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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
1. Adrienne Rich, Dead at 82

So very sad to have sat down at my computer this evening and learned that Adrienne Rich has died at the age of 82.

Some of you may know she is my favorite poet. When I was an undergrad I had to take a senior seminar. The one I wanted on fiction filled up before my turn to register came. There was only one left, about some poet named Adrienne Rich. I was not looking forward to it. Would it be cliche to say the class changed my life? I never enjoyed poetry so much until then. I never knew there was poetry like the kind Rich wrote. I never knew what feminism really meant. A whole new way of seeing and being in the world opened up to me. The professor was friends with Rich and she arranged for her to come to the college to give a reading and then have lunch with my class afterwards. At lunch we all sat crowded around several tables we had pushed together. I spoke not a word, I was too much in awe and too much afraid I’d say something stupid.

A few years later when it came time to write my thesis for a master’s degree, I wrote it on Adrienne Rich. The professor who taught the seminar was my advisor and she sent a finished copy of my thesis to Rich. I didn’t hear from her, I didn’t expect to. I was in heaven just knowing I had written something worthy and that she had seen it. That was 1991 and I have kept up with her poetry and her essays ever since. Not on the level of a scholar but as a careful reader, fascinated with watching her continue to develop and change and show me things I had not considered before.

I expect there might be some uncollected poems and essays that will make their way to publication eventually. But the brilliant, compassionate woman has died and there will be no new poems, no further dispatches from a mind and heart that has meant so much to me.

I want to share some of her words but there is so much it was hard to choose just one. So here are a few excerpts. I hope you enjoy them, and, if you have never read her before, I hope they inspire you to seek out her work and read more.

From “Diving into the Wreck” in Diving into the Wreck

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

~~~

From “Dreams Before Waking” in Your Native Land, Your Life

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 mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

~~~

“Delta” from Time’s Power

If you have taken this rubble for my past
raking through it for fragments you could sell
know that I long ago moved on
deeper into the heart of the matter

If you think you can grasp me, think again:
my story flows in more than one direction
a delta springing from the riverbed
with its five fingers spread

~~~
And here is Rich herself reading her poem “What Kind of Times Are These”

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