On Thursday, September 29, 2005 I traveled up to Miller Theatre at Columbia University, certain that this evening – Adrienne Rich would be reading old and new poems and then speaking about her work – would be inexplicably necessary for me to give myself permission to enter my own collision of identities further in a way I knew I was avoiding. I look over the entry in my journal for this evening, surprised at the feast of exclamation marks and a partial pencil sketch of Adrienne. The pencil is eager and there are fragments and notes I can no longer make sense of, the young woman I was then no longer exists.
I remember carrying my armfuls of her books – poetry and prose – to the small table where she was signing books. I’d waited for over an hour in line and felt embarrassed that I’d dragged so many books there with me. So selfish, I remembered, with so many people also waiting. I was a graduate student in the fiction program at Sarah Lawrence College but already secretly knew I was also a poet. I remember, the photographer within me squinting, staring at her hands and how her eyes, candidly brown, gazed at me. “What are you writing?” she asked quietly. She seemed tired. I don’t know how she even knew I was a writer, a dreamer. “Stories, I think. Maybe poems. Maybe,” I said, mixing all the words up. The more honest answer would have been to say, Nothing, which is what I felt after thanking her, nearly crying in joy, and gathering up her pages, the spines of her books and her syllables, into my shy arms and leaving the small hallway changed. Uncertain what I would do with this clarity, brief and nearly inaudible, I carried like a flare back to my life.
I did attend other events later where Adrienne read and spoke about her poetry and her unapologetic political voice. But it was that first encounter with her that mattered most to me. To witness the body in which such a force had changed the perceptions and possibilities of language and power for so many of us. It made me ask that question, what are you writing, whenever I perched on the abyss with my pencil. Or camera. It appears each moment now, fused to my blood. Thank you so much, Adrienne.
In “Telephone Ringing In The Labryinth”, there is a sequence towards the end of the collection in section V. It’s the first part of “Draft #2006” and Rich writes, “Suppose we came back as ghosts asking the unasked questions.” And when I read this long poem and consider “the border of poetry” (which is where I mostly live), I remember Adrienne’s eyes and her hands and how, in a glimpse, she saw far ahead of me what I am only glimpsing now. She seemed, more than so many contemporary poets, to sustain the immediacy of our time and how it must unavoidably align with our tomorrow.
I pulled two shelves’ worth of books down when I heard the announcement of Adrienne’s passing. I blasted her voice, thick as paint, in my artists’ studio. She will never be a ghost. She asked questions we have yet to hear in our most empty places and the rage we do not use to live. The answer is the least of such a gesture. A world, a body, a courage, an inimitable and political witness surged before and within us, stripped from fear and privilege and silence, in a humanness that is nearly endangered in our time.
The same section of that poem interrogates humanity as only Adrienne did,
“(What were you there for? Why did you walk out? What/
would have made you stay? Why wouldn’t you listen?)
-Couldn’t you show us what you meant, can’t we get it right/
this time? Can’t you put it another way? –
I cannot write an elegy for Adrienne Rich in the tradition that elegies are usually conceived in the mausoleums of poetry. When I think of my identity I’m listening now in a way I can never compromise. Rich closes the section of that poem, “(You were looking for openings where they’d been walled up –)”.
What I want to say about her work – her presence belongs to syllables and bones, too broad and human and fearless to shroud.