When I think of Adrienne Rich, I do not always think of specific poems, even though her poems later hit me like lotus blossoms with a special ability to detonate. My first stunning engagement with her work was through her way of thinking about writing and poetry through her essays. I still have my paperback copy of What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics that she signed for me in 1998 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Her name written in careful, almost angular letters looked as if they became part of the design on the title page. It was the only time that I saw her read in person. Even then, she was soft-spoken, tiny, walked with a cane, and required assistance to get to the microphone. Her strength as a writer contradicted her frail appearance. I was just starting to listen to quieter poets and finding kinship with poets in less bombastic registers. I was awed.
After that night, I found myself rereading What Is Found There and looking for more. When I read Arts of the Possible, she had me thinking about poetry in deep and inclusive manner that I had never been able to articulate. What could reading lists look like? When I met C.S. Giscombe a couple of years later, I gleefully shouted that I had read about him and a diverse cross-section of what were then new writers to me in Arts of the Possible. In these essays, she showed me what intersectionality looked like, how it could behave in literary thought. She also represented by example a commitment to thinking larger than herself, very much like other women writers using the essay to expand progressive thought, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker.
I have always been shaken by “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and lately have found myself writing out lines from The Dream of a Common Language, but I can always say that Rich wrote with an eye to the future for those she called kin and the larger world which must reconcile that we need each other to fully grow and become better people. This is the work that makes writers like Rich indispensable, and almost immortal. I will carry her words like shield and bread, that which protects, but also sustains.