Early and Late
The loss of Adrienne Rich is different. Although I never had the opportunity to meet her, her passing feels personal. I remember with strange clarity (strange because the moment itself was unremarkable) picking up a remaindered copy of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954-1962 at a bookstore that has long since disappeared into the impassive façade of an office building. I have it still, and return to it now and then; though it was her later work that knocked my socks off, book by book, uneven as they all were (their diaristic framework, each subtitled Poems: [Year] – [Year], almost daring her readers to expect perfection). I think it’s the fact that Rich acted on Rilke’s Apollonian injunction: You must change your life. How difficult to do! How difficult to sustain once it’s done!
Adrienne Rich began as a formalist writer of the early 1950s, but by the middle of that decade she was already shaking off the niceties of traditional form, the proprieties of domestic content, the politics of post-war silence. No matter what she turned her emotional-intelligence to, she made it glow, made it musically thoughtful. Here are some examples, the first two from that book I bought in the summer of 1969, the third from the extraordinary collection Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006:
THE EVIL EYE
Last night we sat with the stereopticon,
laughing at genre views of 1906,
till suddenly, gazing straight into
that fringed and tasselled parlor, where the vestal
spurns an unlikely suitor
with hairy-crested plants to right and left,
my heart sank. It was terrible.
I smelled the mildew in those swags of plush,
dust on the eyepiece bloomed to freaks of mould.
I knew beyond all doubt how dead that couple was.
Today, a fresh clean morning.
your camera stabs me unawares,
right in my mortal part.
A womb of celluloid already
contains my dotage and my total absence.
PROSPECTIVE IMMIGRANTS PLEASE NOTE
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.
HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO
It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die
walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something
more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary
but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time
into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous
beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death
or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction
—beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room
These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens
they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze
of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them