Adrienne Rich: Not Just a Feminist Poet

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Adrienne Rich died last Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at the age of 82. If it is at all fair to sum up a poet’s work in one word, in her case it would be “feminist.” But of course it isn’t fair, or accurate, to do so. Rich wrote about so much more than feminism.

It is true that she became known as a feminist poet partly because her poetry gained recognition during the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In fact, her third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Rich’s life followed a predictable course for a young woman of the ’50s: She graduated from college (Radcliffe) with a bachelor’s in English in 1951, married in 1953, when she was 24, and had three sons before she was 30. But by 1970, when she and her husband divorced, her life had taken a radical turn. She came out as a lesbian in 1976 with the publication of her poetry collection, Twenty-One Love Poems.

Along with her poetry, Rich also wrote non-fiction on a variety of topics: racism, the Vietnam War, politics, social commentary, and of course,women’s issues. She was also willing to act when something moved her.  For instance, she was so critical of the policies of the Clinton administration that she  refused the National Medal of Arts that was awarded her in 1997, citing her dismay that “amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

It’s sad that we often don’t pay attention to a person’s life achievements until after they’re gone. I’d heard of Adrienne Rich, but didn’t really know anything about her or her writings. I plan to correct that. I’ve ordered two of her books, one verse and the other prose, and I’ll be sharing what I learn from them in future posts.

In a 1984 speech she stated that her writing and her life were about “the creation of a society without domination.” That’s why I think it’s a shame that she is categorized as a feminist poet, just because she was a woman who sometimes wrote about women. Naming an artist a feminist is one way that society silences its critics. (And naming her a lesbian is an even more effective strategy.)

That’s why I’m going to read Adrienne Rich. Not because she was a feminist, but because she was against all injustice. Hers is a voice that deserves to be heard by everyone.

 

 

More Poetry: Family Relationships

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After Making Love I Hear Footsteps by Galway Kinnell

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run – as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears – in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players –
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across his little, startling muscled body –
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

 

Death in the Family by Julie Hill Alger

They call it stroke.
Two we loved were stunned
by that same blow of cudgel
or axe to the brow.
Lost on the earth
they left our circle
broken.

One spent five months
falling from our grasp
mute, her grace, wit,
beauty erased.
Her green eyes gazed at us
as if asking, as if aware,
as if hers. One night
she slipped away;
machinery of mercy
brought her back
to die more slowly.
At long last
she escaped.

Our collie dog
fared better.
A lesser creature, she
had to spend only one day
drifting and reeling,
her brown eyes
beseeching. Then she
was tenderly lifted,
laid on a table,
praised, petted
and set free.

 

Wishes for Sons by Lucille Clifton

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.
i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.
later i wish them hot flashes
and clots like you
wouldn’t believe.    let the
flashes come when they
meet someone special.
let the clots come
when they want to.
let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

 

My Mother’s Body by Marge Piercy

1.

The dark socket of the year
the pit, the cave where the sun lies down
and threatens never to rise,
when despair descends softly as the snow
covering all paths and choking roads:

then hawkfaced pain seized you
threw you so you fell with a sharp
cry, a knife tearing a bolt of silk.
My father heard the crash but paid
no mind, napping after lunch

yet fifteen hundred miles north
I heard and dropped a dish.
Your pain sunk talons in my skull
and crouched there cawing, heavy
as a great vessel filled with water,

oil or blood, till suddenly next day
the weight lifted and I knew your mind
had guttered out like the Chanukah
candles that burn so fast, weeping
veils of wax down the chanukiya.

Those candles were laid out,
friends invited, ingredients bought
for latkes and apple pancakes,
that holiday for liberation
and the winter solstice

when tops turn like little planets.
Shall you have all or nothing
take half or pass by untouched?
Nothing you got, Nun said the dreydl
as the room stopped spinning.

The angel folded you up like laundry
your body thin as an empty dress.
Your clothes were curtains
hanging on the window of what had
been your flesh and now was glass.

Outside in Florida shopping plazas
loudspeakers blared Christmas carols
and palm trees were decked with blinking
lights. Except by the tourist
hotels, the beaches were empty.

Pelicans with pregnant pouches
flapped overhead like pterodactyls.
In my mind I felt you die.
First the pain lifted and then
you flickered and went out.

2.

I walk through the rooms of memory.
Sometimes everything is shrouded in dropcloths,
every chair ghostly and muted.

Other times memory lights up from within
bustling scenes acted just the other side
of a scrim through which surely I could reach

my fingers tearing at the flimsy curtain
of time which is and isn’t and will be
the stuff of which we’re made and unmade.

In sleep the other night I met you, seventeen
your first nasty marriage just annulled,
thin from your abortion, clutching a book

against your cheek and trying to look
older, trying to took middle class,
trying for a job at Wanamaker’s,

dressing for parties in cast off
stage costumes of your sisters. Your eyes
were hazy with dreams. You did not

notice me waving as you wandered
past and I saw your slip was showing.
You stood still while I fixed your clothes,

as if I were your mother. Remember me
combing your springy black hair, ringlets
that seemed metallic, glittering;

remember me dressing you, my seventy year
old mother who was my last dollbaby,
giving you too late what your youth had wanted.

3.

What is this mask of skin we wear,
what is this dress of flesh,
this coat of few colors and little hair?

This voluptuous seething heap of desires
and fears, squeaking mice turned up
in a steaming haystack with their babies?

This coat has been handed down, an heirloom
this coat of black hair and ample flesh,
this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.

This set of hips and thighs, these buttocks
they provided cushioning for my grandmother
Hannah, for my mother Bert and for me

and we all sat on them in turn, those major
muscles on which we walk and walk and walk
over the earth in search of peace and plenty.

My mother is my mirror and I am hers.
What do we see? Our face grown young again,
our breasts grown firm, legs lean and elegant.

Our arms quivering with fat, eyes
set in the bark of wrinkles, hands puffy,
our belly seamed with childbearing,

Give me your dress that I might try it on.
Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat.
I will not fit you mother.

I will not be the bride you can dress,
the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew,
a dog’s leather bone to sharpen your teeth.

You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound.
Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks
barbed and drawing blood with their caress.

My twin, my sister, my lost love,
I carry you in me like an embryo
as once you carried me.

4.

What is it we turn from, what is it we fear?
Did I truly think you could put me back inside?
Did I think I would fall into you as into a molten
furnace and be recast, that I would become you?

What did you fear in me, the child who wore
your hair, the woman who let that black hair
grow long as a banner of darkness, when you
a proper flapper wore yours cropped?

You pushed and you pulled on my rubbery
flesh, you kneaded me like a ball of dough.
Rise, rise, and then you pounded me flat.
Secretly the bones formed in the bread.

I became willful, private as a cat.
You never knew what alleys I had wandered.
You called me bad and I posed like a gutter
queen in a dress sewn of knives.

All I feared was being stuck in a box
with a lid. A good woman appeared to me
indistinguishable from a dead one
except that she worked all the time.

Your payday never came. Your dreams ran
with bright colors like Mexican cottons
that bled onto the drab sheets of the day
and would not bleach with scrubbing.

My dear, what you said was one thing
but what you sang was another, sweetly
subversive and dark as blackberries
and I became the daughter of your dream.

This body is your body, ashes now
and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts,
my throat, my thighs. You run in me
a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,

you sing in my mind like wine. What you
did not dare in your life you dare in mine.

 

National Poetry Month: Poems About Abortion

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Sometimes poetry can express complicated emotions better than prose can. And if there’s anything that has complicated emotions attached to it, it’s abortion.

 

I found plenty of poems on the Internet about grief over having an abortion, often from the aborted baby’s point of view. Most of these were on “Right-to-Life” sites. Now, I’m not saying that such poems have no merit. It’s obvious that they’re heartfelt and something the poets needed to write. But they also smack a bit of propaganda, or at least the decision to use them does. So I searched some more and found three poems by well-known poets:

 

The Abortion by Anne Sexton
Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

Just as the earth puckered its mouth,
each bud puffing out from its knot,
I changed my shoes, and then drove south.

Up past the Blue Mountains, where
Pennsylvania humps on endlessly,
wearing, like a crayoned cat, its green hair,

its roads sunken in like a gray washboard;
where, in truth, the ground cracks evilly,
a dark socket from which the coal has poured,

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

the grass as bristly and stout as chives,
and me wondering when the ground would break,
and me wondering how anything fragile survives;

up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all…
he took the fullness that love began.

Returning north, even the sky grew thin
like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin.

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

Yes, woman, such logic will lead
to loss without death. Or say what you meant,
you coward…this baby that I bleed.

The Mother by Gwendolyn Brooks
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye. 

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed
children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches,
and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?–
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.

And God Created Abortion by Sharon Esther Lampert

1. In the Beginning of God’s Creating the Heavens and the Earth –
2. When the Womb was Astonishingly Empty, Inside of Every Woman Being
God Made Millions of Eggs That Lived a Fleeting Lifespan. And One by
One, Each Egg Cascaded to its Death. God Made Abortion for Womankind.
And It Was So.
And Inside of Every Man Being, God Made Billions of Sperm That Lived a
Flitting
Lifespan, And Cascaded to Their Deaths, on the Upstream, Against Gravity.
God Made Abortion for Mankind. And It Was So.
3. God said, “Let there be Abortion,” And there was Abortion.
4. God Saw that Abortion was Good, And God Separated the Eggs from the
Sperm.
5. God Called to the Sperm: “Male,” And to the Eggs God Called: “Female.”
And There Were Men and There Were Women, One Day.
6. God Said, “Let There Be a Conception. And One Plummeting Sperm and
One Plunging Egg Melded into One, And Propagated the Human Species.
And God Let the Lower Species Have a Greater Survival Ratio of Eggs to
Sperm.
7. And God Said: “Let There Be More Ants Per Square Inch Than Human
Beings Per Square Mile.” And It Was So.

The following poem is my own addition:

If I Had Been Forced to Have You by Ellen Keim

Your father would have beaten you

I know this because I married him later

out of a sense of misplaced guilt

over the fact that I had aborted his baby

the only child he would ever

end up having (thank God)

 

I know he would have beaten you

Because I had other children by then

and he beat them black and blue.

But those children I could rescue

He would never have let you go.

You’re better off in heaven.

 

They tell me what I did was murder.

I’ve asked forgiveness for my sins.

The difference between God and man

is that God will forgive.

 

 

Emma Lazarus’ Poem on the Statue of Liberty

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As part of National Poetry Month, I decided to post the poem that’s engraved on the Statue of Liberty. Not just because it is poetry, but also because it’s a poem we’re all familiar with but probably have never read in its entirety. Besides the fact that it was written by a woman, it’s notable for its feminine imagery. The so-called Mother of Exiles is the epitome of what we expect from women: that they welcome, comfort and care for those who are in need.

There’s a tie-in here to the post I wrote on Monday. Women have a role to play in our nation’s life that can’t be measured by victories or dollars. The male figure in this poem is the “brazen giant” with the “conquering limbs.” But “the mighty woman with a torch” has an equal, or perhaps even greater, power. Because it’s not our might alone that has made America’s reputation around the world. It’s also our willingness to accept people from all over the world onto our shores. More than anything, Americans are known for having big hearts.

Or we used to be. I have some Libyan friends who have been disillusioned about America since they’ve spent time here. They had always thought of the U.S. as a place where a person would be accepted for who he is and given the same opportunities as every other inhabitant. I’m ashamed when I see it dawning on them that Americans are prejudiced and paranoid about Muslims. In a way they’re not surprised (they haven’t forgotten 9/11 any more than we have), but they expected better from us.

When did we stop being proud of what the Statue of Liberty stands for?

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”