April 28, 2012

The death of Adrienne Rich

I don't know why it surprised me to learn that the American poet Adrienne Rich, who died last month, was 82. She'd been around as long as I can remember, already a star voice in the American poetic firmament and in the feminist movement before I even came of age. But I stopped hearing about her after I left America for Europe, where women writers seemed to be more interested in celebrating their sexuality - which for many in those years, including Rich, for the first time could be unapologetically gay, than about things like turning down prizes because you don't want your art to "decorate the table of the power that holds you hostage" -- in the words of one of Rich's grand refusals, that of the National Medal of Arts, which she would have received from the hands of Bill Clinton, no less. Or maybe, more likely, they just weren't being offered any medals in their countries.

In the glimpses I had of her over the years, photos on the covers of poetry collections encountered in second-hand bookshops and the like, she never seemed to age, possibly because her look, which I'm not sure if she cultivated or not, was so elfin and androgynous. Her poems became ever more nervy and glowering -- I borrow these adjectives from one of her most famous poems, "Snapshots of a daughter-in-law", the one announcing the rupture between the old and new ways of being a woman -- she grew ever more elfin and androgynous, her eye remained ever as merciless, her wit ever as sharp (or, as WS Merwin said about her, quoted in the Washington Times obituary, "All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth”) but in the end her body did become old, and ill, enough to die.

There is an Adrienne Rich poem that I love. It's called "Diving into the wreck" and it was written in 1973. You can hear Anne Waldman read it aloud on the Poets.org website, which sounds as though it would be wonderful, but actually she muffs it up right in the very first or second line, and I decided I preferred reading it by myself. On the Modern American Poetry site from the University of Illinois, there is a page devoted to this poem, where a number of noted women poets and writers give their takes on it. I liked this one from Ruth Whitman:

"I believe that Diving into the Wreck is one of the great poems of our time. It is a poem of disaster, with a willingness to look into it deeply and steadily, to learn whatever dreadful information it contains, to accept it, to be part of it, not as victim, but as survivor." (Harvard Magazine, 1975).

The other thing people who weren't around then, or too young to have noticed, need to know about the seventies is that, for example, on American television you could see commercials for a wonderful tonic for tired housewives which would show them taking a swig and then doing their chores with a smile (it was 20% alcohol), which culminated with the husband putting his arm around her and saying to the camera "My wife. I think I'll keep her."

Disaster is the right word. Adrienne Rich survived and gave us her testimony.

Diving into the wreck
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

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.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00


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