A Mother’s Legacy: The “Fanciful” Made Essential

My mother and I did not have poetry in common. She was a lifelong activist for social justice, a lesbian and feminist of Adrienne Rich’s generation, passionately committed to “the cutting-away of an old force that held her  / rooted to an old ground.” For her, poetry was fanciful, not the essential resource. And yet how well I remember the row of Rich volumes amid her library of non-fiction, her well-worn copy of The Dream of A Common Language with stars and emphatic underlines scoring “Transcendental Etude.” These were my first poetry books, read countless times on the hard floor of her apartment.

Looking back, I see that I returned to Rich again and again in part to better understand my mother, to translate the (to me bewildering) intensity of her personal and political commitments into a vocabulary I could feel ‘on the pulse.’ And my mother, in turn, must have discovered in Rich’s poems a “common language” that illuminated the urgent, often painful collective struggles of their time. When Rich died this past week, my first thought was of this shared inheritance, how her poems were necessary reading for two generations of women.

Yet my most important lessons from reading Rich were lessons about poetry as praxis and craft. Lessons about the visionary possibility and expansive social responsibility of a poem. Lessons about silence, metaphor as “loaded guns.” Lessons about poetry as a dialogical space, a site of ongoing inquiry. “No place for the little lyric,” she wrote in a recent poem about the Iraq War.

For many years I stopped reading her work entirely, as many poets of my era have done. Too ardent, too strident, not playful or arch, not sufficiently experimental. Yet she remains our towering example, even in (and perhaps because of) her unfashionable urgency. She is our essential poet of Shelleyan fire and Wollstonecraftian intelligence.

When my mother died, I reread her yellowed copies of Rich’s books, returning to the last lines of “Turning the Wheel,” with its promise of a conversation that persists across distance and loss:

too alone

and too filled with you            with whom I talked for hours

driving up from the desert            though you were far away

as I talk to you all day                        whatever day


This week I read these lines to a class of undergraduates, many of whom had never heard of Rich. Today, an exceptionally talented young woman from the class wrote me an email. The p.s. reads: “I have become an Adrienne Rich junkie—thank you for that.”