One of Adrienne Rich’s resting places—and there will be many—is where she would not think to choose but could not avoid. Adrienne Rich, the voice of outrage, the conscience of several generations, a poet to the bone, died last week, and she was mourned amidst the wars, the political crowing, the opinionated hand-wringing, and the sad evidence of the misguided human impulse toward the thing she most despised: domination.
Adrienne Rich’s death was news, you see, and so it was noted on the front pages of The New York Times and every major newspaper, on the once-powerful news wires, on websites and blogs, and from the podiums of hundreds of classrooms and gatherings across the land. Her death led the stories on Google News for some hours, and led to follow-up analyses like David Orr’s in Friday’s Times.
Columns about her death march next to those about her perennial subject matter and her ceaseless motivation: the wrongs we do to one another. She might be surprised at the notice given her passing, but she would have hoped for the connection between her life and the imperative to make things right.
There will no doubt be more ceremonies and attempts to set Ms. Rich’s reputation in stone, but she was not a poet of static impulse, and her restless public spirit will be called upon again and again anywhere that anyone thinks to meet the clumsy, lumbering monster of injustice with the elegant precision of a few words carefully chosen.
Adrienne Rich was our most public and politically motivated poet for decades. She had a chip on her shoulder large enough for all the unrepresented to stand upon, and she had an intellect larger than any platform. We so recommend you read the New York Times obituary, but just in case there is no time for that we recall its comment that she was triply marginalized: as a woman, a lesbian, and a Jew. Yes, perhaps, but she had responses that negated those margins: feminist, spokeswoman, mother, citizen of the world. She was an observer of the identities we surrender to and a nagger who reminded us that surrender is the response chosen by those who forgo courage.
She was never caged inside the definitions society pins on the famous, but, ironically, Adrienne Rich was the canary in the coalmine of her times. As with the delicate singer sent into the darkness to face what man has wrought, her death reminds us of the dangers we create, but in her songs the flame of her well-placed anger will live on.
If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that
knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but word, with a gift for