted, of course especially women’s studies, women’s poetry, women’s issues, and you found some utterance of hers (like Simone de Beauvoir, like Andrea Dworkin, like Catherine MacKinnon) a concept, a feeling, an experience that people must begin or argue with. Last night I was reading Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog’s Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, and where, in order to turn to understanding, valuing, finding resistance, meaning, some power, some utopia, in fashion, but Rich:

“In one of the strongest statements against traditional feminine dress and adornment, Adrienne Rich puts haute couture and ‘feminine dress code’ in the same category as purdah, foot-binding, the veil, public sexual harassment and the threat of rape, all of which work in some way to physically confine and prohibit movement.”

Robert Maxwell’s photo of Helen Mirren (actress)

There are many tributes to her today: Here is one from a woman I am proud and happy to call my friend, Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi: “An Interview.”

Reading Rich I could believe in life, love and peace in spite of death, disloyalty and never ending wars. I learned from Rich to resist in my poetry and in my life … I love her pride and purity as a poet, rejecting the most important awards granted by owners of violence and wealth. I introduced her poems to Iranian readers, first in my anthology of women poets and then in my anthology of American contemporary poets. Let me tell you that Rich’s poetry in translation loses everything but poetry itself, simply because it is the language of spirit, not only the language of heart or head. And the language of spirit is common between trees, rivers, and the essence of poetry.

A fine obituary by Gloria Orenstein who taught with her: Legacy; from Susan Rich (An Alchemist’s Kitchen), The Nation (with 5 poems); Reuters Press and the Los Angeles Times:

“Later in the life, in 1997, she created a stir by refusing the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to artists and artistic patrons, on political grounds.

“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote, “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”

The Progressive; NPR: Solfeggietto read aloud; The Guardian; The New York Times obituary.

Among the things I admired today was how we were told how and why she died: rheumatoid arthritis. Complications. It’s made such a taboo so often, but not her.

If you knew nothing about her life, work or writing, here are two general sites: wikipedia, Poetry Foundation


Among her famous often-cited and anthologized poems, Her “Diving into the Wreck” is the equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s Waterland. it sets my spirits soaring:

“Diving into the Wreck”

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is used for,
who who have used it.
it’s a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reels
and besides
you breathe differently down here,

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.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Rooftops during Rain


For me one particular stanza explains how to read literature — or how I read and what I value it most for: the stanza which begins: “the thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck …” For me great literature, great art is where we see “the drowned face” and “the ribs of the disaster” so that we may understand our “book of myths” and why we must carry “a knife, a camera.” She has good lines about sex and gender too: the mermaid has dark hair streaming back while the merman is in an armored body. It is impossible to say which is courage and which cowardice.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), The House Opposite — a commentary on fairy tales, myths, women in literature

Just entrancing:

“Transcendental Etudes”

This August evening I’ve been driving
over backroads fringed with queen anne’s lace
my car startling young deer in meadows — one
gave a hoarse intake of her breath and all
four fawns sprang after her
into the dark maples.
Three months from today they’ll be fair game
for the hit-and-run hunters, glorying
in a weekend’s destructive power,
triggers fingered by drunken gunmen, sometimes
so inept as to leave the shattered animal
stunned in her blood. But then evening deep in summer
the deer are still alive and free,
nibbling apples from early-laden boughts
so weighed, so englobed
with already yellowing fruit
they seem eternal, Hesperidean
in the clear-tuned, cricket-throbbing air.

Later I stood in the dooryard
my nerves singing the immense
fragility of all this sweetness,
this green world already sentimentalized, photographed,
advertised to death. Yet, it persists
stubbornly beyond the fake Vermont
of antique barnboards glazed into discotheques,
artificial snow, the sick Vermont of children
conceived in apathy grown to winters
of rotgut violence,
poverty gnashing its teeth like a blind cat at their lives.
Still, it persists. Turning off into a dirt road
from the raw cuts buldozed throgh a quiet village
for the tourist run to Canada,
I’ve sat on a stone fence above a great-soft, sloping field
of musing helfers, a farmstead
slanting its planes calmly in the calm light,
a dead elm raising bleached arms
above a green so dense with life,
minute, momentary life — slugs, moles, pheasants, gnats,
spiders, moths, hummingbirds, groundhogs, butterflies —
a lifetime is too narrow
to understand it all, beginningwith the huge
rockshelves that underlie all life.

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.—
And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listengin to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.

Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caugh naked int he argument,
the coutnerpoint, trying to sightread
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it _is_ this we were born to. We aren’t vituosi
or chld prdigies, ther are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are
— even when all the texts describe it differently.

And we’re not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
_What makes a virtuoso? — Competitiveness.)_
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives
The woman who sits watching, listening,
eyes moving in the darkness
is reheasing in her body, hearing-out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words, a few chods, from the stage,
a tale only she can tell.

But there come times — perhaps this is one of them —
when we have to taek ourselves more seriously or die;
we when have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowing the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
No one who survives to speka
new language, has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come.

But in fact we were always like this,
rootless, dismembered: knowing it makes the difference.
Birth stripped our birthright from us,
tore us from a woman, from women, from ourselves
so early on
and the whole chorus throbbing at our ears
like midges, told us nothing, nothing
of origins, nothing we needed
to know, nothing that could re-member us.

Only: that it is unnatural,
the homesickness for a woman, for ourselves,
for that acute joy at the shadow her head and arms
cast on a wall, her heafy or slender
thigs on which we lay, flesh against flesh,
eyes steady on the face of love; smell of her milk, her swet,
terror of her disappearance, all fused in this hunger
for the element they have called most dangerous,to be
lifted breathtaken on her breast, to rock within her
— even if beaten back, stranded again, to apprehend
in a sudden brine-clear though
trembling like the tiny, orbed, endangered
egg-sac of a new world:
_This is what she was to me, and this
is how I can love myself —
as only a woman can love me.

Homesick for myself, for her_ — as, father the heatwave
breaks, the clear tones of the world
manifest: cloud, bough, wall, insect, the very soul of light,
_homesick_ as the fluted vault of desire
articulates itself: _I am the lover and the loved,
homne and wanderer, she who splits
firewood and she who knocks, a strange
in the storm_, two women, eye to eye
measuring each other’s spirits each others’
limitless desire,
          a whole new poetry beginning here.

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow- colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow —
original domestic silk, the finest findings —
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and the dry darkbrown face of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance—
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
forming underneath everything that grows.

Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963), Girls on Bicycles (?): it puts me in mind of the Madeleine books

And these are only a few of my favorite poems. It has to be admitted Rich is not often playful. But then I’m not often playful. She wrote only of Austen that I can find once: in “When we dead awaken: Writing a Re-vision”: in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf was trying to sound “as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way men of the culture thought a writer should sound.” She is right about that: Austen did compromise and I will be writing about one aspect of this tomorrow: her letters to her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy.

I had not included Rich in my foremother poet blogs and postings before because I felt inadequate to the task, that I did not know enough. I am aware I never saw, heard or spoke to her while it seems other people I know have. Today I got over that and perhaps next week will attempt another foremother blog for Amy Clampitt whom I also feel I don’t know quite enough about.

I’ll come back later and add some good essays or books about Rich and her writing if I can find some I feel sure are good. An addendum for now: it’s useless to write a foremother poet blog for Adrienne Rich, it almost makes nonsense of what she stood for unless we tell the content: a free-for-all against blacks, women, the poor. US action outside the borders of the US.



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