“A Very Sharp Knife Between the Pages of a Book”

Flying was extra hellish that day. Departing from Boston with two interns in tow, I was heading to the AWP Conference in Tempe to represent AGNI, the magazine where I was then an editor. First delayed by fog for hours, we then spent another two sitting on the tarmac at Logan. We arrived very late and grumpy. We wanted a drink. No really. We WANTED a drink.

To that end, we walked into the slammed hotel bar, not an open table for miles, determined to sit our asses down. I spied an old woman sitting alone at a four top and the three of us bee-lined over.  The woman was very nice and didn’t seem to mind that we’d bum-rushed her table and plopped down with zero attempts at courtesy.

I’m not sure why I didn’t recognize Adrienne Rich, who at that time was a recently discovered hero to me. Strangely, or maybe not, I’d never been taught her work in school. I’d found her on my own when my sheepishness at knowing so little about feminist poetics had finally overtaken my habit of inertia.

Reading her work, I didn’t know how to respond at first. It made me anxious. It made me excited. It felt like discovering a very sharp knife between the pages of a book. A tool.  A weapon. It made me nervous to handle Adrienne’s work too closely. I loved the authority of her poems’ stance, their intellectual sure-footedness. I wondered at her sense of permission, the subjects Adrienne approached that I’d always been told had no place in a poem. I loved her works’ combination of conservation and audacity. And I began to wonder why a woman writing deeply and politically from the center of her life should seem audacious at all? Her work was a flare shooting up from the survivors’ island–We’re over here if you’re searching. I wouldn’t understand or be comfortable owning this for years to come.

So, looking at her across the table, the old woman’s face did seem vaguely familiar, though it was 1994 and the books I owned by Adrienne still had her early 70s author photo—you know the one: she’s looking somewhere beyond the camera, that wry, uncommitted grin, the curves of sleek dark hair outlining her face.

But still, why didn’t I recognize her? Well, I was young. And by that I mean callow. Old ladies looked pretty much the same to me then. I hadn’t learned yet to really look at an older woman and see all the different versions of a self that our faces earn over time, the textures of beauty that come from experience. I’d imbibed the idea that youth was the ever-dwindling natural resource that fuels a woman’s power. I believed in the currency of what now seems the most obvious sort of sex appeal, probably because that’s mostly what I had to offer at the time. Without realizing it, I had been trained to see women with the worst version of a straight man’s eyes.

Adrienne was, of course, a revelation. She sat with us for a good while. Wicked funny, interested in every subject, genuinely delighted by our obnoxious stories; she was kind, she was warm; she was ironic in a mischievous way. I remember she joined in as we played a game of guessing where the other writers were from and what was really going on in their heads as people schmoozed in increasingly tighter circles around the bar.

Finally, some vestigial training kicked in and I introduced myself to her properly. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the look on my face when she responded “Hi. I’m Adrienne.”

We kept in touch, corresponding for a time. She gave me new poems for AGNI that came to my home in pale yellow envelopes, the letters included with them now amongst my greatest treasures. One of the pieces I had the honor to publish, “Calle Vision” is still one of my favorite poems—its disciplined imagistic grit, the wind swept, ascetic quality of its intelligence, that feeling we get from her later work that the bone has been boiling for some time to become this gorgeously spare and essential artifact

When my first book came out, I sent her a copy with a great sense of trepidation. The book had won one of the bigger poetry prizes in 1995 and at that moment a lot of sunshine was being blown up my bum.  It was a pleasant enough sensation, but still, I had reservations about the poems in that book, a disturbing sense of my own disingenuousness that I tried hard to ignore.  Looking back, it’s not that I think the poems in that book are inherently bad, more that they work so hard to please, are so desperate to charm. They’re also full of the kinds of naïve, unthreatening gestures at eroticism that are likely to fluff the male ego but could make an older, wiser woman roll her eyes.

When Adrienne responded she was kind, she was warm, but yes, I could feel it, too, she was disappointed. Interestingly, that’s the one letter she sent to me that I can no longer find amongst the disorganized ruin of my files. I remember that she praised my formal capabilities, but seemed to wonder that I was still so enamored by traditional meter. Her praise was reserved. It was measured. I could feel it:

I had disappointed Adrienne Rich.

Oh, the sting of that. As I sit now typing on my patio, the memory still makes me blush from the collarbones up.

But, as is the case with certain lessons, it quickly grew into one of the most important, if toughest, gifts anyone could have given me. From that moment on, Adrienne’s voice was in the back of my head. Not in the bad way, where a punishing voice can censor and stymie, but in the necessary and ultimately freeing way. I started asking, “Do I believe what I’m writing? Is there something I’m not saying because I’m afraid? Of whom am I afraid?” I also began to think about what I could do with the privilege and bits of authority that began to come to me professionally, to ask what a life well lived through poetry has the potential to be. No young poet could have a better teacher than Adrienne.

So much in the news these days is a depressing reminder of how far we have to go as women, as feminists trying to make our culture understand that we can’t afford to fear women’s intelligence, energy and creativity. Yes, we have some hilly terrain in front of us. But Adrienne’s journey gives me real hope; from that kitchen in Cambridge–the good girl, the daughter-in-law, the mother, terrified that her poems had abandoned her–to doing the sometimes brutal work of making a life for herself that matched her gigantic spirit and unparalleled authenticity.  I think Adrienne believed we all have that potential, that capability to imagine the world we want to live in, and to build that world if we’re woman enough to pick up the tools to do so.