As a new-to-the-school ninth grader I had the chutzpah to go to the chair of the English department and complain that my English class wasn’t serious enough. I’m embarrassed now, to think of how bratty and entitled I must have seemed, but I can’t regret complaining because in response, the chair gave me Adrienne Rich. He also gave me Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred (which I found interesting) and lots of Elizabeth Bishop (who I found totally boring). He gave me Sylvia Plath (compelling but also off-putting) and Sharon Olds (exciting but scary). Rich was my immediate favorite. I loved her sexy language, her anger, her feminism, her historical invocations, her seriousness. I loved what her poems were about and how the words seemed to fit together, to cleave, like magic spells. At fifteen what I craved was serious poetry and to me Rich embodied seriousness. She wrote about things that really mattered with candor, fearlessness and artfulness. She was beautiful and critical of beauty all at the same time.
I continued to read Rich’s poems all though high school and college, although she was not assigned in any of my “serious” literature or poetry classes. I brought all her books with me to Iowa City and read them often, although I don’t remember anyone talking seriously about Rich at the Writer’s Workshop. By then I had learned to appreciate and admire Elizabeth Bishop and so many other powerful women writers. It was not that I no longer loved Rich, but I noticed that many women like me rarely spoke of our formative passion for Plath, Olds and Rich. It seemed better, somehow, to keep these loves private.
After graduate school I met Arielle Greenberg who became a sister to me, creatively and emotionally. Together we decided to edit a book of essays by younger women poets about a living woman poet who influenced or inspired them. Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections came out of our desire “to document and celebrate the clamor and community of contemporary women’s poetry and, in particular, the relationships between two generations.” We allowed our contributors to choose their own subjects. The writer who wrote about Rich took a sort of airy, lighthearted approach to the topic and ultimately we decided not to include that essay. I felt, somehow, that a lighthearted approach to such a serious poet felt inappropriate. Rich, in my mind, was the mother of us all and had to be approached with greater reverence. In retrospect, I do regret that decision; it seems wrong for the book not to include an essay about Rich even if our introduction quoted from On Lies, Secrets and Silence and she is mentioned or alluded to many times in other essays.
Every time I published a book I sent it to Adrienne Rich. I never heard back from her, but it was important to me to know that she might read my work, that I was writing into a world in which she was alive. I continue to read and re-read Rich, particularly her prose. The poems and prose lead me to tears and laughter—it’s almost too much for me to read of her feelings about her three sons and her ambition and her claustrophobia in Of Woman Born. When I read Rich, now, twenty -five years later, I have a deeply intimate, uncomfortable feeling of recognition. I’m unnerved (and nerved) to see lines like “Marriage is lonelier than solitude” or “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” underlined in my high school copy of The Dream of a Common Language. It’s so close to me, so precious to me, so bright I almost can’t stand to look at her for very long. The recognition reminds me of the moments I see my husband’s likeness in my sons (both from his genes and fathering). Adrienne Rich never knew me but she is like a sperm donor or egg donor to so many of my poems and to so much of my experience, and I have turned to her prose the way one turns to a mother, for guidance, comfort, power, and commiseration.
I have not written poems about the birth of my third child, Judah. The birth was painful and intense but—because I was supported and felt safe and powerful—it was also as uncomplicated as a birth can be. For the past two years I’ve been working on a poetic memoir about my mother and my poetic influences. Rich is mentioned, but considering how important she is to me, gets very little attention. I think I have not needed to write about Rich or about my third son’s birth because my experience of both are painful, transformative, and life-changing but also safe, normal, real, non-neurotic, serious, and, on some level, simple.
It was simple to meet you, simple to take your eyes
into mine, saying: these are eyes I have known
from the first… It was simple to touch you
against the hacked background, the grain of what we
had been, the choices, years… It was even simple
to take each other’s lives in our hands, as bodies.
What was not simple: to wake from drowning
from where the ocean beat inside us like an afterbirth
into this common, acute particularity
these two selves who walked half a lifetime untouching—
from “Origins and History of Consciousness” The Dream of the Common Language