Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde — It is impossible for me to commemorate one without the other. The friendship and poetic bonds of these two poets stood out loudly, brashly, on my own coming-of-age landscape, which happened to be a very large predominantly-white college campus on the outskirts of Baltimore, complete with a mix of people of various faiths, ethnicities, sexualities, etc.. In the classroom, I was introduced to Adrienne Rich the same semester I found the work of Audre Lorde via my then-professor, Elaine Hedges, known for having brought “The Yellow Wallpaper” back to the public eye. Having just graduated from a high school in which I consciously chose not to segregate myself off with the few white students, after ahem, a traditional southern upbringing, I found myself thirsting for an example, any public example of friendship that crossed racial and class divides. The richness of both Rich’s and Lorde’s poetics and camaraderie deepened my awareness of these women as artists and helped me understand the power of such relationships as something that not only serves to validate but also pushes and challenges beyond comfort lines. Theirs was a complex one that lasted a lifetime; they were comrades in the great crime of speaking women’s lives into public consciousness. In Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, Alexis De Veaux cites Rich’s role between Lorde and Mary Daly:
She was one of few celebrated white feminists to acknowledge racism within the movement; this position put her in disfavor with some who saw discussions of race, as well as class, as a distraction or divisive and threatening to the movement’s gender focus and cohesiveness. Rich’s stature provided needed currency with which to engage less race-conscious feminists in a more progressive discourse. She recognized her own development toward that discourse as one that was in process, and sought to engage other white women in ways that were constructive, if not less confrontational.
I made my way through Rich’s wreck and into more poetry and her passionate essays, found relief and surprise in Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and The Cancer Journals, and then moved further into the college’s student-run International Club, the Pride Club, and African American and Native American courses that I likely would have steered clear of lest I put foot in mouth and embarrass myself – primarily because these women’s words compelled me to push past the security of my own world. Learning that neither Rich nor Lorde was ever perfect, that each one was perpetually becoming even as her poetics were also evolving set me on a path with the confidence to find out where I might be wrong, where I might be of use, and consciously grow evermore human, complete with flaws and uncertainties and hopes and faith. In Rich’s example, I saw that I could take that risk, grapple with the complexities of race and class intersections, and not be completely undone by my own clumsiness or ignorance. De Veaux continues, “She held firm to her belief that it was possible for white women to change …” Despite my upbringing and the calls for family loyalty, I too could learn.
Rich says best what holds, what tethers one to another, also in the face of difference, in “A communal poetry:”
… we began a conversation that was to go on for over twenty years, a conversation between two people of vastly different temperaments and cultural premises, a conversation often balked and jolted by those differences yet sustained by our common love for poetry and respect for each others’ work. For most of those twenty-odd years, during fourteen of which she struggled with cancer, we exchanged drafts of poems, criticizing and encouraging back and forth, not always taking each others’ advice but listening to it closely. We also debated, sometimes painfully, the politics we shared and the experiences we didn’t share. The women’s liberation movement was a different movement for each of us, but our common passion for its possibilities also held us in dialogue.
What I value about Rich can be seen in the recent outpouring of tributes: the personal that is so political. What she stood for, wrote and spoke about lies in the inextricable communion between life and art. She worked hard for a better world, forging bonds that a lesser person might have walked away from, and used poetry to speak that which has not been spoken – in an effort towards envisioning that better world. For Rich, poetry was not the revolution but served as a means toward it. It is a lens that allows us to focus on the larger implications of how we are in the world, and it is through the connective tissue of poetry that we are moved to action. Rich was an advocate of empathy in the highest order.
In her work, we sense that no matter how we debate it, the public-private split is a deceptive, misleading thing. We presumably long for an objective truth while excising and quarantining the subjective, sensing the devaluing of the feminine in this duality. But for someone dubbed a “political poet” so often, the stories of how Rich touched the lives of people on a personal level mount and blur the inevitable devaluing of our emotional lives and their relevance on a political level that would prefer we make war without checking our consciences and emotions. Rich’s poetry reminds us that such “business” is indeed the most personal, that anger and action have their places, and to ask questions so as to move into spaces we’ve been instructed not to occupy. In that vein, I leave you with a way into Rich’s “poetry of witness,” taken from her essay, “The hermit’s scream,” premised on one of Lorde’s poems, “What teaches us to convert lethal anger into steady, serious attention to our own lives and those of others? … How do you deal with the things you believe? How do I put myself on the line? How can I destroy what needs to die in me without destroying others at random?”
–Amy King, April 4, 2012