Elegy with Jack Daniels, maps, a lemon tree, and female aquanauts, in which the ghost of Adrienne Rich appears and doesn’t vanish

Like many people, I found Adrienne Rich in college.  I was 17 when I arrived at Dartmouth in 1992, where the student body was still 60 percent male despite the fact that the school had gone co-ed 20 years before.  After growing up in a liberal Jewish neighborhood outside New York City, I found myself on one of the most conservative college campuses in the country.  “This is the place. / And I am here.”

In my first year, I had one of the last of the old-guard professors in the English department for a course on Fitzgerald and Hemmingway.  He would lecture at us, sometimes with a bottle of Jack Daniels on the lectern, and occasionally stop to tell anti-Semitic or misogynist jokes.  “I put on the body-armor / of black rubber.”  When he retired and moved out of his office at the end of that semester, the women’s studies professor who moved into it hung a string of garlic in the doorframe and, rumor has it, had the space exorcised.

In my second year at college, after nearly failing my pre-med courses, I enrolled in a Contemporary American Poetry course taught by the poet Cleopatra Mathis.  Her class was focused around A. Poulin Jr.’s Contemporary American Poetry (5th edition), and Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” featured prominently on the syllabus as an example of extended metaphor.  I was editing the campus feminist newspaper at the time, called Spare Rib, and I was determined to help make Dartmouth a place where women could feel equal, comfortable, not outnumbered.  “The words are purposes. / The words are maps.”

When I graduated from college, I moved to Israel to do graduate work at Hebrew University, and on long days in the library, sometimes I’d grow tired of translating Gikatilla or slogging my way through Spinoza, and wend my way into the poetry section.  They had an extensive collection of almost exclusively Jewish poets there, and I only remember the women:  Marge Piercy, Chana Bloch, Cynthia Ozick, and every book Adrienne Rich had ever written.  I found An Atlas of The Difficult World, and hand-copied “Tattered Kaddish” into my journal.  Written on the 20th anniversary of her husband’s death, her poem is the only liturgy I know of for suicides, and it’s a poem I’ve called on since, too many times, for comfort in the face of that specific, violent, inexplicable loss:  “Praise to life though ones we knew and loved / loved it badly, too well, and not enough.”

From 2003 to 2004, I lived in Santa Cruz, California, in a cottage a few blocks from the ocean with a lemon tree outside my front window, and though she lived there too, I never saw Adrienne Rich.  “Ghostly touch on the shoulder: dust motes of air inhaled, snatch of talk heard boarding a plane, music stored in memory.”

finally got to meet her three years later in Virginia, at an event sponsored by VQR to celebrate the publication of a folio of her poems, and her essay “Permeable Membrane” (on poetry and the political) in their Spring 2006 issue.  I don’t remember speaking to her at all—I must have been too tongue-tied or shy—but I listened carefully.  “Art is a way of melting out through one’s own skin.”

My five year-old son is obsessed with sea creatures—especially those that live in the deep and produce their own light via bioluminescence.  We watch documentaries together, and read books about and by the explorer Sylvia Earle, who’s led more than 70 deep sea expeditions, including one where she guided the first team of women aquanauts on a two-week underwater expedition in 1970 (called the Tektite II Project), to research deep water eco-structures and the effects of underwater living on the human body.  “No one has imagined us.”

I think of Earle’s brave team of women, and how Rich joins the matriarchs of poetry we’ve lost already—Lucille Clifton, Grace Paley, all the other women who spoke truth to power in verse and taught us that our stories, our words, have worth. “Working on a draft, I move by touch through what I can’t see clearly. My finger on the shoulder of the ghost who first touched mine.”


Note:  All of Rich’s quotes in here come from “Diving into the Wreck,” “Tattered Kaddish,” “Twenty One Love Poems,” or “Permeable Membrane.”