An Appreciation: Adrienne Rich

It was a freezing night in March 1978 — and the small, determined woman climbing next to me up the icy incline to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women leaned on a cane. I wanted to take her arm, but because she was famously fiercely independent, I hesitated. Later, I thought that I was right to hold back: Adrienne Rich was that kind of standard-bearer, accustomed to her own “climb,” accustomed to a righteous loneliness in her ascent.

In 1978, Adrienne Rich was not an old woman, but the degenerative arthritis that eventually crippled her had already begun to compromise her free movement — hence the cane. I was a young poet and feminist, an ardent admirer of the writer beside me, whom I had invited (along with a few other distinguished authors) to appear “on site” in prisons throughout New York state, as part of a lecture series/writing program I had organized. Adrienne was one of the few writers who agreed to appear “inside.”

She spoke to a tough room that night — the Bedford Hills inmates were both victims and perpetrators of violence, impatient and curious. Adrienne’s book, “Of Woman Born,” had been recently published — and the uncompromising revisionist view of motherhood in its pages was the subject of her talk. Her eloquent ferocity startled and enthralled her audience that night — as we left, the women were still asking questions about her book as guards led them away and ushered us to the exit.

Adrienne Rich’s first book of poems, “A Change of World,” was selected by W.H. Auden for publication in 1951. Auden called the book “polite” — but beneath its modesty and formal accomplishment was a growing gravitational force about to surface. Around 1955 or so, Sylvia Plath met Adrienne Rich and in her journal described a young woman with shining black hair and eyes and a “tulip red” umbrella, whom she painted as “honest, forthright, even opinionated.” The unwitting irony implicit in that adjective, “opinionated,” could not prepare the literary world for the violent weather about to be summoned by the girl with the red umbrella.

Her burgeoning perspective, newly, powerfully pro-woman, was not welcomed by the male-dominated literary establishment. Critics eager to “punish” this renegade, whose writing grew more and more controversial as she turned her back on what would have been great conventional literary success, brought out the heavy artillery. Rich regally ignored her critics — her journey, from feminism to lesbian separatism to focus on black female writers (and, finally, her Jewish heritage) absorbed and vindicated her.

In a piece on Adrienne I wrote for the New York Times Book Review in the 1980s, I called her a “Great Outlaw Mother” — that sobriquet, though overstated, still captures something, for me, of her commitment to a radical “persona” delivered in powerhouse poetic style. What she wrote was arresting, manifesto-like but couched in elegant phrasing — her style was wounded, coercive, brilliant, outraged and eloquent, just as she wrote, memorably, of Marie Curie and her research in radium: “Her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Her readers will never forget the “mermaid” and the “merman” circling each other near the submerged ship in her masterpiece, “Diving Into the Wreck.” Nor will they forget her “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” a profound elegy for the members of a Russian women’s climbing team who perished on Lenin Peak, and the cold fire of insight flaming up from their deaths.

Over the course of her life, Rich published 25 books of poetry (and an unpublished manuscript left behind with her editor) and seven books of essays. Some of her later poems did not maintain the rhetorical power of her earlier work — although her “Dark Fields of the Republic” and “Midnight Salvage” revealed the blazing anger of her moral insight transforming itself to more meditative lyrical intensity.

To me, she was a natural metaphysical poet, concerned with the great questions of being, but she altered, even wrenched, her aesthetic to speak out and instruct her readers — as both a great lyric poet and a great didactic poet.

Adrienne Rich was my friend, and our friendship dated from that icy evening climb to Bedford Hills prison. Over the years, we talked, wrote letters, I reviewed her books and interviewed her onstage. When my husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 2000, she called me and spoke of her husband Alfred Conrad’s death by suicide many years earlier. “You have the comfort of knowing that your husband did not want to die, as mine did,” she said.

In fact, the loss of her husband, generally felt to be an “erasure” in Rich’s personal history, a loss of which she was reluctant to speak, seems rather an illumination in her life, highlighting the tightrope on which she balanced and then moved boldly forward.

In a long-ago poem, “From a Survivor,” she writes to her husband: “Next year it would have been twenty years / and you are wastefully dead / who might have made the leap we talked too late of making / which I live now, not as a leap / but a succession of brief, amazing movements / each one making possible the next.”

Many think of Adrienne Rich as a leaper, a risk taker. But I climbed to a prison with her and watched how she moved: one foot after the other, in pain, in brave careful sequence — concentrating on the amazing possibility of a path formed by each solo step.

Muske-Dukes’ books include “Channeling Mark Twain: A Novel,” “Twin Cities” and (with co-editor Bob Holman) “Crossing State Lines: An American Renga.”