Laurie Toby Edison

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Adrienne Rich, Feminist and Poet

Laurie says:

The feminist poet Adrienne Rich died last week in Santa Cruz. Her voice meant a lot to me. Reading her poetry over the years influenced my work and my perspectives on the world. I still remember reading her poems for the first time in Diving into the Wreck and being riveted.  I was fortunate to hear her read many times.
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Quotes are from Adrienne Rich, poet of disenfranchised, dies by Meredith May.

Adrienne Rich, whose eloquent yet enraged poems ushered in the women’s movement and galvanized the lesbian community for more than half a century, died Tuesday in her Santa Cruz home. She was 82.

Ms. Rich, who succumbed after a long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, was known for wielding her pen on behalf of the disenfranchised. She was among the first contemporary poets to imagine the personal as political.

…It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Ms. Rich wrote “Diving Into the Wreck,” a collection of exploratory and often angry poems that earned her the National Book Award in 1974.

Many universities launched women’s studies programs based on her work. She taught at San Jose State, Stanford, Rutgers, Cornell and Brandeis, writing 30 books – 19 in poetry and seven in prose.

..Fans of her poetry and prose said Ms. Rich skipped the impulse to decorate her words, going straight to the point, and to the heart, on subjects often not discussed in polite company.

In an interview with The Chronicle at the time, she said: “I have a strong belief in the inseparability of art from society as a whole. Where growing numbers of people are being marginalized, impoverished, scapegoated and beleaguered, I don’t feel I can accept an award from the government that is pursuing these policies.”

In the days before her death, said her son Pablo Conrad, his mother had just received the galleys of her forthcoming poetry book, “Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012.” It will be published in 2013.

…”Every generation has to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to ensure the freedoms and rights of all,” said D.A. Powell, a San Francisco poet and associate professor of English at University of San Francisco. “Adrienne did about five generations’ worth. I thought she would live forever. Her work had that kind of power.”

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 for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is 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 reefs
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.

2 Responses to “Adrienne Rich, Feminist and Poet”

  1. Marlene Says:

    Hi Laurie,

    I know that you and I do not always agree about the ability to separate an artist’s work from their life. We have discussed many times whether or not one can righteously love the work of a horrible person and ignore that they are horrible. I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on the issue.

    You brought up things other than Rich’s work in this post and I cannot go without adding the following:

    Adrienne Rich was credited by Janice Raymond as making a significant contribution to The Transsexual Empire and is paraphrased by Raymond in the same.

    The Transsexual Empire is the greatest work of feminist transphobia and transmisogyny ever published and led directly to the witch hunting of trans women and their removal from the lesbian feminist movement, often including death threats, gave academic cover to the closing of gender reassignment programs at many universities, justified throwing trans women out of women’s shelters, and a thousand other kinds of big and little injuries to trans people at the hands of “feminists”.

    Trans people, particularly trans women have died as a result of this work’s acceptance by much of the feminist community. That acceptance was partially accomplished by Rich allowing her name to give credence to Raymond’s work.

    Rich never refuted Raymond’s attributions. She also never publicly disavowed Raymond’s eliminationist message of hate.

    I really don’t care if Rich was a good poet. I will not mourn the loss of someone with the blood of my people on her hands.

  2. Laurie Toby Edison Says:

    Marlene,

    We have indeed talked a lot over time about the relationship of an artist and her work. I do think it is possible to appreciate work without ignoring the horrible actions of the artist.

    I wasn’t aware of this part of Adrienne Rich’s history and it is awful. Had I known about this it would certainly have been part of the post.

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