Farewell to Adrienne Rich
A local author and teacher recalls his first encounter with the feminist poet and essayist
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by Doren Robbins on Apr 03, 2012
I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s poetry many years ago at Kenneth Rexroth’s home in Santa Barbara. I had been a poetry student of Rexroth’s, and I was visiting him on my way up to The Hoh Rain Forest in Washington. Almost immediately after I walked into his house he picked up a book set aside from his stack of mail and handed it to me, saying, “Doren, here’s a book to keep with you.” It was Rich’s major collection Diving into the Wreck. Two famous poems from it, the title poem “Waking in the Dark” and “Rape,” remind us that Rich was and will remain a fearless and insightful poet. But the final lines of her love poem “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)” insist on how much she will also be remembered as a loving, erotic poet:
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers reaching where I had been
waiting for years for you in my rose-wet cave—whatever happens, this is.
The “whatever happens” is not simply a carpe diem (seize the day) reference to the possibility of love or life itself not lasting––because she was and will remain one of our most fully aware political poets, the reader has to consider that she also alludes to the possible impending crisis of war, riots or environmental disaster in our everyday lives.
People may not have any reason to consider whether an internationally respected poet and essayist could be taught in a community college developmental English course, especially at East Los Angeles Community College. The assumed difficulty and reputation of poetry as a “turn-off” could have made the idea of teaching Rich to developmental students absurd. Here was a class similar to one at our Cabrillo College or over the hill at Foothill College, entirely made up of Hispanic, African-American, Filipino, international and poor white students, many of them high school dropouts or single parents. Rich had rejected President Clinton’s National Medal for the Arts Award for 1997, and the Los Angeles Times published an article reflecting on her rejection letter to the National Endowment for the Arts. I photocopied the article for the class to see if it might have relevance to them in a way they might not have thought about in their critical thinking before.
At first they were shocked that anyone would refuse such an honor for their art. Many of them were also shocked that one of the poems I taught them, “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)” was not a heterosexual love poem.
Ironically, an award of this type in many European, Latin American, African and all Middle Eastern countries would be given for knowing how to keep your mouth shut about government corruption, racism or personal sexuality. Rich was a profound and determined First Amendment absolutist. The majority of democracy-focused citizens understand what the risk is and what the enemy is capable of. Reading the article aloud in class, right away my Developmental English students were unleashed where they weren’t aware of being manacled. The reasons behind Rich not accepting the medal are based in part on her statement,
Like many others, I have watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teen-age mothers, the selling of health care––public and private––to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to working and poor people.
These were realities in many of my students’ lives and, though they viscerally knew from experience what she was talking about, the unleashing had to do with giving a dissident and compassionate voice to what they were made to believe they weren’t worthy to complain about in the first place.
Noting the indifference to a similar reality in France, Albert Camus stated, “I see many who fail to feel it, but I cannot envy their sleep.” Many would say Camus was appropriately condescending, especially since his statement came shortly after WWII. I don’t remember Rich condemning other poets for being unengaged or for accepting a held-hostage artistic self-suppression in their silence or narcosis before the Corporate Military World Order. She understood, as James Baldwin did, that “A person does not lightly elect to oppose society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them.” But each of them and the inclusive democratic community they are a part of risk being mocked and detested for their basic sense of social responsibility. Many still fail to feel it.
Doren Robbins has published nine collections of poetry, most recently Amnesty Muse. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Letters, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Santa Cruz and teaches Creative Writing, Composition, and Literature at Foothill College.