Prolific thinker and poet Adrienne Rich passed away yesterday at the age of 82.
The out lesbian writer has penned so many lines we’ve loved and lived by since she began publishing 60 years ago. Her many contributions to literature have won her accolades and awards from The National Book Award for Poetry to Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award, as well as honorary degrees and fellowships from the likes of Yale and Rutgers University. A staunch feminist, Adrienne famously refused to go on stage alone to accept the National Book Award in 1973. Instead, she brought Alice Walker and Audre Lorde with her.
An essayist as well as poet, Adrienne published seven books of essays in addition to the 20 collections of poetry she in her too-short time with us. One highly important piece was the 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which she surmised that the patriarchal society we live in wants to keep women heterosexual because they want to control them; to keep them as mothers, in the home, without any sense of self or sexual awareness.
Her work was so important to the women, to mothers, to lesbians, to world consciousness that our community will not be alone in mourning this loss. Adrienne leaves behind her partner of many years, Michelle Cliff, who is also a writer and will surely (hopefully, when she is ready) dedicate some time to writing about their relationship and the time she spent with Adrienne.
Adrienne has a poem in the spring issue of The Paris Review, and the publication interviewed her just a year ago when she published her last book, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. They asked about the line in her poem “Powers of Recuperation” that reads “All new learning looks at first like chaos,” wondering if it meant she was hopeful about the future. Adrienne said:
Well, that poem begins, “A woman of the citizens’ party” and immediately a voice interrupts: “What’s that?” Implied is a forgotten history of radical citizenship, resistance, a “party” still existing but now banished, clandestine. Its former or future leaders are to be found living under bridges, communicating in codes, preparing another phase of history, a new learning. That woman might be a leader or a message-bearer, one of those who haven’t given up, who move organically with what’s required by new situations, seeming chaos.
The image at the end of the poem is from Dürer’s famous engraving, Melencolia I. It shows a woman, powerful in face and body, introspective, seated among various instruments of science and artisanship. She seems to be imagining—we don’t know what. Melencolia I refers to an old idea of the melancholy of the imaginative spirit—not sadness but a profound study of the world. I’ve had that engraving on my wall since I was in my teens.
So walking through the desolation of a built city, the woman citizen encounters a figurative planner of the “unbuilt place.” My hope is that these metaphorical creations don’t stay metaphorical for too long.
Adrienne was a leader and a voice of many generations, throughout the civil rights and women’s movements to the Vietnam war, through her last moments. She never stopped thinking and so she never stopped writing. We were blessed to have her thoughts and her words, which will live on forever.
I first read Adrienne’s work in my gender and women’s studies courses in college, which is likely where a lot of other women first encountered her if they weren’t lucky enough to find her on their own. This quote from her will always stand out to me:
Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.
Please share with us any memories you have of Adrienne or how her work has touched you, perhaps even a favorite quote or line.