When I was a teenager, I didn’t really like poetry. It seemed like a language I didn’t speak, a secret code that I couldn’t figure out. I dutifully read it for my English classes the way the way that one duly eats your vegetables, because they are Good For You–and, of course, because I was required to do so. When people (like my older sister Eve) told me that they genuinely enjoyed poetry, that just didn’t make sense to me.
So when Eve gave me An Atlas of a Difficult World for my 18th birthday, it was an unusual choice. It wasn’t completely random, since she’d previously read me bits of poetry from Adrienne Rich that I’d conceded were okay. But I had no idea I’d fall in love with the book, that I’d find myself reading it over and over, that I’d buy more and more of Adrienne Rich’s work. That I would even branch out and try other poets, and find other poems that spoke to me–from Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Borges, Louise Glück, Anne Michaels. From Adrienne Rich I learned that poetry wasn’t a code to decipher, that it wasn’t a ridiculously complicated way of saying something that could be said more clearly in plain English. That it could haunt you. That it could make you feel more alive. That it could it make you see the world differently. That it could articulate things you hadn’t been able to put into words on your own. That it could challenge you, push you. In some of my darker moments, I’ve found that poetry could connect to me in a way that few things could. As Rich herself asks, “Can you remember? when we thought that poets taught how to live?”1
A few of my favorite excerpts:
No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.2
A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country
as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country
(gazing through the great circle at Window Rock into the sheen of the Viet Nam Wall)
as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a citizen trying to wake
from the burnt-out dream of innocence, the nightmare
of the white general and the Black general posed in their camouflage,
to remember her true country, remember his suffering land: remember
that blessing and cursing are born as twins and separated at birth to meet again in mourning
that the internal emigrant is the most homesick of all women and of all men
that every flag that flies today is a cry of pain.
Where are we moored?
What are the bindings?
What behooves us?3
In my sixth-fifth year I know something about language:
it can eat or be eaten by experience
Medbh, poetry means refusing
the choice to kill or die4
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.5
—and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.
Is all this close to the wolverines’ howled signals,
that modulated cantata of the wild?
or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?
And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?6
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?
You yourself must change it.
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing?
You yourself must change it.
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it means to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?7
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.8
Farewell, Adrienne Rich (1929-2012).
- “Poetry I,” Your Native Land, Your Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986 ), 66 [↩]
- “Origins and History of Consciousness,” The Dream of a Common Language (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 7 [↩]
- “XI,” An Atlas of the Difficult World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991) [↩]
- “Edgelit,” Dark Fields of the Republic (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 71 [↩]
- “For Memory,” The Fact of a Doorframe (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), 285 [↩]
- “Twenty-One Love Poems,” The Dream of a Common Language (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 28 [↩]
- “Dreams Before Waking,” Your Native Land, Your Life (New York: Norton, 1986), 46 [↩]
- “XIII Dedications,” An Atlas of the Difficult World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991) [↩]