moment of change is the only poem," wrote Adrienne Rich, poet,
feminist, lesbian, activist who died March 28 leaving the world forever
changed. Her death, then, is her final poem, and one that in the raw
wake of her loss still feels like elegy as much as I want to be
celebrating her life.
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
from Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
losing Rich, I feel like I have lost my mother. I began reading her
work when I was only 18. I dove with her into symbolic shipwrecks that
promised freedom in "a book of myths in which our names did not
appear." I heard her speaking to me when she wrote, "I know you are
reading this poem...because life is short and you too are thirsty." I
learned that "a thinking woman sleeps with monsters," but that it was
okay to think, to be angry, to experience the full range of human
emotion. My real mother warned me that men were intimidated by
intelligent women and that anger was unbecoming, but my literary mother
told me, "Responsibility to yourself means that you don't
fall for shallow and easy solutions--predigested books and ideas.... It
means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short...and
this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that
women should be nice, play safe...."
were great lessons all, but I am a slow learner. And so it was that I
made a foolish mistake when I got to meet Adrienne Rich many years ago.
I had written my undergraduate thesis on her poetry. I was ten years
out of college, completing a PhD and supposedly sort of
self-actualized. She gave a reading in Houston, Texas, and here was my
chance to meet my role model! I planned all day what I would say to her
once I got to the front of the long line to have her sign my copy of
her latest book. She was seated behind a table, reading glasses perched
on her nose. When my turn came, I stood up tall, cleared my throat,
and delivered my tiny speech: "I want you to know that you changed my
this point she put down her pen and leveled a steady gaze over her
glasses. She looked me straight in the eyes with seriousness and
compassion. "If my words were of any use," she said quietly to me,
"That is wonderful. If anything I wrote helped you, that makes me
glad. But make no mistake. You changed your own life."
Open palm. Slap forehead against.
could I have missed the biggest lesson of all? There I was 28 and
righteous, and once again I had handed all of my power away. Rich
kindly reminded me that moments of change were my own, that I, of all
people, had somehow managed to orchestrate them. I was responsible for
my own life, even the good parts. It blew me away.
It still does.
later, expecting our second baby, my husband and I agreed to name the
child after Rich--either Adrienne or Adrian. Last night, I told that
child, now 12 years old, that his namesake passed away. Adrian hugged
me a little more tightly than usual and said, "Sorry, Mom," and then ran
outside to play in the spring twilight. His bare feet slid through the
grass as our dog chased him. Another moment of change. Another poem.