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.
-from Diving Into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich
I never watch the news on tv. I am ashamed and proud of that fact, but that’s beside the point. I was distracted, while settling into bed, and let a dvr’d show end and the news popped up in front of me. Adrienne Rich had died. The day before. I had no idea. All of my social mediums had failed to inform me. None of my literary friends had posted about it.
I had, obviously, not read any news (online or otherwise), had been in a bubble of sorts lately – busy with a brand new niece and work and friends in need and being so very smitten all of the sudden. I leaned back into my pillow and felt dumb-struck. Sad, but vaguely so. Like the woman herself was already a mythical figure to me, so to realize she was actually physically gone was an impossible-to-understand thing.
It seemed fitting that when I woke, I had, for the first time in a really long time, reached out in my sleep, had woken up with half of my body aimed toward the other side of the bed, searching for the body that might have been there but wasn’t that night. I had reached out to touch someone, in my sleep, without thinking, trying to touch what is uncomplicated and good in my life while dreaming of Rich and her words and her death. I woke and thought she would be pleased with that coincidence, with that fact. I thought of her Twenty-One Love Poems and the image of a half-empty bed and feathered grass and new love at the age of forty-five. The image of myself and her poem and my own now empty bed made my heart swell ever so slightly.
You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again *
I had seen her read once, in Fresno, at an old theater as part of a college sponsored event. I was new into the writing program and I was new(ish)ly into a long relationship with the only woman I have ever loved. I was aging out of my feminazi phase and settling into a more level-voiced and educated feminism. I was learning the shape that the craft of writing makes as I was sitting in flourescent lit classrooms spending hours talking about art and writing and fiction and poetry as real life things, as ways to see the world, as vital necessary valuable things.
I was devouring Queer theory and discovering the poetry of Audre Lorde and Irena Kelpfisz and Gloria Anzaldúa at the same time that I was breathing in William Faulkner and Raymond Carver and Toni Morrison. Adrienne was always there, like a many-decked bridge between the great white canon and the mythic women of fiction and these new crazy wild women of writing that made my skin tingle and pulse with the possibility of making art, gorgeous beautiful art, that came with a fist and a howl, that lived beyond tenth grade reading assignments and dusty library shelves. That lived.
I probably first read Rich in high school, but my first memory of reading her was in college at San Francisco State. In one of the first classes (of many) that I started to attend and didn’t finish before eventually being disqualified from the CSU system for failing (to attend) too many classes, semester after semester. It was a class taught by a woman who was one of the founders of the non-profit women’s bookstore in San Francisco and when I think of Adrienne, I sometimes interchange this woman’s face for hers. They are not dissimilar in appearance and when I think of one I am just as likely to conjure the wrong face as I am to picture the right one. They are certainly bound together in my mind and so Adrienne is fused directly into the fabric that is that moment in my life – those weeks I discovered what later became the calling, the passion, that I had been searching for all of those lost semesters on that San Francisco campus, right there in front of me, waiting quietly until I was ready for it so many years later.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it’s a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment. **
At first, there was a depth to her imagery and language that made me feel un-smart. Made me squirm while I tried to meld together the emotions and feelings the poems gave me (that happened outside of intellectual understanding) with the way my mind would work and work to deconstruct the images. While I paid extra attention to the music of the words, the rhythm of it all – what I have come to realize is my base attraction to language: the beat, the hiss, the roll of all those letters staggered out on the page. She pulled at me and opened up a world I had felt locked out of: fiction and poetry, as revolutionary act, as art, as voice, as sustenance.
Her books are scattered in my collection – her genres varied and wide – and I have, over the years, thumbed over the spines in any given section of my bookcases to gently slide out one of her books, pulling it top first out of the tight cram of the books I have moved more than a dozen times in the last twenty years. I have fanned through, scanning, searching out whatever essay or poem had come to mind, creating a hunger, a need, a real force and drive to find the exact words she had used. However infrequently this happened, it always happened. With urgency. With real need and desire.
The most recent occasion was last spring. In the middle of my life being in limbo, in the middle of giving wind and air to the tornado that was about to rip my personal life apart, in the middle of spending day after day after day in my childhood home sorting through dirt and grime and death and madness. In the middle of what stands as the least stable time of my life so far.
I needed Diving Into the Wreck. Like I needed water. Like I needed sleep.
But my books were packed in boxes. In a large portable container. In a warehouse somewhere in Oakland. Taped up and stacked and so so far away from me.
That didn’t matter, though, to the need. The need stayed and swelled.
After a particularly rough three days where my childhood home had been broken into twice and the one day between the break-ins had been spent on a day trip trying to find another temporary home in Oakland. After I had felt my own heart crack open while talking to four police officers outside my childhood home and then tried to point out to one, inside, where anything might have been moved. After standing in the middle of a room filled with garbage and dog shit, that reeked of urine and had piles of clothes no one in my family ever owned, and as I fought the urge to fall on the ground and flail my arms and wail and whine.
As I was struggling to deal with a love that was demanding way too much, needing way too much, saying over and over again how I was failing to give enough of anything when all I had to give was gone anyway – sapped out, pushed down, really fucking tired and sad. As I was listening to another love promise everything I had ever hoped it would and say that I would, always, forever, be enough. As I had no idea where my mother, my very own mother, was at all. No idea.
I woke up that fourth morning and needed that poem more than I had ever needed a piece of poetry. As if not reading it was not an option at all. As if not being able to read it might actually be my final unraveling.
That morning I thanked the universe and god and all of the dead lost souls of poets and writers for the internet. I was able to look the poem up and read it, without the feel and smell and look of a real book, but read it nonetheless. It was enough. It calmed me. It gave shape to the way that I felt unhinged, unmoored, unhooked from all that was concrete and real and predictable. That day, it saved me. It shifted the ground beneath me just enough to give me footing. That long column of words held me to earth and helped me breathe without screaming.
When I unpacked my books a few months later, I cracked open the actual book and read it again. And again when I wrote about my experience of being in that house. The stanzas of that poem gave shape to what I felt. Those words settled in around me and kept me company as I wrote thousands of words about that time, as I waded through images I would rather forget, as I mined the memories for just the right thing to say, as I tried to make meaning, as I started to find my way out of that abyss.
And this is what words do, at least for some of us – they pull together to hold us in. To name it. To sing it. To stitch together the recklessness and unnameable things of life. To craft something out of everything, out of nothing, out of ugliness and love and pain.
And this is what Adrienne did (and so still does, will continue to do, even beyond death, through the countless words she has left us):
She lived a life that was authentic and stood up for the power and the benefit and the necessity of that kind of life.
She gave voice and respect and love to people like her and people unlike her.
She shared – praise, love, anger, community – with women everywhere (and so, by extension, men).
She took poetry seriously. As a tool. As Art. As Power. As crucial.
She made art, crafted it, admired it, made out of chaos and destruction a rope ladder for herself – but also for me and anyone else who needed it.
She did so much more than I can possibly recount here. So so much. But what she did, for me, was give me what feels like an inexhaustible trunk full of psalms and prayers for the believers in the literary word (disciples of the power of just the right words in just the right order with just the right rhythm) to heal, to calm, to suture. She gave me a wealth of pages to go to, whenever I need, to find the strength to explore the wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth. To face the face that stares back and see it for what it is, always, but also to see it as lovely and powerful and frail and fallible.
She is at the ready, to hand me the knife to carve my name into the books in which my name does not appear. The courage and the right to make my own book of myths and the space in which to live the life that builds that book.
Thank you, Adrienne, for fighting, always. And for sharing, always, with the women all around you.
For writing such lovely and loud and wonderous things – for being a serious crafter of words and passionate feminist and tireless voice for the disempowered and for showing one way to be all of those things at once.
Thank you for cracking open the life you were raised to live in order to find the life you were meant to have – for risking everything to stand up for what is real and beautiful and hard. For doing it with such wisdom and grace. May love still find you wherever you are as your words still find us, lost and in love and full of life.
from Twenty-One Love Poems:
Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we’re not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.
* from Twenty-One Love Poems, II by Adrienne Rich
** from Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich