Recently I missed a panel that was held at the Women Writers’ Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, and so was not able to contribute to an occasion honoring Adrienne Rich, who died last month.
Although I only met her a few times, Rich was, and is, a major influence. We had an odd bit of history in common; she was wearing a small insignia of two crossed rifles which her great-grandfather had won when he attended the Bingham Military School in Asheville, North Carolina. We both smiled in recognition of the incongruity; as women writers opposed to war and violence in any form, it was easy to imagine the discomfort of this young, Jewish boy when faced with the cruel discipline of military training at the old school, whose ruins I visited years ago before it was, fortunately, torn down, replaced by a small manufacturing firm and a discreet plaque.
We are all forgotten so quickly, even a poet of such amazing versatility and power; and so it was with a great gust of satisfaction that I found, on the second-hand book shop in a little coffee-cum-art-gallery on the outskirts of Espanola, the banged up third edition, 1970, of “The Norton Anthology of Poetry,” heavily annotated by a student who was probably encountering for the first time not only Rich but Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Medgar Evars,” honoring the civil rights hero murdered in Mississippi in 1963, Audre Lorde’s “Coal”—“I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside/now take my word for jewel in the open light.”
But it was two poems of Adrienne Rich’s that seemed to excite this student most. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” (1951), written when Rich was moving away from her earlier, acclaimed, non-political, Harvard-influenced poetry, elicited a penciled exclamation for two lines:
“The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band” WOW
“Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by” WOW
“Transit”, written in the full bloom of Rich’s feminism in 1979, elicited six WOWS, proving that the poet who became the voice of the women’s movement had found her way to the poems that will long outlive her.
How delighted she would have been by this unabashed enthusiasm with its strong sense of surprise, even shock, for what young woman in the 1950’s would have dared to imagine a wedding ring as weighing too much?
And, with dear Adrienne, I celebrate the underpaid community college teacher, or the unpaid workshop leader, who introduced this student to a new view of the world.
So often, when I’m teaching in these uncelebrated venues to women who sometimes seem lost to my word, I feel fruitless and frustrated; yet any one of the many women I have taught might, also, has written WOW next to startling lines in a poem they would never have read without my class.
The following day after my Norton discovery, I was staying for the night in the old Mabel Dodge Luhan B&B in Taos, NM, one of my favorite escapes. On a bookshelf there, I found the first American edition of Colette’s “Cheri” and “The End of Cheri,” short novels I fell in love with during a season of heartbreak decades ago.
Again, a reader had written in an uneven scrawl that seemed to express boundless enthusiasm, “My favorite Author I first read when I was 20. To be Colete! [sic]”
Misspelling or not, this reader had found in the two novellas the food she craved, as I did. How extraordinary it is that these two worldly, heartbreaking love stories, told from the point of view of a Parisian cocotte—“A cocotte is a woman who manages to receive more than she gives”—should have such a powerful resonance for women more than a hundred years later.
So we write, we are read, at least by a few, and among those few, some are impelled by their enthusiasm to add their words to the page.
This is an achievement beyond mourning.