“Adrienne Rich was the poet who made me want to become one.” That’s what I raced to type into my Facebook status as soon as I learned of her passing a week ago. As I sat and watched my feed refresh—wanting to be among poets, if only virtually—I was struck by how quickly my feed began to overflow with Rich’s words. I was surprised not by the number of posts, but by their tone. For the first time I learned how many lives she’d changed—how many people, men and women, young and old, had clung to her words or been changed by them. In college and beyond, I remember getting the impression that to prefer Rich (over Sexton, Plath, or any other poet who seemed to speak to or for women) meant aligning myself with politics, polemic, even propaganda. But it wasn’t for those reasons that I was drawn to Rich at age sixteen, when my high school English teacher passed out photocopies of “Diving into the Wreck.” I saw myself in that poem, and began to understand for the first time that there were other ways of knowing, and that this has something to do with gender, with “a book of myths / in which /our names do not appear.” My life as a poet and feminist began there, and poetry and feminism, as alternative ways of knowing, living, and creating, have sustained me ever since.
As I watched my Facebook feed fill up with quotations and remembrances—and as I saw news of Rich’s passing mix with outrage over Trayvon Martin’s murder and health care debates, two subjects as appropriate for a Rich poem as any—I started clicking around to news websites to see how they’d handle the death of one of our great artists and citizens. I was pessimistic but curious. CNN: nothing. Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune: a small headline you had to scroll down to find. And then The New York Times cheered and even moved me. There was a photograph of Rich (at first, older and unsmiling; a few minutes later, younger, gesturing, smiling, surrounded by books), and the words “Feminist Poet” sat front and center on nytimes.com, the first time I’d ever seen that phrase “mainstreamed” in my life. I posted a screenshot of it on my profile:
Later, my mom commented on it to say that she’d found an obituary in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel under the heading “Deaths Elsewhere in Arts & Entertainment.” It’s the “Elsewhere” of this strange heading that I want to think about for a moment, because, in addition to seeming almost comically redundant (death is about as elsewhere as you can get), the word reminds me of Rich’s insistence, in titles like “Not Somewhere Else, But Here,” on the idea that we must all do our work—wage our struggles, make our art—right where we are, with the tools we have.
In this light, Adrienne Rich’s death becomes a rallying cry. It sounds the call—not elsewhere, “not somewhere else, but here”—that we can no longer say, Someone else is doing that sort of (socially engaged, courageous, painful) work. And neither can we say, Well, that sort of work had its time. A week later, I am only starting to feel her absence, but her absence is felt. The Adrienne Rich-shaped hole in the world, in this country that she critiqued with so much anger and love, confronts me with the same questions that her work asked of me to begin with: What kinds of knowledges can you make? What kinds of powers do you have? Is this the world you want? What could you do to change it, right here, with the resources you have at hand?
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?—
You yourself must change it.—
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing?—
You yourself must change it.—
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
—Adrienne Rich, “Dreams Before Waking,” from Your Native Land, Your Life