Adrienne Rich has died today.
I found this out while I was on Twitter during my Medieval Travel Narratives class. I immediately became numb, and as I stared into space, I thought of how influential she has been in my life.
I first discovered Adrienne Rich when I was 18 years old and coming to terms with my queerness. By chance, I was placed in a creative writing course at my undergrad university, and in a moment of trying to impress a professor I had a babydyke crush on at the time, I went on a trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival. Someone mentioned her name, and I found one of her books (The Fact of a Doorframe) at the Festival merchandise stand. I submersed myself in her words the entire busride back to school, and I haven’t been able to stop reading her amazing words since.
A year later, in September 2009, I was blessed to have the opportunity to hear Adrienne speak at my university. As a member of a creative writing poetry class, I was invited to have an intimate conversation with Adrienne and about 20-25 other students. I believe I have a few videos somewhere on my old laptop, I’ll try to recover it in the near future, but I remember being blown away by the intelligence and bravery of Adrienne. She was a beautiful soul, inside and out, and hearing her speak and give advice on writing poetry really was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my undergraduate poetic career.
Around my birthday this year, I became very reflective. The past year has been very tumultuous to me, and, in a journal entry to my mentor/ poetry teacher, I reflected on how much Adrienne influenced me. I wrote,
“ Birthdays are a funny thing. They happen once a year and are probably one of the most consistent aspects of life, yet every birthday is supposed to represent another year of growth and development as a human being. This changes every year and is in no way consistent. This weekend, I celebrated turning 22. In society, 22 isn’t that significant of a birthday. It simply is an escape from being 21. Reflecting on turning 22 led to me thinking of everything I was leaving behind in 21– emotional distress, a tumultuous relationship, the loss of a friend, the loss of myself in a flurry of emotions, etc. This week, I decided I needed to find comfort in an old friend so I decided to curl up with Adrienne Rich and take a look at her poetry.
Adrienne Rich is everything I could hope to find in a poet. She’s strong-willed, determined to speak the truth about every topic she conquers, and simply wonderful. She says that “poetry is a way of expressing unclear feeling.” I couldn’t agree more– to me, poetry is therapeutic and a way to work through whatever emotions are floating about in my head. After re-reading “Twenty-One Love Poems,” I remembered that life is a constant journey, full of ups, downs, and everything in between. I often expect to be able to see things in black and white with a clear definition. This isn’t always the case; life is full of crazy turns, unexpected changes, and different shades of gray. Instead of trying to understand them, sometimes it’s easier to just accept them as a part of your life. Re-reading Adrienne Rich reminded me that it’s okay to stop trying to make sense of life, and that I should just accept whatever is thrown at me as a life lesson. I’m trying to work the simple acceptance of life into my poem this week. Sometimes, just accepting the absurd makes a poem all the more powerful.”
I also imitated Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” and wrote “Five True Life Love Poems” in response to my birthday weekend, the crazy year I experienced as a twenty-one year old, and the culmination of everything in my life.
Five True Life Love Poems
A gentle melody wakes me from my slumbers.
I was dreaming of a caress easing its way from my breasts to my heart
when you decided to send me a simple message to say hello.
It’s 4:03am, and this is the first I’ve heard from you in almost a week.
I consulted about you to my therapist last night–
my best friend came to visit me for my birthday
and amongst the alcoholic waterfall
I confessed to him my fears of the world.
He told me I was pursuing a relationship I didn’t want
because it was the first time someone held me
since I learned to let go.
He’s right. I don’t want you.
I felt your arms around me last night in the bar.
“Safety,” you called it.
You played with your lip ring and got it stuck in facial hair
as I confided to you why I am terrified of moving forth.
You had known of the emotional scars she had left me with,
but you didn’t know about the physical burns in my skin.
You didn’t know that she took pleasure
in leaving marks on my skin
or that I had grown accustomed to being
a human ashtray. It was sexy at the time.
Your eyes turned to fury, then you wept with me
amongst the strangers in the bar
because you love me
far more than any lover ever could.
After witnessing my collapse and confession
in my best friend’s arms,
and seeing him hold me
like he sometimes holds you,
you realized why I was so afraid to sleep with
“the perfect one night stand” you brought along
to our night out.
I am terrified of being vulnerable
to anyone but my best friend.
You watched him hold me and comfort me
and although you felt a slight pang of jealousy
that he was holding me in his arms instead of you,
you realized that you will never compete
with the place I hold in his heart.
Thank you for accepting us,
and sharing your love with me.
I didn’t realize you’re as vulnerable as me.
You, too, are petrified of making love,
even with a friend.
You’re concerned with the curves that
I find beautiful and strong
and I’m concerned with
the scars that mark my naïve stupidity
of believing that love could be formed
with cigarette burns and emotional scarring.
Before we agree to this,
I want to be sure
that I’m not alone
in being scared of being alone.
I’ve known you only as a friend,
and I’m not ready to lose your friendship.
I called my therapist tonight.
He told me he’s proud of me
for finally acknowledging
what my true fears are.
He also told me I need to take a deep breath
and stop hyperventilating
and to lay off the bottle.
“Alcohol makes you a crazy ginger,” he says.
He (almost) always is.
I tell him I love him,
and he tells me he loves me back.
Sometimes, love doesn’t have to be romantic.
Today, Diana Cage posted on Facebook, “Heartbroken that Adrienne Rich has died. As we lose our heroes I wonder where are the outspoken, out, feminist intellectuals who are stepping up to take their places?” I can’t help but echo Diana’s thoughts. These were some of my own ponderings as soon as I heard Adrienne had passed away. In an age where everyone seems to have a different cause, where has the representation of queer-identified poets and activists gone? Today’s young queer women and babydykes* don’t know of lesbians other than Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Jane Lynch, and the occasional temporarily-lesbian-identified reality tv star. While these are influential women, they’re not necessarily in the same standings as activists and feminists so many queer women admire. I look at young lesbians in high school, and they only learn of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, etc. through the knowledge passed on from “older dykes.” Where are the outspoken, out, feminist individuals Diana brings up? Where is the representation in this generation? Will the entire feminist and lesbian movements be forgotten as legends such as Adrienne Rich grow older and die? How can we be sure to keep their legacies alive? I’m scared to face the potential answers to these questions.
Rest in peace, Adrienne Rich. You have undoubtedly changed my life for the better, and influenced the queer woman I have become today.
*I know some of you may be putting 2+2 together and realizing I’m twenty-two. Some of you probably categorize me as a baby dyke still. When I speak of babydykes and today’s young queer women, I think of the girls close to my sister’s age in high school, those just coming out in college, those who go on college tours and discover the queer community for the first time, etc. I’m not trying to be hypocritical!