Adrienne Rich: 1929 - 2012

Adrienne Rich died last night at the age of 82.  Her importance to the feminist movement can’t be underestimated.  There was a time when almost everyone I knew had a copy of her prose essays;  ‘Lies, Secrets and Silence’.  Her poetry has been life-changing for many women, because she put into words what had not been said before - about the reality of women’s lives.

I haven’t agreed with all Adrienne Rich’s politics - I like men, love men,  and often think they’ve had as raw a deal as we have from gender stereotyping, but that wasn’t something you could say in the heat of the feminist debate.   Nevertheless,  her poetry has been very important in my own life.  ‘Snapshots of a Daughter in Law’ hit me like a blinding flash when it was published in England, and gave words to my severe depression caused by trying to live in an unhappy relationship.  Like the young woman in her poem, I too would stand at the kitchen sink, blinded by misery.

Banging the coffee-pot into the sink
she hears the angels chiding, and looks out
past the raked gardens to the sloppy sky.
Only a week since They said: Have no patience.

The next time it was: Be insatiable.
Then: Save yourself; others you cannot save.
Sometimes she's let the tapstream scald her arm,
a match burn to her thumbnail,

or held her hand above the kettle's snout
right in the woolly steam. They are probably angels,
since nothing hurts her anymore, except
each morning's grit blowing into her eyes.

Here was someone who felt just like me - whose mind wandered towards poetry and other things while doing the washing up, who kept trying to be the perfect wife, crushing down rebellion and dissatisfaction at the limitations of the role.  Suddenly, instead of feeling guilty about those snatched moments scribbling, I felt validated.  It was ok to write and let the dust gather on the piano!    Later I found  'Diving into the Wreck'
and loved it - the exploration of that undersea, unfathomable landscape inside us.  It’s not just a feminist poem, it’s universal.  This is just a short quote.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

But the one that always makes me smile is the one about living with an artist, called ‘Living in Sin’,  and the romantic disillusionment that sets in from the first moment: -

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime.

But of course, given the extent of her expectations,  reality soon begins to creep in.

By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

I live with an artist and there’s a lot of dust on the furniture (not to mention the windows) - but I cancelled the milkman a long time ago!


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