I first read the work of Adrienne Rich in a New England Women Poets class at the University of New Hampshire. The course reading list included Rich’s Your Native Land, Your Life (1986). In these poems, I found a voice unlike any I had heard before: honest, self-exploratory, political, sometimes crude, sometimes tender. The poems address issues of womanhood, sexuality, identity, tradition, violence, suffering, victimhood, and detritus. Although they contain cause for despair—Rich refuses to ignore the world as it is—their speaker never succumbs to that despair. Instead, she praises “the edges that blur” and reminds that “We’ll dream of a longer summer / but this is the one we have.” Her willingness to confront reality is inspiring and addictive. I sought more.
I read The Dream of a Common Language (1978), and again, I found myself on metaphorical knees, bowing under the weight of Rich’s veracity. The Dream of a Common Language contains poems that demand a revised and more complete communication. “Twenty-One Love Poems,” in particular, allows readers to access the personal experience of the speaker and to participate in her emotional landscape, while simultaneously challenging and disrupting conventional understanding of gender and resulting boundaries.
The female is at the center of “Twenty-One Love Poems.” In this sequence, Rich represents a female identity and a sexual identity that has been confined and marginalized. Her tone elicits guilt, melancholy, yearning: “…the desire to show you to everyone I love / to move openly together / in the pull of gravity, which is not simple.” Rich exposes society’s prejudices but concentrates on the task of reformation. Her speaker admits weakness, and, in doing so, she is strong: “…my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds / break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly.” She identifies her anger and her grief, and she calls out the injustices that surround her. Like most people in marginalized groups, Rich’s speaker lives in a “half-world.” She includes herself in her interrogation of humanity: “the worst thing of all— / not the crimes of others, not even our own death, / but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough.” A gentle reminder ends section X: “without tenderness, we are in hell.” I am grateful for such reminders. As a poet, as a woman, as a human, I owe so much to Adrienne Rich. A world of American poetry without the voice of Rich would most certainly be a “half-world.”