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Friday, April 13, 2012

Poetry, Politics, and the Polemic: Adrienne Rich as Guide

by Holly Simonsen

The public and private outpourings in response to the death of Adrienne Rich have left me with nothing unique to say, but an urgency to say it. The topic is an old one -- poetry and the individual responsibility, where the political becomes polemical and why polemic is a dirty word. The morning I heard of her death, I did not know what to do with myself. I pulled some old materials from a plastic bin now stored in my basement -- important files from graduate school, ideas that I don’t want to forget, one folder labeled, “Adrienne Rich.” I put the folder on the table along with the Rich books I’ve collected. On the books I placed an old bone -- a shoulder socket I found in a dry creek bed near Eden, UT, on top of the bone, five pieces of red thread. I lit incense.

In this age, poetry can be seen as a kind of phantasmagoria. It spends its days (largely ignored) in liberal arts schools and its nights festering within the body. Poetry is perhaps the only art in possession of serious scholarship that clearly resists captivity by the elite. Poetry grows in the body as language springs from the natural world. These wounded places exist and always will -- there are landscapes where poetry happens. And the elitists have no need for it -- no want for it, for it is a commodity that cannot be purchased or fully exploited. Poetry will always be spoken in prisons, barrios, and from the mouths of queers. Once, an Adrienne Rich poem arrived in the mail from my then graduate advisor, Jody Gladding:


I needed fox     Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face    burnt-yellow eyes fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox briars of legend it was said she
....had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them sharp truth distressing
....surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen’s courage in vixen terms

For a human animal to call for help
on another animal
is the most riven the most revolted cry on earth
come a long way down
Go back far enough it means tearing and torn    endless
....and sudden
back far enough it blurts
into the birth-yell of the yet-to-be human child
pushed out of a female the yet-to-be woman

The only note in the envelope, a handwritten scrawl, read, “Holly, I think you need this poem, especially the last stanza. I think A. Rich has yipped.” Encoded language, perhaps, for what "Fox" addresses that so few poems do: when a human animal calls on help from another animal it is a riven cry. This is where language and the body and the boundaries of their origins become beautifully hazy. Suddenly there is room for Coyote Holly, Pronghorn Holly, Holly who is Eared Grebe. For all the other things Adrienne Rich touched in me, perhaps this is the most poignant. Poetry is proof, it seems, of this mystery. What if another body knows, by some ancient rite or accident, what has happened here? We do. Poetry is camaraderie and survival.

Adrienne Rich is the human I seek out when living becomes difficult; she is the prophetess who has gone before. When my first female lover gifted me On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, I read the title essay five times in an afternoon, ashamed at myself that these revelations were coming so late in my life. What if I would have read the essay at 20? I like to think that I wouldn’t have spent the last decade draped in my own self-deception. “In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even in our own lives.... The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.” These are the things I want to tell you and these are the things I feel I must. When I read Adrienne Rich, I feel like she is telling me things that I already know, things I’ve known for a long time. The birth-yell and the death-bellow. How have I ignored or forgotten these sounds?

Making poetry is, like all art, a political act. Why do we pretend it isn’t? What is the appeal of that safety? The act of political defiance has very little to do with what is being said, rather it is in the saying. The pen to paper carries weight. In a recent correspondence with poet, Laura McCoy, she laments on the ubiquitous burden of justification poets must endure, “Why do we write? To learn things we couldn’t have otherwise realized. It seems like such an easy, obvious thing to have to do. Everyone should be writing. Since when is it considered a job?” So what is our responsibility, other than to continue making?

Rich offers this, “The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper.” We write to understand and then we must tell the truth of that experience. “Most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you that these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.” Writing the truth is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world. I do not believe that the poet is a liar.

There is an additional responsibility for the teacher. Embedded within reading list are pressures from departments, pressures from the canon, and the pressures of time. I teach a sixteen-week course where students often admit they will probably never read another book in their lives, let alone a book of poetry. For me, it feels like a last chance. I can no longer be afraid to sacrifice this chance to the dictations of what others deem important. Sure, it sounds like I’m pressing my own agenda. I am and I will do so transparently. Also, I will always teach a new book. Something I’ve never taught before. Something I’ve humbly discovered.

If a poem is published, there is no need to shy from its political interpretations. When Adrienne Rich was chosen by W.H. Auden as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award, she used the literary celebrity that followed as a platform to address the marginalized. Still, voices among me, including my own, continue to be silenced. I can use what I have to state my truth openly and honestly. If I discover some secret back door, I can use it to promote equity.

Upon learning of Rich’s death, I felt a strange and unidentifiable responsibility. In my grief, I experienced anger, Adrienne Rich is not allowed to die. There will be nobody like her. Who will I turn to? In an effort to reconcile it, I have tried to identify this responsibility with little regard to my personal inhibitions. I asked Laura McCoy what to do. Her response was simple, “Pick up where she left off.” I’m not similar to Adrienne Rich, but I am not dissimilar. I am a woman, a lesbian, a truth-seeker, a teacher, and a poet. I have yipped. I cannot match Adrienne Rich’s discourse. She will always be the woman I petition when things seem unbearable. Her death shouldn’t do things that her life couldn’t -- her life did this for me. Her death scared me into silence, one I want to break without shame. My choice is to continue working toward something real, something akin to knowing Adrienne Rich on the ground. I do not know exactly what I mean by this, but when I imagine the way I know her, it feels rooted.

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