Adrienne Rich made the space for so many to come to poetry, to bring who we are – in all our queerness and rage and love – to poetry.
Like so many others, reading her poem “Diving into the Wreck” radically changed my relationship to poetry. It was in a college course on the literature of 1960s, and my former-hippy professor walked us line by line through the poem. As I read of the speaker’s descent into the ocean and transformation, I felt my body vibrate in resonance. “The sea is not a question of power.” The next day, I checked out all of her books of poetry from the library. Her words gave me the courage to enter the realm of poetry in a way that no other poet I had encountered previously had.
In “The Spirit of Place,” she asks twice: with whom do you believe your lot is cast? As a young poet seeking to make sense of my own position as a mixed race queer person, I appreciated her willingness to interrogate herself and others, particularly her willingness struggle with race. Taking her cue, I sought to answer that question again and again: with whom do you believe your lot is cast? I came to understand the power structures of society and saw how I was complicit in, as well as harmed by, those structures. I also learned that to take a stand is to take sides.
Rich made space to call myself poet, to call myself feminist, to write what pulsed deepest in me, what was most valuable and vulnerable. She made woman steelstrong and opened the book of myths to record our own, resounding names.
And she closed the space off too. She could see far and with complexity, but she had her own blinders. She is quoted in Janice Raymond’s 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, which is filled with hateful, transphobic sentiments about transgender women. Rich never repudiated her inclusion in this book, never said she reconsidered her stance. It pains me to think she would not see all women – no matter form their bodies took – as part of the sisterhood. It angers me to think she would refuse to cast her lot with them – and with us, allies of transwomen.
I once wrote a poem, in dialogue with Rich’s “the Images,” My poem complicates Rich’s image of “two women sleeping together” by turning that lesbian couple into a transgender woman and a cisgender woman sleeping together. The lesbian literary journal Sinister Wisdom (which Rich edited years ago with her partner Michelle Cliff), published it, paired with “The Images.” I often wondered if Rich read it, what she thought of it, and whether her views on transgender women had changed over the past thirty years. I hoped, one day, I’d be able to have a conversation with her about it.
Now, that conversation is no longer possible. In “North American Time” she acknowledged,
“We move but our words stand
and this is verbal privilege”
She has gone, leaving a trove of words behind that will continue to be responsible for inspiring and emboldening so many – women, poets, feminists. But she has also left behind words that must be critically questioned. This is the complexity of poetry, the complexity of living a politically charged life. In the end, I remain grateful that her work gave me to the courage enter into this complex and difficult space. My (and others’) mourning of Rich is complicated, and I’d like to think she would want nothing less.