There are people we presume will always be there. This is something we seldom examine or think about; it just is. This morning when I picked up the paper and found those book-ended dates by Adrienne Rich’s name (1929-2012), my chest squeezed and I realized Rich was one of those people for me. I grew up around her presence, metaphoric, linguistic, once or twice actual. I thought she’d always be here.
I acutely remember Gloria Steinem in my childhood living room, a guest speaker at the College of Wooster where my mother participated in founding the Women’s Studies Program. When I think of this period, the late ’70s and early ’80s, my memory jumps to Jim Turner, the father of my childhood best friend. Jim was my mother’s colleague, co-initiator of Wooster’s early dedication to gender studies. His death, from a surprise stroke or heart attack (portions of childhood recall are fickle), came as a view-turning shock just before I reached high school. Memory travels, finds loss. We forget and push away. Death, for the living, cannot remain too long in the foreground.
Gloria Steinem, through the lens of decades, was out-sized. My memory of her exists as though in a pop-up bubble, vivid, exuberant, single-shot. My memory of Rich is fuzzier, yet there is solidity in its core, and an intense emotional range. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Rich’s essay collection spanning the years from 1966-1978, was at first just a title on the shelf when I was small. And yet words matter so much, the script of the spine surges back, emblazoned in memory. Decades later, and I have spent most of my adult life thinking about these three words—lies, secrets, silence—what lies beneath them. I have not met them in the same ways, not with the same purpose or direction, as Rich—she was a brilliant critic of politics, of gender relations and roles—and yet she has informed me deeply. She gave me courage, at unexpected moments.
Lines of Adrienne Rich’s poems fed me as I embarked on my first novel. They told the character how she might dare; they told me how I might. She helped teach me how to dive into the wreck, because she had. Sometimes our wrecks felt almost as one—this is the beauty of poetry, so many readings and ways to find hidden glimpses of ourselves—and of course differences can be just as edifying.
As Margalit Fox’s thoughtful obituary in today’s New York Times points out, in prose both direct and yet maintaining the scrim of evasiveness that suicide so loves to cling to, Rich’s husband killed himself.
“By 1970, partly because she had begun, inwardly, to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Ms. Rich and her husband had grown estranged. That autumn he died of a gunshot wound to the head; the death was ruled a suicide. To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.”
How odd, as I type this quote here, as I make the decision to include it, I feel a sense of shame, of guilt. Why bring this up? Really, must you mention her husband’s death, its gruesome coldness, the circumstances of which turn our eyes to Rich instead of to him? I don’t want to participate in this, in eyeing, wondering, conjecturing, oh, how might Rich’s new honesty with herself have pained her husband? How much guilt, how much anger, did she feel? But to avoid the subject would be to erase a pivotal experience that surely informed her work, even if obliquely. And a choice of silence here would also erase some of her gift—the courage she gave others, and even the incredible hold of silence, of secrecy.
Margalit Fox’s obituary, a review of Rich’s life occasioned by her death, analyzes the poem “Diving into the Wreck” as through “the metaphor of a dive into dark, unfathomable waters to plumb the depths of women’s experiences.” Certainly she is not alone in this reading. Certainly it is true. And yet, the lens through which I have long imbibed this painful poem is that of suicide. Alfred Haskell Conrad, Rich’s husband, shot himself in 1970. Her collection, Diving into the Wreck, was published in 1973. Thinking again, about why and how both suicide and gender might here co-exist, I am reminded of how gender roles and love and loss are inter-twined with my father’s suicide, and how they might be within Rich’s wreck too.
Here are a few lines from “Diving into the Wreck”…
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. …
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
[And here is this potent poem in its entirety (with some distracting line-notes).]
I feel greedy, taking, stealing this poem for myself, hanging on the coattails of its courage. But it was a needed friend as I explored my father’s life, as I swam in the waters of his death. Knowing that Rich had been there, in those depths—that she told me I was and could be too (“We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage”)—gave me permission to submerge, then helped me to emerge. And so it does not matter whether she thought of her husband’s suicide as she wrote.
Yet, knowing the body-slam the violence of that act delivers; knowing she had three sons; knowing the depth and courage she leant to so many subjects, the intensity of her gaze, the passion therein, I cannot imagine this life-altering, life-ending, event did not enter the lines of her experience on the page. Take, as just one example, “For the Dead”:
I dreamed I called you on the telephone to say: Be kinder to yourself … I have always wondered about the leftover energy, water rushing down a hill long after the rains have stopped . . .
I suppose I wanted more, more lines, wisdom, shared experience. I suppose I imagined one day I would find it, seek it, receive it. Death makes us realize what has passed us by: what we have missed. What we will miss.
Adrienne Rich gave us so much. Her work will continue to feed readers in times of pain, joy, anger, hopelessness. Her life, her poetry, and her prose offer us hope, courage, a lens on activism and literature, a lens on love, its vicissitudes alongside its gifts—and hers.
No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone. The accidents happen, we’re not heroines, they happen in our lives like car crashes, books that change us, neighborhoods we move into and come to love. Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story, women at least should know the difference between love and death. No poison cup, no penance. – Adrienne Rich, from Twenty-One Love Poems
~ ~“…celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse — often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction and pacing — sounding like that of few other poets.” – Margalit Fox “Adrienne Rich: A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism”