At the age of twenty, I became intoxicated with Adrienne Rich’s prose as if I’d been made aware of a fabulous secret that revealed the truths embedded deep beneath my lived life. Rarely did I speak of what she’d taught me, not then. But everything I experienced had a new filter, and I suddenly saw the world I lived in quite clearly. Yet, I acted otherwise. You would not have known, watching me in motion in the life I was gifted at that time, that I had a sort of sinister awareness about my position as a woman in the world that had been granted by my initiation into the world of Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry.
We were on a bus, heading up to Aberdeen, my boyfriend and I. This was in 1991, during my junior year aboard, when I lived in Scotland and attended the University of Edinburgh as a literature student. We were sitting on this bus, not speaking, and I was reading Rich’s Blood, Bread and Poetry for the first time. This boyfriend was a mean piece of work, but I loved how his heavy eyelashes fell against his cheeks behind his wire-rimmed glasses. He was a painter. Don’t doubt me when I say he was brilliant. He was. But he had found ways to amuse himself. When we sat in cafes on Sunday mornings reading the papers, he’d suddenly crouch on all fours and bark, and nip at my leg. This is true. It pleasured him to embarrass me. On that trip to his parents’ house in Aberdeen, he literally chased me around their backyard on stilts. Later, he spoke about a woman he’d gotten pregnant (long before he and I had met) showing up to inform him she was having his baby. Hadn’t he wanted to know his child? I asked. He said he never wanted to see this woman or her child again. Later, he’d grab my head and knock it against a wall when we were having an argument. I cried and couldn’t stop crying, and so he slapped me to stop me from crying. I lay on the floor, and he slapped my face again. Before all that, on the afternoon I sat next to him on that bus reading Adrienne Rich—and while reading her prose would not prevent everything I just told you about from happening, nor would it prevent me from making several terrible decisions about handing my own power over to men during the next decade of my life—I suddenly knew that I was sitting next to a misogynist: my boyfriend. I knew this because I couldn’t tell him, explain to him, anything about what I was reading and how much it moved me, and it was then I knew just what kind of trouble I was in.
I saw it all: the whole scope of the problem. Every motion of the hand that waved me through a doorway. Every man who opened a door for me, allowing me in. Oh, Adrienne Rich made a lot of problems for me. In the year following my study abroad in Scotland, when I was back at my college in Vermont, there was nothing else I could think about other than my situation as a woman. I did not feel especially friendly toward the world. I felt toxic with the knowledge I’d been granted from reading Rich. I couldn’t do a goddamned thing without recognizing the power dynamics inherent in every social situation I entered into. I couldn’t brush my teeth without thinking about it. At this point, I lived with another man. He was weak-minded, but it’s the weak that make the greatest bullies. He made away with my car because he needed it to get to work to pay his half of the rent. He lived off of me. He felt very sorry for himself. He called himself a feminist. He read Adrienne Rich and Ms. Magazine (I subscribed), and after doing so left piles of his dirty laundry all over the house. I cooked and cleaned. This wasn’t part of the deal! All the while, I had the blackest thoughts. I had Rich on the brain.
I started screaming. I don’t mean that we had fights. We did, sure. We argued. When I say I started screaming, I mean I started to have uncontrollable fits of screaming—primal screaming. I would let these screams tear out of my throat. The cats scuttled beneath the bed. I couldn’t help myself. It was “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” married to a horror movie, its decibels multiplied ad infinitum. And yet, I’d never been anyone’s daughter-in-law. Still, aren’t we women all daughter-in-lawed? Sometimes, I think my whole life as a woman has occurred inside a prison.
You think I’m being dramatic? Try this: The moment a feeling enters the body is political. I may be nothing. And if that’s the case, then it seems just as likely that I may be everything. Yet, I’ve never been confident that Adrienne Rich would have liked my approach toward life, or poetry. I’ve always tended to lean toward the extravagant when it comes to gesture, poetic and otherwise. Rich’s poetry made me feel guilty for preferring the lyric, the Romantic. Her polemic tended to make me feel messy and self-indulgent. I carried with me the sense that I was somehow incapable of living up to her vision of the female writer’s responsibility to a world so fully occupied by other women.
But Rich knew! She did know how I felt that afternoon on the bus winding its way toward Aberdeen. As I still do. One phrase I can never forget, from her poem “The Demon Lover,” rises up in my mind whenever I am feeling ill from contradiction:
Seasick, I drop into the sea.
I met Adrienne Rich once. But, feeling very shy, I did not assert myself. This is a shame. Because she meant the world to me. She was visiting the University of Cincinnati where I was a Ph.D. student in 2002, and I barely approached her. I was aware that at the time that she was in poor health, and I didn’t want to bother her. She was such an icon I was unable to see her as merely human. Or maybe she seemed more human to me than I’d ever felt because she was so humane. In some ways, she made me feel like an animal, because all of her work made me feel like I should be capable of so much more humanity than I’ve ever been able to muster.